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It would seem that the artists and the press of the era both recognized a hot commodity when they saw one, and in this pre-Internet/Cable/Hustler era, beautiful women portrayed in a lascivious fashion would naturally appeal to the prurient interests of the men of the day who might well have been personally fed up with the Victorian morals that controlled and dominated their lives otherwise. In this regard, Pyne (2006) reports that, "When scandalized critics attacked Rodin's nudes, Camera Work defended the drawings by a strategy of veiling the body with the soul, praising them as 'the perception of the mystery of surfaces.... The adventure of the mind in matter... The divinizing of the sensual and the materializing of the sensuous.' Stieglitz thus used a Whistlerian gloss of shadows and music to mystify the eroticism of Rodin's 'pagan' figures" (44).
The portrayal of women was even regarded as a measure of how well a society was doing in terms of progress and achievement. In fact, throughout the 18th century, discussions concerning commerce, liberty, and luxury all used women as a benchmark to communicate the relative health or degeneracy of the nation and required the idealization of the female subject as a means of representing the model state (see, for example, Figure 1 at Appendix a). According to Warner (1997), "When Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, commissioned Franz Xaver Winterhalter to paint the First of May, 1851 [see Figure 2], they wanted a family portrait that would also be an allegory of national pride and achievement" (16).
As Pointon (1997) points out, there was a widespread view that women were the gauges by which every aspect of contemporary society, its morals, its laws, its customs, its government, was measured:
Women's physical appearance was equally highly invested; while eighteenth-century letter-writers perpetually describe how people look, the legibility of faces being widely promoted, women's appearance was doubly significant for, in eighteenth-century England, to be beautiful is not only to possess an engaging physical presence, but also to be positioned in relation to a series of moral injunctions, which on the one hand raise and endorse women's public presence, while on the other hand damn the beautiful as a source of enervating femininity. (4)
The portrayal of women in art in general and portraits in particular also gained steam during the late 18th century because women were becoming more important economic players, albeit still inferior to their male counterparts from a legal perspective. During this period in history, women with money would naturally want to invest some of it in an artful representation of herself in the form of a well executed portrait, which would be handed down as prized family heirlooms in a manner that might not be readily appreciated by modern consumers today. For example, Pointon emphasizes that, "Women were also assessed as human beings within the economic system that was propelled by expenditure: discussions of dowries and marriage settlements became increasingly pressing as the range of goods and entertainments on which money could be spent increased. Imagery was instrumental in increasing the desire for goods and in promoting emulation. From an art-historical point-of-view, the issue of luxury thus becomes part of a question of the power of visual imagery and of its capacity to generate copies and imitations" (5).
Despite these shifts in how women were portrayed, for example, in commissioned portraits, there was still an undercurrent of sexism in how they were presented otherwise. These constraints to their active participation except as models and rich sponsors is evident in Pointon's observation that, "Artists and writers were part of public life. They were thinking citizens with moral responsibilities. Women were, for all the notoriety of the Blue Stocking circle, regarded as unthinking and economically unproductive. Just as women were becoming visible as readers and writers, as leading consumers of print culture, the literary (and one might also include the visual) culture was producing an increasingly restrictive model of femininity" (5).
There was a growing sense of intimacy in these portraits as well. According to Schnberger and Soehner (1960):
Perhaps the best way of apprehending the essence of 18th-century portraiture is to compare it with the ceremonious, bewigged portraits of the baroque era. The age of Louis XIV, the painters of Le Brun's generation, had created that type of picture, where the subject overawed beholders by the haughty, imperious gaze with which he looked down from the canvas, and seemed divided from them by his proud bearing, commanding gesture and splendid costume. In rococo portraiture this cleavage between spectator and sitter no longer exists (53).
Because France was looked to as the harbinger of all things great and wonderful in the world of art during this period, it is not surprising that their directions in portraiture would quickly spread throughout the Western world. In this regard, it would seem safe to suggest that what the French said was right and appropriate in the portrayal of women in art was in fact right and appropriate and worthy of emulation. This point is made by Schnberger and Soehner who point out that, "This new spirit in portrait painting is already evident in the work of the Regency period in France, after the death of Louis XIV, when fashionable society, led by Philippe d'Orleans, the Pegent was beginning to emerge from its torpor and to pursue new ideals. The court was enlivened by an infusion of elegance and wit from the drawing-rooms of Paris, which were already developing the special refinement of taste that was soon to be imitated by the aristocracy in every civilized country" (53).
In an early sign of the powerful effects of globalization, when the manners and customs of the French royal court were spread throughout Europe, the new style of portrait-painting went with them: "French painters were eagerly sought and greatly honoured guests in the princely residences of foreign countries, and artists from all over the continent came to Paris to perfect their own skill in the academies of art or in the studios of acknowledged masters. Social and artistic ambitions thus concurred to form a unified style of portraiture such as Europe had never known before" (Schnberger and Soehner 53). This trend was not without its detractors abroad, though. For instance, Warner (1997) emphasizes that, "To many older British painters, the spread of French technique appeared as an insidious disease afflicting the young. One objection was that it was un-British, not just in the literal sense but in going against the national character" (16). Regardless of who painted a portrait during this period in history, it is clear that what the subject wants is to be regarded as belonging to a society which regarded itself as a unity transcending all political or national frontiers, and that the painter's goal was to communicate to all who cared to look "a carelessly self-confident mien, perfect elegance, and great distinction of feature" (Schnberger and Soehner 53).
These affectations were not without an ultimate goal, and it is clear that portraitists knew what the public wanted and were ready and willing to respond because there was money to be made: "This cult of charm and beauty is inextricably bound up with the general increase of importance acquired by woman in the 18th century. During the baroque period women had still been hovering on the outskirts of social life, but in the age of rococo they moved into its very centre" (emphasis added) (Schnberger and Soehner 53). The portrayal of women in portraits during the 18th century was also a way for a society's leaders to highlight their progress and achievements for posterity, and the manner in which they attained these goals was to show women in a regal manner in a refined and sophisticated setting. For example, "This style of portrait-painting, invented for an aristocratic society with a monarch at its head, and giving fit expression to the high cultural standards and refined tastes of that society, its particular ideals, was to give the keynote of the art of portraiture that developed during the 18th century" (Schnberger and Soehner 54).
Not surprisingly, the upper-middle class did not want to be left out in the cold when it came to showing off their women in portraits, and they quickly followed suit: "The bourgeoisie, eager to be admitted to the fashionable salon and to establish social relations or even family connections with the nobility, strove to appear aristocratic in their portraits as well. The middle-class portrait achieved its own form of expression and took over all the mannerisms adopted in depicting those of higher rank, from dignified bearing to the craze for lapdogs" (Schnberger and Soehner 54). The portrayal of women in portraits during the 18th century was also viewed as a great social equalizer: "Established class distinctions were obliterated in such paintings; the banker's spouse had herself portrayed in exactly the same way as…[continue]
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