- 1 For instance, Talia Schaffer and Kathy Psomiades, Women and British Aestheticism, Charlottesville: (...)
1In approaching Aestheticism, feminist scholarship has found the characteristics usual in an unreformed field of cultural history: a band of male actors, heroically described, an extensive use of female imagery, an investment in the idea or fantasy of Woman in the absence (designed or accidental) of executive women. With regard to Aestheticism as a literary trend, scholars working under the influence of feminism, from Elaine Showalter on, have restored female agency to the territory, re-instating the achievements of various women writers in shaping Aestheticism in its own time, while provoking a reassessment of its meanings and messages through this problematising of the authority of its established movers and shakers.1
- 2 Christopher Newall, The Grosvenor Gallery Exhibitions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995; (...)
- 3 Walter Hamilton, The Aesthetic Movement in England, London: Reeves and Turner, 1882, 27–8.
- 4 Ibid., 142.
2The same has not occurred for the visual art of Aestheticism. Though it has been established that numerous female artists exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery,2 perceived home of Aesthetic art, the traditional canon of creators—Rossetti, Whistler, Moore, Solomon, Burne-Jones—and theorists—Swinburne, Pater, Whistler, Wilde—has continued to be paraded as definitive of the fine art of Aestheticism and sufficient for its illustration. Recent trends in scholarship may have added to the discourse the names of other artists—most notably Frederic Leighton, and the three Charleses, Ricketts, Shannon, and Conder—but these are all men who have been admitted as agents of this cultural phenomenon, as if into the fraternity of a gentleman’s club. This accords with the image given in one of the earliest written attempts to put Aestheticism on record, Walter Hamilton’s 1882 book The Aesthetic Movement in England. For him, Aestheticism came from Pre-Raphaelitism, which in his account was a wholly male achievement. The trend then came on through the Grosvenor Gallery, with D.G. Rossetti, Whistler, Burne-Jones as the leading lights, though “there are many others whose works . . . are quite as Aesthetic in their style”3; and as these also-rans he names nine additional men (John M. Strudwick, Coutts Lindsay, Cecil Lawson, Fairfax Murray, W. Britten, Jacomb Hood, Spencer Stanhope, Laurens Alma-Tadema, Walter Crane). And in conclusion, he writes that there must be some good in a theory or system “initiated and worked out” by such as Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones, Crane, Rossetti, Woolner, William Morris, Swinburne, William Michael Rossetti, Ruskin and Wilde.4 A visual encapsulation of this account might be Max Beerbohm’s pictorial snapshots Rossetti’s Back Garden (1904) which pictures Swinburne, Watts-Dunton, Whistler, Rossetti, Meredith, Burne-Jones, Morris, Hall Caine, Holman Hunt, Ruskin and a generic female stunner, and Some Persons of the Nineties (1925) which assembles Richard Le Gallienne, Sickert, George Moore, John Davidson, Wilde, Yeats, Symons, Henry Harland, Conder, Rothenstein, Beerbohm himself and Beardsley.
- 5 Christa Zorn, Vernon Lee, Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003, 41.
- 6 Interdisciplinary Studies in the long 19th century, Birkbeck College, University of London, 2 May 2 (...)
- 7 Linda Dowling, The Vulgarization of Art, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.
3This absence of actual female participants in Aestheticism’s roll-call prevails despite the agreed currency of femininity within Aestheticism’s theory and a contemporary chorus of female onlookers seen to be supporting or consuming Aestheticism. As Christa Zorn observed with regard to Walter Pater, his “aesthetic language accentuated sensitive and impressionist styles generally associated with the feminine but without granting actual women a voice”.5 Elizabeth Prettejohn, in a 2006 essay entitled “From Aestheticism to Modernism and back again”6 effectively shows the presence of gender in Aestheticism to have been rather a movement of men concerned to deconstruct masculinity appropriating or colonising the feminine than a movement in which women played a determining part. As Linda Dowling observes,7 the idea of the brotherhood that underpins this canon neither seeks nor welcomes female membership, because that would dilute the heroic masculinity that makes it so thrilling. Does this mean that no individual women contributed in their own names to either the idea or the material production of Aestheticism? As I have said, the collective reply now might be that yes, several did in the realm of the written word, but what about with regard to the fine art object? Despite the much-vaunted death of the author some half a century ago, the very capacity of women’s work in fine art to contain meaning or excellence, and thus to be of any consequence to the historian, has still to be argued. The value of women’s art having been routinely denied, it has often become submerged, and so the feminist art historian has a crudely archaeological job still to do in identifying—in frankly unBarthesian manner—female authorship so as to usher women’s work into the pool of evidence or materials to which the retrospective gaze might apply itself. So to reiterate the initial question, was a female artist capable of formulating an Aestheticist project? Was she likely to have done? If so, would its fruits have been recognisable to her viewers, acceptable to them and thus likely to have survived as artefacts that the historian of Aestheticism can study now?
