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  • Picturing the New Middle Class:Two 19th Century Portraits of Serbian Women*
  • Ljubomir Milanović


During a recent visit to Belgrade fashion designer Milan St. Marković's apartment, my eye chanced upon two portraits of young women (Figs. M-1 and M-2 in the graphic insert following p. 200 of this issue).1 What drew my attention is that the women in these paintings looked very similar, and yet they sent a markedly different message to the spectator. Their most attractive features are the dresses that fill both canvases and the clandestine eroticism emanating from their carefully comported bodies. Little is known about these sitters except that they were cousins of Mr. Marković and siblings of Stevan Petrović, better known as Knićanin (1807-59). Knićanin was a member of the Council in Serbia during the reign of prince Aleksandar Karaðorðević (1842-58) and was a commander of the Serbian volunteers in Vojvodina during the revolution of 1848.2 The author of the portraits is unknown; however, several indicators, which will be discussed later, suggest the hand of Uroš Knežević (1811-76).

The rise of the new elite classes in Serbia in the nineteenth century was accompanied by a new taste for secular subjects that reflected everyday life. This interest in representations of everyday life grew stronger at every level of [End Page 181] society and elicited an artistic response. Portraiture played a crucial role in the development of these new bourgeois modes of representation. The evolution of Serbian portrait painting was therefore deeply bound up with the economic, social, and national changes that took place during the nineteenth century.3 Given that the subject of a portrait is the human body, it may be argued that ideological content plays a greater role here than in any other genre of painting.4 Baudelaire wrote that there are two ways of understanding portraiture: either as history or as fiction.5 With this insight, the French critic recognizes the conflicting demands of portraiture in relation to its dual function as historical record and transformative fiction.

The discussion of portraits of Serbian women in the middle of the nineteenth century touches on the broader question of the role of women in society at large, of their emancipation and participation in the exercise of social power. During the nineteenth century interest in human personality and the desire for self-knowledge increased. With this, however, came heightened investment in the use of representations as a key form of public self-fashioning. The new visual idioms of nineteenth century Serbian female portraiture attempted to satisfy the paradoxical demands for naturalism on the one hand, and the evolving social roles of their sitters on the other. Visual representations could ideologically reconcile these two opposing impulses by giving the semblance of the real while furthering the social aspirations of their subjects. Corporeal rhetoric was a key component of this program. This new body language paralleled the traditional rules of verbal action, which encompassed every aspect of behavior, posture, gesture, facial expression, and even dress, i.e. all the instruments which a "speaker" can use in order to make a desired impression on his or her audience. In this paper I will, therefore, argue that we may view the portraits of Petrović sisters in light of their social context as manifested in the representation of their gestures, clothing, compartment, and other indicators of the evolution of women in nineteenth century Serbian culture. [End Page 182]

Uroš Knežević was a well-known Serbian portraitist of the nineteenth century.6 Most of his commissions came from members of the middle class who tried to find a way for a more public means of self presentation. Knežević become famous for his keen eye for detail. In his attempt to be more historically accurate, the artist meticulously noted every particular detail of the elaborate costumes of the epoch. After completing two years at the Vienna Academy of art, where he was educated in the classical tradition, he introduced romantic elements into his paintings: brighter color, contemporary fashion, and often included some folk elements. These innovations were employed in order to emphasize the status of the individual...


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pp. 181-189
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