- Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Nineteenth-Century Pioneer of Modern Art Criticism by Kimberly Morse Jones
Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855-1936) is largely unknown outside the company of select art historians, who primarily see her as a defender of James McNeill Whistler. Furthermore, she must also be distinguished from the American-born actress of the London stage, Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952), who went on to become a prominent suffragist and novelist. Pennell’s identity has remained buried beneath a plethora of pseudonymous and unsigned articles (a choice also made by many other contemporary women journalists) compounded by the fact that her name was often subsumed under that of her artist-husband and sometime-collaborator, Joseph Pennell. In Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Nineteenth-Century Pioneer of Modern Art Criticism, Kimberly Morse Jones convincingly argues that Pennell deserves credit as the most significant proponent of New Art criticism, which heralded late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century modernism. Jones’s extensive archival research and her identification of a vast number of previously unascribed articles demonstrates just how seriously Pennell took her art criticism: “Indeed she would dedicate some 30 years to educating the public as to how to view art in terms of formal elements and technique, thereby challenging the very fabric of the Victorian art establishment itself” (p. 41). While the British public and traditional [End Page 278] critics obstinately clung to didactic narrative art, Pennell persevered as a reviewer of Impressionist and even Post-Impressionist exhibitions otherwise derided in the popular press.
Jones wisely includes a brief overview of Pennell’s life before she and her husband left their native Philadelphia to settle in London in 1890. Convent-educated and destined for a ladylike private existence, Pennell nonetheless broke free of family expectations to enter the public realm of (primarily male) journalism. She and Joseph spent several years bicycling around England and on the Continent, writing about their adventures in a series of books that Joseph illustrated. However, Jones makes a crucial distinction regarding Pennell’s rejection of traditional gender roles, arguing that “Pennell was the quintessential female aesthete, and in order to understand her indifference towards advancing the rights of women and women artists in particular, despite her own progressive lifestyle, it is essential that she be framed as a female aesthete rather than a New Woman” (p. 33). Admittedly, it is disappointing to learn that after publishing a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1884, Pennell followed it up eight years later with an introduction to a new edition of Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1892) that propounded her own highly qualified brand of feminism. Pennell’s devotion to art was all-consuming, transcending gender considerations in its adherence to the values of fin-de-siècle aestheticism, which endorsed form over content.
Although Jones focuses on Pennell’s New Art criticism during the key years 1890-1895, Jones helpfully establishes the line of allegiance to which Pennell consciously subscribed, going back to Walter Pater and diverging sharply from the standards of John Ruskin. Jones also looks forward to examine the increasing power of the art critic. In this respect, Pennell and her fellow New Art critics stand apart from what would become a growing trend in the early twentieth century to conflate critic and dealer, who could then not just recommend the direction of art reception but determine it. For example, Jones discusses modernist critics such as Roger Fry, who, “understanding the extent of a critic’s influence, began to act more forcefully and confidently, exploiting his position of authority, not only on public opinion, but also on the art market” (p. 159). Seeing Pennell in the context of both her professional forebears and her successors, as both a historian and a connoisseur, helps the reader to more fully understand her challenges and accomplishments, underscoring anew the need for her to be rescued from obscurity.
Trying to chart the trajectory of Pennell’s art criticism reminds readers that her gender plays a significant role in assessing her career and its impact on the...