- 8 Respectively, Schaffer and Psomiades, 1999; Elizabeth Prettejohn, Art for Art’s Sake, New Haven: Ya (...)
4The answers might seem likely to be in the affirmative insofar as Aestheticism in its reformism enthroned subjectivity, for which women artists had been lambasted; celebrated idiosyncracy, for which they had been mocked; and scorned the academic credo, for ignorance of which they had been found lacking in taste, judgment and ability. Even latterday interpreters of Aestheticism aware and wary of the habitual masculinism of art history have not, however, got further than mentioning in passing the names of some late Pre-Raphaelites, Evelyn De Morgan, Marie Spartali Stillman and Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, and citing individual works by otherwise unknown women8—small actions which have been without any consequence for the received picture of Aestheticism. I mean to try to get some way beyond this state of affairs and to demonstrate that our understanding of British Aestheticism should not remain uninflected by the impact that it may have had on the female artist’s imagination and ambitions.
- 9 See most notably Deborah Cherry’s contributions to Tate Gallery, The Pre-Raphaelites, 1984; the pre (...)
5The first place to look is where Aestheticism is said to have started, at the point of the earliest effects of the Rossettian rejection of Realism, before Whistler and Burne-Jones became agreed upon as the exemplars of the style. It is now, after extensive work by various women working on the Victorian period, easy to see that the wider circle of Pre-Raphaelitism included a number of women’s works.9 The most apt examples to cite come from the circle that was loosely formed around Rossetti in the 1860s, which included not only the young Burne-Jones but a range of artists thinking they were exploring the consequences of Pre-Raphaelitism. They are Rebecca Solomon’s The Wounded Dove (1866), Julia Margaret Cameron’s Hypatia (1868) and Emma Sandys’ Woman in Green (c. 1870). These, I hold to be early proofs of Aestheticism, fit to sit alongside the 1860s paintings of Rossetti, Burne Jones’ works on paper from this decade, the paintings in which Whistler mystified the Royal Academy public, and those in which Moore and Leighton are now recognised to have been negotiating a non-academic use of classicism’s repertoire. What are the qualities that make them apposite? They are decorative, they are imaginative, they pivot on the female figure invested with poetical possibility, their subjects occupy no specified time or place, they use a narrative or literary tag merely as a pretext for the free play of the spectator’s imagination, they provoke a sense experience rather than a moral, religious or social experience. The work may still depend upon likeness of painted forms to known things, but these things may be known in fancy not in fact. Further, the viewer’s experience is prompted not dictated nor delimited by the visible content.
6While an artist may have had to read Schiller and Kant and study the classical authors to understand the writings of Walter Pater, a woman’s lack of such an education did not prevent her from appreciating the rejection of Realism and the reinstatement of the imagination in the engine-house of painting. Every Aestheticist artist needs not to have been one of its theorists to have produced art that we not only may but should consult in our study of the style. It might be regretted that, Cameron aside, these artists cannot be shown to have had a theory of Aestheticism, as it might be regretted that such women were educated only for marriage, motherhood or charity work: these works are still important in hinting that a large number of practitioners readily took up this new trend for its look as much as for its idea. Most artists in the mid-Victorian period worked to sell not to rebel: that is to say, sought to join trends rather than make new ones, and work like this shows that already by the end of the 1870s what came to be recognised in the following decade as Aestheticism was believed by a range of artists to be potentially attractive to the gallery-going public. Works such as these are proof of the groundswell of this new trend, with their variations on the ideas with which the founding Aestheticists are credited.
