- Women Writing Art History in the Nineteenth Century: Looking Like a Woman by Hilary Fraser
The provocative subtitle of Hilary Fraser’s Women Writing Art History in the Nineteenth Century: Looking Like a Woman is underscored by the reproduction of Edgar Degas’s Visit to a Museum (c. 1879–90) on the dust jacket cover, cropped to draw viewers’ attention to the central figures of the canvas: two women who turn their gazes to a vaguely articulated wall of canvases. This painting is one in a series that Degas described as an effort to “give the idea of that bored and respectfully crushed and impressed absence of sensation that women experience in front of paintings” (qtd. in Museum of Fine Arts: Boston www.mfa.org/collections/object/visit-to-a-museum-34041). Yet, Fraser, by contrast, wants to recover an active and engaged gaze and, more specifically, to “investigate the part female writers played in developing a discourse of art . . . and how they participated in the mainstream writing of art criticism and art’s histories” (2). Her focus is Victorian Britain and networks largely located in London. Her “aim,” she states, “is to correct the partial and distorted view of the emergent discipline of art history . . . that art criticism was a masculine intellectual field in which a handful of women played a merely secondary role” (2).
Fraser’s project is a complex and ambitious undertaking, in part because the discourse of art was produced across a vast array of publications, from new journals such as the Art Journal and Magazine of Art that emerged in the nineteenth century to serve a broad middle-class audience (see Katherine Haskins, The Art-Journal and Fine Art Publishing in Victorian Britain, 1850–1880 ), more specialized journals intended for cultivated amateurs such as the Journal of the Photographic Society of London, and a proliferation of illustrated books as well as a diversity of genres, from artists’ life writings (closely examined by Julie Codell in The Victorian Artist: Artists’ Life Writings in Britain, c. 1870–1910 ), to exhibition reviews, treatises and manuals, historical narratives, and translations—an important activity for many of the women writers Fraser considers. [End Page 184]
Fraser focuses on particular genres and the question of how women writers used them as platforms to contribute to art discourses, as in Dinah Craik’s fiction, Anna Jameson’s travel writing, and Julia Cartwright’s studies of historic periods of art. Embedded in these discussions are compellingly selected passages from primary sources, demonstrating an erudite breadth of knowledge across this body of writing, and persuasive close readings, as in Fraser’s analyses of Michael Fields’ Sight and Song (1892) and Vernon Lee’s essays, which put forward, as Fraser explains, “an explicitly embodied, agential, and perspectival model of seeing” (97). Fraser’s argument is less successful when asserting that photography “came to be associated with women, both practitioners and writers,” which is not borne out if the frame of analysis expands beyond the contributions of Julia Margaret Cameron and Amy Levy, (Fraser’s foci) to include the treatises and manuals produced by such writers as photographer Henry Peach Robinson, doctor P. H. Emerson, and scientist Robert Hunt as well as the news, advice, and reviews that appeared in such journals as the British Journal of Photography, Photographic News, and Photographic Quarterly (139). In this masculinist context, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake’s choice to gender photography as feminine in her now famous essay “Photography” (1857) becomes even more exceptional.
Fraser’s text cumulatively persuades the reader of the significant contribution women writers made to the formation of nineteenth-century British art discourses and, moreover, “that Victorian women wrote compellingly about their engagement with visual culture” (182). Fraser thus contributes to the emerging body of scholarship about women writers and art criticism shaped by scholars such as John Paul M. Kanwit (Victorian Art Criticism and the Woman Writer ) and Meaghan Clarke (Critical Voices...