- Women in the Victorian Art Museum: Travels with Eurydice and Flora
In 1899, Woman’s Life published an essay titled “How to Succeed as an Artist,” by successful woman artist Henrietta Rae (1859–1928). Subtitled “Miss Henrietta Rae Gives Some Valuable Advice,” the article opens with a surprising recommendation to women: “never to become artists at all” (161). Rae’s reasons for giving this “not consoling advice” include the difficulty involved in making a living as a professional artist, as well as the strain on one’s health, and the discouragement women artists like Rae were regularly subjected to in this period (161). In this regard, Rae recalls one instance (of many in her lifetime) illustrative of the kind of condescending experience that women artists and art students could then expect to face:
I remember when I was a student [at the Royal Academy Schools] that a life study stood on my easel, and two men, ignoring entirely my presence, began discussing it. “There’s style about that thing, anyhow,” one of them said. “Yes,” replied the other, “damned bad style.” It was rather disconcerting, but I didn’t mind—much.(162)
In spite—or perhaps because—of this early dampening experience, Rae became one of the few women in the later decades of the nineteenth century to exhibit nude paintings at the Royal Academy and other galleries, beginning with A Bacchante and Ariadne Deserted by Theseus in 1885, and continuing with [End Page 35] such well-noticed and well-travelled works as Eurydice Sinking Back to Hades (fig. 1) and Zephyrus Wooing Flora (fig. 2). This essay offers a case study, taking up Rae’s Eurydice and Flora to explore the experiences of women creators and consumers of art in art museums. I will begin by tracing the travels of Rae’s paintings and then connect those travels to the larger changes that took place for women in museum culture toward the end of the century.
Eurydice was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, then at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889 and the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Rae’s biographer, Arthur Fish, says of its first exhibition: “The picture was hung in the sixth room at the Academy, and attracted considerable attention” (45). The painting gained so much attention, in fact, that it earned its own Punch cartoon: “After Six Lessons, Lady Amateur [End Page 36] Imitating Eminent Tragedian,” a small caricature depicting Rae’s Eurydice in a pose reminiscent of Henry Irving’s as Mathias in The Bells (fig. 3). Eurydice was later purchased by George Lord Beeforth, owner of the Doré Gallery in London, who commissioned Rae in 1895 to paint his portrait when he was mayor of Scarborough. He also invited Rae and her husband, the artist Ernest Normand, to hold a joint exhibition of their works at the Doré Gallery, which took place in 1895. At the Paris Exposition, Eurydice received honourable mention and in Chicago was awarded a medal. The painting was generally well received in the press; the Daily Telegraph, for example, praising the artist for “her courage in dealing with unadorned beauty,” though the reviewer disapproved of the “attenuation” of the model and her “strained and disagreeable” pose (qtd. in Fish 46).
In 1888, the year after Eurydice’s debut, Rae showed Zephyrus Wooing Flora at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and again at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition, at the Walker Art Gallery. The figure of Flora, like Eurydice, also displays some attenuation and strain in her position, and she is similarly [End Page 37] unadorned except for a thin rose garland. (Zephyrus has strategically placed filmy drapery.) In London, the painting was hung “on the line [just above eye level] in the eighth room at the Academy, where it”—like Eurydice, as Fish says again—“attracted considerable attention” (50). The Athenaeum called...