7If any women artists nurtured and sustained an Aestheticist project of their own, the Grosvenor Gallery is surely the place to look for them. Inclusion in the annual shows that began in 1877 was of course by invitation from the director couple, the Lindsays, and their readiness to include female artists was a notable feature of their selection. How easily Grosvenor exhibits might be labelled Aestheticist, and how seriously the historian should take them as such is moot, however: for in particular relation to the female artist it should be considered that the Grosvenor was noted for not observing the distinction between professional and amateur workers, so female Grosvenor exhibitors could be readily dismissed as unserious and thus of no art-historical consequence, then and now. Certainly, the female exhibitors constitute an eclectic list, a fact nicely suggested by a comparison made between the works of Grosvenor exhibitors Evelyn De Morgan (née Pickering) and Louise Jopling by the Lady’s Pictorial reviewer in April 1884. Both Jopling and Pickering were amongst the artists invited to exhibit at the Grosvenor Gallery from its inception and would have been familiar to its visitors by this time:
- 10 “What some Ladies are doing in Art”, Lady’s Pictorial, 12 April 1884, 358.
Miss Evelyn Pickering and Mrs Jopling [have both] painted “Lovers”. The latter lady gives us a pair of young Italians in the sunshine, close to a wall mounted with blossoms and greenery. The lover looks joyfully into the young girl’s eyes and sings to her, strumming on his guitar. They are happy, handsome, and very much in love; the day is sweet and warm. Miss Pickering’s lovers are wan and drooping, and in garments such as are no longer worn, but that are effective in colour. Love, in visible form, whispers in their ear, but what the god whispers is apparently very dejecting to their spirits, for their eyes express gloomy foreshadowings. There is a suggestive, sober-toned landscape behind, with rocks and other green slopes. Towards those distant hills two figures are seen journeying. These are Love, leading by the hand the drooping form of Death . . . We need not say that this picture belongs to the school of Mr Burne Jones.10
- 11 Others included Venus and Cupid exh. 1878; Night and Sleep exh. 1879; The Grey Sisters exh. 1881; P (...)
8Though the Jopling work referred to is today untraced, that by De Morgan is Love’s Passing. Clearly of the two it is De Morgan’s work that is seen as Aesthetic, an identification supported by her other Grosvenor exhibits. The first (Cadmus and Harmonia, exhibited in 1877) was perhaps the most emphatically so, considering not only the image itself but the Ovidian verse accompanying it: “With lambent tongue he kissed her patient face/ Crept in her bosom as his dwelling place/Entwined her neck, and shared the loved embrace”. Critics repeatedly identified her work with the influence of Burne-Jones that they saw exemplifying the Grosvenor’s image which, in the context of the Grosvenor, became shorthand for Aestheticist.11
9Another candidate who emerges from the Grosvenor Gallery lists is Marie Spartali Stillmann, trained within the Pre-Raphaelite circle already considered as the crucible of Aestheticism and the sitter for the aforementioned Cameron photograph. Like De Morgan, she was solicited for exhibits by the Lindsays from the outset and continued to show there until moving on to the New Gallery in 1888. Again, characteristics of Aestheticism are easy to see in Spartali’s exhibits: Gathering Orange Blossoms and La Pensierosa, both to be seen there in 1879, exhibit the same Rossettian investment in the single female figure, beautiful, luxuriant, pensive or reflective, in an unidentified space that allows the viewer to situate the protagonist wherever their fantasy prefers. Narrative is again merely pretext, and the viewer’s satisfaction is attained not through plot or parable but through effects of colour and implied texture and perfume, with fabric, jewels, flowers and so on prompting the imagination.
- 12 Later works to be seen at the Grosvenor included The Childhood of St Cecily (1883), Madonna Pietra (...)
- 13 Kirsten Shepherd, Marie Spartali Stillman: a study of the life and career, Unpublished Master’s the (...)
