Women in the Victorian Art Museum: Travels with Eurydice and Flora
In 1899, Woman’s Life published an essay titled “How to Succeed as an Artist,” by successful woman artist Henrietta Rae (1859–1928). Subtitled “Miss Henrietta Rae Gives Some Valuable Advice,” the article opens with a surprising recommendation to women: “never to become artists at all” (161). Rae’s reasons for giving this “not consoling advice” include the difficulty involved in making a living as a professional artist, as well as the strain on one’s health, and the discouragement women artists like Rae were regularly subjected to in this period (161). In this regard, Rae recalls one instance (of many in her lifetime) illustrative of the kind of condescending experience that women artists and art students could then expect to face:
I remember when I was a student [at the Royal Academy Schools] that a life study stood on my easel, and two men, ignoring entirely my presence, began discussing it. “There’s style about that thing, anyhow,” one of them said. “Yes,” replied the other, “damned bad style.” It was rather disconcerting, but I didn’t mind—much.(162)
In spite—or perhaps because—of this early dampening experience, Rae became one of the few women in the later decades of the nineteenth century to exhibit nude paintings at the Royal Academy and other galleries, beginning with A Bacchante and Ariadne Deserted by Theseus in 1885, and continuing with [End Page 35] such well-noticed and well-travelled works as Eurydice Sinking Back to Hades (fig. 1) and Zephyrus Wooing Flora (fig. 2). This essay offers a case study, taking up Rae’s Eurydice and Flora to explore the experiences of women creators and consumers of art in art museums. I will begin by tracing the travels of Rae’s paintings and then connect those travels to the larger changes that took place for women in museum culture toward the end of the century.
Eurydice was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, then at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889 and the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Rae’s biographer, Arthur Fish, says of its first exhibition: “The picture was hung in the sixth room at the Academy, and attracted considerable attention” (45). The painting gained so much attention, in fact, that it earned its own Punch cartoon: “After Six Lessons, Lady Amateur [End Page 36] Imitating Eminent Tragedian,” a small caricature depicting Rae’s Eurydice in a pose reminiscent of Henry Irving’s as Mathias in The Bells (fig. 3). Eurydice was later purchased by George Lord Beeforth, owner of the Doré Gallery in London, who commissioned Rae in 1895 to paint his portrait when he was mayor of Scarborough. He also invited Rae and her husband, the artist Ernest Normand, to hold a joint exhibition of their works at the Doré Gallery, which took place in 1895. At the Paris Exposition, Eurydice received honourable mention and in Chicago was awarded a medal. The painting was generally well received in the press; the Daily Telegraph, for example, praising the artist for “her courage in dealing with unadorned beauty,” though the reviewer disapproved of the “attenuation” of the model and her “strained and disagreeable” pose (qtd. in Fish 46).
In 1888, the year after Eurydice’s debut, Rae showed Zephyrus Wooing Flora at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and again at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition, at the Walker Art Gallery. The figure of Flora, like Eurydice, also displays some attenuation and strain in her position, and she is similarly [End Page 37] unadorned except for a thin rose garland. (Zephyrus has strategically placed filmy drapery.) In London, the painting was hung “on the line [just above eye level] in the eighth room at the Academy, where it”—like Eurydice, as Fish says again—“attracted considerable attention” (50). The Athenaeum called the picture “an interesting illustration of a lady’s skill in painting nudities and an amorous subject in a way reminding us of Bronzino’s ‘Venus and Cupid,’ now in the National Gallery, No. 651” (“Royal Academy” 733). At the Walker Art Gallery, Rae’s Flora appeared in the same exhibition as Frederic Leighton’s Captive Andromache, which was, according to the Art Journal for 1888, “isolated by classically festooned drapery” (“Walker Art Gallery” 350). Other prominent male artists represented in this exhibition included William Quiller Orchardson, Solomon J. Solomon, Val Prinsep, and Briton Riviere. Solomon’s monumental Samson had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in the same year and the same room as Rae’s Eurydice, and had also travelled to the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition of 1887; it was then given to the Walker Art Gallery by the ship owner James Harrison to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (Miller 121).
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That Rae could hold her own in overwhelmingly male company is a testament to her perseverance and tenacity as a professional artist, and her Flora, like her Eurydice, personifies a feminine incursion into a traditionally masculine space: a female nude created by a female artist at a time when male artists almost exclusively held the right to create such forms. By representing the nude figure, Rae asserted a kind of control over this form and challenged male privilege within the art museum. While male artists, such as Val Prinsep and William Blake Richmond, had on occasion actually painted over Rae’s canvases as she worked on them, and while letter writers had urged Rae to refrain from painting nudes, Rae maintained her resolve to paint as she saw fit and to enter her work for exhibition alongside nudes by men.
