- The Politics and Poetics of Sisterhood:Anna Mary Howitt's The Sisters in Art
The emergence of the professional female painter during the Victorian period was notably tied to political as well as economic and aesthetic concerns. As Deborah Cherry reminds us, art "became a battleground for intense debates about the role of women in contemporary society" when the 1840s and 1850s produced a number of young women who became both "artists and activists" (Beyond the Frame 11). As women entered the field of cultural production in unprecedented numbers during the Victorian era, many self-consciously constructed an artistic identity that engaged with larger issues of representation, gender, labour, education, and collectivity. Striking in these works of the 1840s to the 1860s is the common desire to shift away from the idea of the "exceptional woman" as artist—embodied in Mme de Staël's fictitious Corinne and the real-life careers of eighteenth-century painters Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Angelica Kauffman—and to forge a definition of art that could encompass all women—not just singular and exceptional women—in its norms and hierarchies. For, as Mary Sheriff so eloquently demonstrates, "separation from other women is the price a woman pays for her exceptionalness" while she is "managed, contained and controlled" in order to prevent the exception from becoming the rule (Exceptional Woman 2-3). Although Sheriff explores the ways in which the exceptional woman "contained subversive potential" ("So What Are You" 49), the exceptional woman's singularity is nonetheless always part of the equation. In a departure from the paradigms established at the end of the eighteenth century, a significant number of women in the nineteenth century embraced the ideal of sisterhood as an important component of female artistic identity and advancement.
This communal ideal became a popular trope in British women's fiction (see, for example, Auerbach; Marcus; Rogers), and at the same time, the very word sisterhood resonated not only with familial overtones1 but also with religious ones closely tied to charitable and reform work through the Anglican and Catholic churches.2 In this latter sense, sisterhood became associated both with communal labour and with female spiritual community, and, as Dinah Craik reflected in her essay "On Sisterhood" (on a friend's becoming an Anglican sister), "entering a Sisterhood, almost any sort of Sisterhood where there was work to do, authority to compel the doing of it, and companionship to sweeten the same, would have saved many a woman from a lunatic asylum" [End Page 129] (55). Martha Vicinus notes that the religious sisterhoods "were clearly in the vanguard of women's single-sex organizations" at mid-century and "offered examples of fully trained and educated single women dedicated to nursing, teaching, and good works. They also demonstrated the greater effectiveness of women working in organized groups" (48, 46). Accordingly, sisterhoods set the stage for a growing demand for expanded educational opportunities for women and signalled the powerful potential of female collective engagement in the social (and by extension the political) realm.
For Anna Mary Howitt and her cohort of self-proclaimed "sisters in art," the politics and poetics of sisterhood were further shaped by the contemporaneous Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which served as both an inspiration and a symbol of exclusion. Loosely affiliated with the group both as a painter and as a writer, Howitt maintained a long-term friendship with D.G. Rossetti, and, as a casual but affectionate drawing from 1852 attests, Rossetti appreciated Anna Mary's passionate intensity. Like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Howitt and her friends embraced the desire for a socially engaged art, the belief in the strong connection between work and identity, a spiritual impetus for art, and a commitment to collaboration. Thematically and stylistically, the paintings and poems of the art sisterhood reflected an undeniably Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, yet despite these intersections and their participation in some of the group's activities,3 women were never considered members of the fraternity. As Jason Rosenfeld has documented, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was "an insistently patriarchal construction" (72), and like the fraternal associations of the period (trade guilds, compagnonnages, Masonic orders, Gesellenverbande), the artistic brotherhood was...