10Though Spartali’s paintings and drawings may not match Hamilton’s typical Aestheticist picture,12 her rich investment in allusive Woman is central to Aestheticism’s culture, and the essentials of his conclusion accord with her work: he cited three “emblems” of Aestheticism, Purity, Beauty and Constancy (138), parallelled by the lily, the peacock and the sunflower; and Spartali’s particular trope of woman or girl intensely contemplating a flower or other symbolic item evokes some of the best known parodies of Aestheticism. And it is not only the mere presence of her works in the Grosvenor and then the New Gallery exhibitions, but their prominence there that lends strength to my argument. As Kristen Shepherd has pointed out, Spartali’s work, though watercolour, was generally hung in the best rooms of these exhibitions: in the 1889 or second exhibition at the New Gallery, for instance, her exhibits shared a wall with those of Watts and Moore.13
- 14 “Grosvenor Gallery”, Illustrated London News, 3 May 1879, 415. See in succeeding years, W.J. Courth (...)
11While the work of these two artists might fit within an amplified account of Aestheticism, it also exemplifies the modification of its image which is necessary for such work to claim a secure space therein. For while De Morgan’s and Spartali Stillmann’s sources, content and treatment equate with what is expected of Aestheticism, their work does not—Cadmus and Harmonia aside—manifest the quality that was from early on seen as the heart of the style and which most exercised its opponents. That is to say they are not committed to the sensuality that is often still said to be fundamental to the Aesthetic temper. Already in 1879, Aestheticism’s expression not only of beauty but of desire led the mainstream press to identify this trend as “ultra-sensual, a school which...every man who respects his manhood and every woman who values her honour must regard with disgust”.14 This allegation was developed assiduously in the years immediately following, with perhaps its best known expression William Frith’s painting Private View at the Royal Academy 1881, exhibited—not of course at the Grosvenor but at the Royal Academy—in 1883.
12This sensuality was—and is—the aspect of Aestheticism best able to exclude the female artist from its ranks. That this was territory that women had best leave completely alone was moreover a view that we can suspect was not confined to the style’s opponents. Christa Zorn points out, when considering Vernon Lee’s critique of Aestheticism—her 1884 novel Miss Brown—that it was in her attempt to decry Aestheticism’s inherent sensuality that she was judged, alike by its proponents and its detractors, to have erred.15 So, despite the longing or yearning that can be inferred from both artists’ compositions, and their occasional expression of strong feeling, these beautiful, enigmatic and often melancholic figures evidence a certain containment suitable to the decorum imposed on women by this society which conflicts with the daring that has been fundamental to the received image of Aestheticism. Their protagonists’ narratives are not libidinous, their expressions are distant and their presence creates no frisson. Neither Eros, Silenus nor Bacchus dwells here amidst the repertoire of intense pattern, floating draperies, exotic objects and hushed landscapes. Even when Venus made an appearance, it was in a markedly chaster form than she was often seen.
13It is not just that De Morgan and Spartali Stillman do not choose to present the female figure as the desired object, but that the female artist is naturally not inclined to stage the figure of Woman as embodying the exotic—for, to the female artist, Woman is not other. To her Woman is known, and as a character lends itself as a figure of identification rather than as an object of self-gratifying fantasy. That leaves the female artist with a crucial handicap in regard to Aestheticism as it has been defined, insofar as she cannot occupy the subject position it requires. And it is not as if contemporary mores offered her the possibility of an analogue conforming to her own position, in the male figure as “homme fatal”. The post-Freudian might say, her obvious solution to this problem would be Narcissism, but that would have been to fall straight into the pit that had been dug long before by the female artist’s enemies where accusations of vanity, solipsism and limited vision pinned her down. No, the entire realm of desire was out of bounds to her, and if Aestheticism could bring the male artist a succès de scandale, all the female Aestheticist would bring on herself would have been scandale.
- 16 Stetz and Lasner, England in the 1880s, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989, p. 48: (...)