Rae’s resistance to the dictates of gender conformity may be connected to the growing numbers of women visitors to art galleries in the late nineteenth century. Andrew Stephenson has examined the increased visibility of Victorian women as consumers in “museums, art galleries, concert and lecture halls, alongside hotels, tearooms, restaurants, department stores and libraries” (5). The design of museums such as the Grosvenor Gallery, which opened in 1877, reflected the desire to attract women visitors, by emulating comfortable, luxuriously appointed domestic interiors and providing more intimate spaces for the exhibitions than could be found, for example, at Burlington House, where the Royal Academy exhibitions were—and still are—held. Stephenson mentions in this regard the Grosvenor Gallery’s “silk damask wall-coverings, antique furniture, Liberty draperies and oriental rugs” (8), all intended to entice aspiring women consumers and art patrons to enter. Like Evelyn De Morgan and Marie Spartali, Rae also exhibited at the Grosvenor, a gallery associated with the Aesthetic Movement and one that championed male artists (such as G.F. Watts, James McNeill Whistler, and Edward Burne-Jones) whose work had met with a colder reception at the Royal Academy. In 1885, at the Grosvenor, Rae exhibited Elaine Guarding the Shield of Launcelot; in 1888, A Reverie; and in 1889, Sleep. But these paintings did not attract the same attention as her nudes, especially since those nudes had first appeared in the conspicuously conservative environs of the Royal Academy before moving to other art galleries.
Although as early as the late 1850s, the work of the Langham Place Group and the Society of Female Artists had opened up opportunities for women artists, both amateur and professional, to exhibit their work to the public, these exhibitions of exclusively female artists’ works (often held at the Dudley Gallery, Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly) were regarded by many observers and women artists themselves as more dilettantish and less rigorously vetted than mixed exhibitions in conservative art museums such as Burlington House. Rae not only successfully invaded this bastion of male privilege with her mythological nudes but also was among the few women artists to [End Page 39] organize an exhibition outside of the Female Society and the Royal Female School of Art. In 1897, she invited contributors and oversaw the hanging of paintings in the women’s-work section of the Victorian Exhibition, Earl’s Court, with the goal of displaying only the strongest art work by contemporary women.
The rest of the women’s-work section was evidently somewhat disappointing and, as a writer who interviewed Rae in the Woman’s Signal observed, was “arranged by a committee of ladies of title; the only name of a really working woman upon the committee was that of the distinguished woman artist, Henrietta Rae” (19). Unlike Rae’s carefully curated Women’s Pictures, the other exhibits could not “be for one moment taken as adequate or convincing” (19). The Woman’s Signal’s harsh criticism of most of the women’s-work section of the Victorian Exhibition is an index of the developing sophistication and discernment of middle-class women’s art and culture in the late nineteenth century. Notably, the Woman’s Signal interviewer warmly approves of Rae’s decision to hang the women’s paintings in the women’s-only section so that women artists had to exhibit their work there or not at all. Had Rae allowed the women to send their paintings to be hung in the men’s section, says the writer, “you would have been left, as exhibitions of lady artists’ work generally are, with ‘the leavings’ of the general exhibition, which would do more discredit than credit to us” (19).
Rae’s curating of the women’s art exemplifies the advances women had made in both exhibiting and viewing works of art. Bringing her own expertise and judgment to bear on the selection of exhibits, Rae demonstrated, as the Woman’s Signal noted, a persuasive authority in her field. By 1897, twenty years after she entered the Royal Academy Schools, Rae had refused to be condescended to or to be relegated to second-best “leavings.” Although some women artists, such as Elizabeth Butler, regularly chose not to enter their work in all-female exhibitions—fearing marginalization and a lack of relevance beside the main male-dominated exhibitions—this time Butler agreed to enter a painting, along with other accomplished artists such as “the three Misses Montalbas, Mrs. Alma Tadema . . . Miss Dicksee,” and “Mrs. Allingham” (19–20). Rae’s insistence on making the women’s exhibition as strong as possible signals a moving beyond that fear and toward a celebration of women artists’ particular contribution to the fine arts. Just as women could now visit galleries and museums with exhibitions by one or both sexes, so Rae—an artist whose achievement lay primarily in her challenge to the male monopoly on nude paintings—could inhabit both the all-woman artists’ and the male and female artists’ worlds. And, like the women museum visitors newly able to traverse the city, Rae’s mythic figures Eurydice and Flora could travel from galleries in London to Liverpool, to Paris, to Chicago; such mobility might be read as emblematic of that striving for ever-expanding acceptance and mobility—social, political, and physical—of women in the late nineteenth century. [End Page 40]
jo devereux is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University, where she teaches nineteenth-century literature, Shakespeare, drama, and theatre studies. She is the author of The Making of Women Artists in Victorian England: The Education and Careers of Six Professionals (2016) and Patriarchy and Its Discontents: Sexual Politics in Selected Novels and Stories of Thomas Hardy (2003). Her article “The Evolution of Victorian Women’s Art Education, 1858–1900: Access and Legitimacy in Women’s Periodicals” is forthcoming in Victorian Periodicals Review, and she is the book review editor for English Studies in Canada.