- Brilliant Women: Eighteenth-Century Bluestockings
A familiar image provides the impetus for this landmark exhibit: Richard Samuel's Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo (The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain) from 1778. As National Portrait Gallery Director Sandy Nairne puts it in his foreword to the catalog, this exhibit is "the first occasion that [Samuel's] portrait imagery and [its subjects'] biographies have been examined together to encourage a much fuller sense of how the intellectual achievements of the bluestockings were received and understood" in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (8). Though feminist scholars have been piecing together this reception history for some years now, Brilliant Women is groundbreaking in its linking of the literary, visual, and material culture of the bluestockings.
The curators of this exhibit, Lucy Peltz and Elizabeth Eger, brought together an amazing array of bluestocking artifacts, including objects likely to be highly familiar and entirely unfamiliar to those who study eighteenth-century women intellectuals and feminists. A familiar image of Sarah Siddons as the tragic muse was displayed across the room from a newly rediscovered portrait of Elizabeth Carter as Minerva. The arresting portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie hung near a display case featuring lesser-known satirical prints treating Edmund Burke and the historian Catharine Macaulay. This small but engaging exhibit and the striking catalog that accompanies it have a great deal to offer the uninitiated, as well as those with greater expertise. [End Page 335]
A nearly floor-to-ceiling lavender sign greeted the visitor entering the exhibit, with an enlarged silhouette of Hannah More by Augustin Edouart (1827). More's towering image in profile, which showed her seated at her desk reading with a quill pen nearby, was a fitting image to anchor Brilliant Women. It was also convenient marketing for the National Portrait Gallery, which sold lavender ink and quill pens in its gift shop. Marketing aside, however, More's fraught relationship to the Bluestocking Circle and to 1790s feminism illustrate well the political complexities that the exhibit as a whole seeks to unearth, examine, and give shape to in a historical framework.
The term "bluestocking" is one of the first things that the exhibit sets out to gloss. A portrait of Benjamin Stillingfleet by Johan Zoffany (ca. 1761) reminds us that the Bluestockings embraced "supportive friendship between men and women, in which female intelligence was valued and encouraged," something "vital to the early development" of the circle (29). It was probably Stillingfleet's wearing of blue worsted stockings ("normally the garb of working men" [29–30]) that gave rise to the term "bluestocking." Though the term first applied to the intellectual and social gatherings in the homes of Elizabeth Vesey, Frances Boscawen, and Elizabeth Montagu (Bluestocking with a capital "B"), it ultimately came to refer more generally to intellectual women (bluestocking with a lower case "b") (21). Most references in the Brilliant Women exhibit and catalog use "bluestocking" in its later, wider sense, as "a scholarly or intellectual woman" (14). The term is nevertheless also explained and contextualized in its narrower senses, though debates over the origin of the label are left largely unconsidered. The exhibit and the catalog instead trace "the rise and fall of bluestockings in relation to the economic, social, and political history of Britain," and it is this story (assuming one finds it convincing, as I do) that is most ably told through words, images, and objects (17).
After the portrait of Stillingfleet, the exhibit featured portraits of the principal mid-century Bluestockings, including Elizabeth Carter (by Joseph Highmore, ca. 1738), Elizabeth Montagu (by Allan Ramsay, 1762), Frances Boscawen (by Allan Ramsay, ca. 1747–48), and Frances Burney (by Edward Francisco Burney, ca. 1784–85). The quotation printed on the wall above Montagu's portrait illuminated the selection of the name for the exhibit and was taken from Hester Thrale (Piozzi). In 1781 Thrale...