Ho Women Are Portrayed in Late 19th Century Art Term Paper

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¶ … Women are Portrayed in Late 19th Century Art

Throughout history, women have served as the subjects of compelling and poignant works of art, reflecting in large part how society viewed them and what roles they were expected to play. These gender differences were especially pronounced during the 19th century when women were women and men were men, and these differences can be readily discerned in the portraiture that emerged during this period. This paper provides an analysis of how women were portrayed in late 19th century art in general and in the paintings of women by John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeal Whistler in particular. An examination of how women are portrayed in paintings in general before the 19th century is provided, followed by a discussion of the history of portrait paintings (specifically women) of this time period. Brief biographies of John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeal Whistler are also provided, as well as a critical analysis of selected works by these artists. A summary of the research and salient findings are presented in the conclusion.

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TOPIC: Term Paper on Ho Women Are Portrayed in Late 19th Century Art Assignment

Portrayal of Women in Art Prior to the 19th Century. Perhaps as during no other period in history, the 19th century witnessed a profound transformation of how women were perceived in society in general and in works of art in particular. According to Kenner and Lorsch (1988), prior to the 19th century, women were largely excluded from the world of art altogether except as subjects of artworks and even here there were notable exceptions such as the use of male models by French painters. Indeed, "Women were only just beginning to claim turf in the world of painting in the 1700s," they advise, "although there were about 290 women artists in Europe in the eighteenth century and it was not entirely unheard of that a woman should try to make a living at painting. But the serious art world still remained very elitist and male-dominated. A woman asserting her professional ambition came face-to-face with a restrictive, hierarchical system, whose codified practices effectively marginalized her by refusing her access to certain types of experience and educational opportunity" (Keener and Lorsch 202). Likewise, in her essay, "The Social Construction and Deconstruction of the Female Model in 19th-Century France," Lathers (1999) reports that:

It would not be an exaggeration to assert that the 19th century invented the female model as an individual who could be classified and whose history could be written. From the 17th to the early 19th centuries, the official French Academy had hired only male models for the nude pose; the life drawing - also called an academie - was a practice exclusively reserved for the representation of the male body, and the conflation of the terms Academie (official governing body) and academie (official representation of the body) is indicative of this exclusivity" (23).

While artists of this period clearly used female nudes in their private studios even though the practice was prohibited by the Academy, the institutionalization of the specifically female nude represents a 19th-century phenomenon, as evinced by Candace Clements in her article on the Academy in the 18th century, and Abigail Solomon-Godeau in her study of the first thirty years of the 19th century (Lathers 23). According to this author, "although female models were still prohibited in almost all public art schools in 1850 and later, the 19th century is certainly the watershed era for the female model and the female academie" (emphasis added) (Lathers 24). Prior to this important transformation in gender perception, women were relegated to relatively minor roles in the art world. For example, "Gender and class played significant roles in determining the type of painter an artist could become. Only certain male students had the opportunity of following a program of formal education, involving several years of rigorous training, during which they studied anatomy and took life-drawing classes" (Keener and Lorsch 202). Women were not afforded the opportunity to receive this type of education in art because at the time, it was regarded as inappropriate that women should be in the presence of nude models; as a result, women were restricted to genres that did not require such thorough study of the human figure as did history painting, considered in eighteenth-century aesthetics as the noblest form of artistic expression, both because it placed man at the moral center of a painting and because it required such a strong classical education (Keener and Lorsch 202). According to these authors, "Those who lacked the necessary preparation were automatically excluded from achieving highest honors and were obliged, whatever their interests and ambitions might be, to devote themselves to the less important types of painting -- portraiture, landscape, still-life -- that is, those that were, according to the theory, derivative of 'mere' nature and deemed suitable to women's 'lesser talents'" (Keener and Lorsch 202).

Relegation to a specific genre, though, was certainly no guarantee of success. In fact, as one authority points out, "Most examples of self-portraiture by women are less vain than smug. Lavinia Fontana seated at a keyboard instrument in 1577 is a fine example of bad painting by a bad painter most celebrated for being a woman, the documentary banality of her work worthy of an English inn sign" ("Fabulous Faces" 37). Despite these constraints to their active participation in the world of art otherwise, women were considered increasingly important subjects of portraits in the case of family portraits for both aesthetic purposes as well as a way of creating a family tree and memorializing important milestones in a family's history - particularly if they could afford it. For instance, as Mann points out, "Portraiture was something of a national language in the 18th century, well and widely understood. Art, then as now, was a luxury good. The very act of having a portrait painted was a display of wealth and status, and portraits often sought to elevate their sitters further" (42).

In many cases, though, the portrayal of women in art before and during the early 18th century was characterized by fantasies of male supremacy and domination over women. In fact, Nochlin suggests that the men of the time believed that that they were naturally "entitled" to the bodies of certain women when they were involved as the subjects of art: "If the men were artists, it was assumed that they had more or less unlimited access to the bodies of the women who worked for them as models. In other words, [such] private fantasy did not exist in a vacuum, but in a particular social context which granted permission for as well as established the boundaries of certain kinds of behavior" (42). This point is echoed by Pointon (1997) who emphasizes that, "Representation is a process of empowerment and, although I do not argue that this form of production is exclusive to women, it is clear that it operates according to a highly gendered set of conventions" (48). This "gendered set of conventions" ultimately resulted in some sharp criticisms of artworks that stretched the moral envelope, though, but the 18th century appears to represent a heyday for the expression of women as desirable and attainable rather than dowdy and frumpy by any measure.

The social context in which these works of art were created was reinforced by how the artists themselves were viewed by the general public (e.g., men) and how these fantasies were a shared experience. For example, Likewise, Nochlin emphasizes that, "The fantasy of absolute possession of women's naked bodies -- a fantasy which for men of this time was partly based on specific practice in the institution of prostitution or, more specifically, in the case of artists, on the availability of studio models for sexual as well as professional services" (43-44). As Lathers (1996) points out, though, "The very heightened awareness of and attention paid to the female model in the 1880s, however, also paradoxically signaled her ultimate demise: once a 'model type' was established as such, she began to disappear. By the end of the century, the model's modesty is that of the mondaine, i.e., it is defined by a dance of dissimulation that identifies the female body as less a referent to be copied by the artist than the subject of a performance before which the painter and museum-goer are spectators. The woman herself is spectacle" (24). The term "spectacle" appears especially appropriate when applied to the portrayal of women in a wide range of media in a manner that lends a lurid quality to the while enterprise. For example, as Gundle (1999) points out:

It is striking that everywhere this curiosity was centred on women. In the pages of the American popular press, it was the wives - and especially the daughters - of the wealthy who were featured. Early in the century the beauty had emerged as a role to which women, especially of the upper classes, aspired. By the 1890s the popularity of the role had vastly expanded, and the coverage… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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