14Interestingly, some commentators have identified the decorator Kate Greenaway, producer of singularly wholesome and unerotic work, as the sole female artist active in Aestheticism: as recently as 1989, an exhibition on England in the 1880s described her as “work[ing] in a purely Aesthetic mode”,16 but this sidesteps the very real challenge of this issue of sensuality and short-changes female artists as a group insofar as Greenaway’s work, though immensely popular, did not aim at the high cultural level of fine art. Rather, the evidence requires an amendment of the definition of Aestheticism to allow in the female version of it, or the form of it that was accessible to women such as De Morgan and Spartali Stillman. If eroticism is a hallmark of Aestheticism, but it is highly unlikely to have been inscribed within a woman artist’s work, this lack does not render her work ineligible to be taken into the canon any more than it renders necessary a redefinition of Aestheticist art. For there are other arguments for women’s inclusion in the roll-call.
- 17 Karl Beckson, London in the 1890s, New York/London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1992, 380–1.
15For instance, it is generally agreed that Aestheticism represented the rejection of Realism built on by nurturing “. . . the integrity of private vision, new artistic forms, and transcendent, spiritual realities”.17 Women had been identified as immersed in their subjectivity and supposed to have a natural affinity with beauty that, indeed, marked them out from men. I would say that De Morgan’s and Spartali Stillman’s works speak in female voices from a place that is different from that occupied by their male contemporaries but associated with it. Perversely perhaps for an Aestheticism which is premised on sexual desire but confirmingly for one emphasising the subjective rejection of Realism, as De Morgan became a more confident artist, her gaze became less and less desiring in the carnal sense—perhaps as her society expected it to but, more to the point here, in accord with Aestheticism’s endorsement of interior vision, in her case dictated not by the libido but by the spirit.
16Despite the Aestheticists appearing by 1883 to be, in Linda Dowling’s words, “a self-nominated and supercilious elite”,18 it stands to reason that the visibility of women artists in the Grosvenor Gallery and the extraordinary level of attention given to Aestheticism by the early 1880s will have prompted numerous female artists to dip into what seemed a trend of great potential while not nailing their colours to its mast. And in the art of the last two decades of the century more Aesthetic art made by women can be identified both confirming the style’s given traits and showing modifications of its established territory such as I have suggested were called for by prevailing ideas of sexual difference.
17Such are Louise Jopling (her Phyllis, shown at the 1883 Grosvenor Gallery, demonstrates the suggestive female head and the use of japonisme); Constance Phillott (her Una Toccata, shown at the 1883 Royal Society of Watercolours show displaying Rossettian imagery from the 1860s refined through a look at Leighton’s Aestheticism, though the invocation of the senses of sound, sight and touch is also evidence of her own understanding of the style’s reach, expanded in the next decade in such works as With blossoms bare bedecked daintily, Whose tender locks do tremble every one, 1894); Anna Alma-Tadema (whose Drawing-Room 1a Holland Park at the 1887 Grosvenor Gallery, depicting a room in the fashionable home of the Coronio family, should be a key image in any up-to-date account of British Aestheticism, embodying as it does so beautifully its complicity between the fine and applied arts, with its interwoven strands of Pre-Raphaelitism, Japonisme, the Arts and Crafts movement, the role of the poetical fantasy female and of exotic pattern-making, the “house beautiful” and the objet de luxe within the connoisseurship of self-selecting groups); Kate Hayllar (whose Eastern Presents 1888 and Sunflowers and Hollyhocks 1889 show the breadth of Aestheticism’s appeal); Mary Gow (whose Harmonies, undated but likely to have been made in the mid 1880s, is a classic Aestheticist portrait); Laura Alma-Tadema (whose Woolwinders of 1892, a highly Aestheticist harmony of tones and the female figure, is a similarly uncharacteristic excursion from her stock in trade into the mode of the moment).
18These cases demonstrate well how the subject-matter established as appropriate for a female artist could accommodate Aestheticism up to a limit. That such artists’ practices were visited by some aspects of the style but not taken over by it hints at their dependence on the limits of public taste, even in the last quarter of the century. The aforementioned Louise Jopling’s Blue and White, seen at the 1896 Royal Academy, fills out the development of a consumable form of Aestheticism’s tropes for a mainstream audience which women artists, whose professional success was hostage to public opinion, could engage with.
- 19 Florence Fenwick Miller, “The Ladies Column”, Illustrated London News, 31.1.1891, 160.
- 20 See particularly 1860 (1911, Royal Institute Oil Painters) and The Choice (1913. Royal Academy).
- 21 See particularly An Impression in a Minor Key (1892, SBA), Under the Greenwood Tree (1906, Internat (...)
- 22 See particularly The Song (1909, NEAC).
19The power of public opinion has become somewhat occluded in the heroisation of Rossetti’s withdrawal from the market place and Whistler’s cavalier treatment of it. In practice it was possible for very few artists to conduct themselves so independently. Compromise, opportunism and negotiation with the realities of the market place and social usage does not sit easily with the established picture of Aestheticism as an art of challenge and risk, but the voice of a well-established commentator on women’s position at this time, feminist writer Florence Fenwick Miller, thought this a point worth drawing attention to in 1891. In her regular Illustrated London News column she wrote, apropos of female artists, “Every surrounding influence educational and social, presses on women [the] tendency to do not what they themselves think that they ought and might, but what they think that other people think women ought to do. Even George Sand, herself living so audacious a life, could not resist writing as a maxim: “A man may brave public opinion; a woman must submit to it”. There is no must in the case. As the ancient Greek proverb intimated, the gods give man anything for which he will pay the price: and public opinion is a very movable landmark. But the price of unpleasant notoriety, abuse and jealous criticism only too often demanded, appears to be too high for many women to pay for the full development to which they, as well as the other sex, can attain only by originality and courage, added to the more common virtues in womanhood of patience, industry and obedience to lawful rules . . . ”.19 So, in short, Aestheticist art by women will be what women did with Aestheticism within the conditions that prevailed upon them. Further confirmation of this assertion is found if the consideration of Aestheticism is extended to the point at which changes in thinking, living and law sufficiently supported women to dare the freer Aestheticism that men in their greater sense of autonomy had already allowed themselves; and a third wave of women practising Aestheticism can be identified in its Edwardian passage. The owners of Edwardian Aestheticism have been established as the Charleses Shannon, Ricketts and Conder and several female artists can be seen sharing in the production and persistence of Aestheticism in its post-Victorian form precisely through their presence in the three Charleses, milieu. These are Isabel Gloag, exhibiting from 188920; Constance Halford later Rea, one of three sisters, all of whom were in the Charleses, circle21; Thea Proctor, specialising in fans and pictures on silk.22
20These artists formed a clique like that which characterised the foundation of Aestheticism. This can be told not only from their biographies but from their appearance in the same exhibitions and the same collections. While it is difficult to understand what such works were thought to mean in the 1920s and 30s, it is clear that they continued the spirit of Aestheticism at a point when it had become more acceptable for women artists to show that they appreciated the more louche end of the spectrum of human experience.
21The established picture of British Aestheticist art has long been wedded to the recollections of those who have volunteered wistful eye-witness accounts and name-dropping memories, such as Graham Robertson’s oft-cited recollection of the opening day of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877:
- 23 Graham Robertson, Time Was, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1931, 47.
The general effect of the rooms was most beautiful and quite unlike the ordinary picture gallery. It suggested the interior of some old Venetian palace, and the pictures, hung well apart from each other against dim rich brocades and amongst fine pieces of antique furniture, showed to unusual advantage. I can well remember the wonder and delight of my first visit. One wall was iridescent with the plumage of Burne-Jones’ angels, one mysteriously blue with Whistler’s nocturnes, one deeply glowing with the great figures of Watts, one softly radiant with the faint, flower-tinted harmonies of Albert Moore . . . .23
22Published in 1931, this maintains the image given in Walter Hamilton’s 1882 book. Such a picture completely obscures the interest that any women artists may have had in Aestheticism. It may be that Aestheticism was something that no women were able to participate in as it has been defined, because it has been defined from the example of people who had access to experience, knowledge and self-awareness that women as a class did not. However, a reappraisal of the elements contained within the style will reveal more fully the meanings that were made out of Aestheticism in its own time. In such a light, even if women’s Aestheticism was different from what has been defined as normative, it begs for explanation. I would go further and say, the endeavour to comprehend British Aestheticism still has a long way to go unless and until it acknowledges the productions of women of the time. Attending to women’s work of the Aesthetic impulse, as I have begun here to do, not only better fulfils the historian’s responsibilities to the past but can consolidate, amplify and enrich what we believe British Aestheticism to have been.