Women in Victorian Art

By Karen Parr-Moody


Whether portrayed as saints, sinners, or something in between, the women of the Victorian era had their sociological place depicted through art. In examining some of the Victorian art available at GasLamp, one gets a quick art history lesson in the social norms of the time.


The Victorian era generally coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). This period brought about many styles in art and literature, along with social, political, and religious upheaval. As a time of great prosperity and change, it was the beginning of “modern times,’” and with that came social complexity.


Women during the Victorian era were seen as hothouse flowers to be sheltered from reality’s harshness. They certainly enjoyed a lack of freedom. A woman’s place was largely seen as being in the home with her husband and children. The home was seen by society as a haven, and this was underscored by the beautiful furnishings of this era.


In the 19th century, in particular, wealthy women were kept busy running their household and organizing any servants they had. This woman fit into a category of art that depicted the woman as “ideal.” This would be seen in the popular paintings of Madonnas and mothers, and Rossetti’s “Fair Lady,” or the many pictures of woman depicted in reverie and contemplation.


In Victorian art, one often sees the women, as in the close-up of the print at upper right, in a situation where they are looking poised and perfect. This woman plays a lute and is surrounded by rich furnishings. This would have been a scene in which a Victorian woman should have been at ease as theperfect hostess (one of three Victorian prints in period frames, $74 for the set; Booth W-407). 


The photo of this Victorian puzzle, at left, is another depiction of the socially constructed feminine space of the era’s women. Romantic and innocent, the central character of this piece is surrounded by beautiful flowers and graceful swans (two-sided puzzle, circa 1890, $65; Showcase B-1003).


Another face of Victorian art is, interestingly, that of female power. This was depicted in a variety of guises – women were often portrayed as goddesses, which fits in with the popularity of Neoclassic architecture and furniture of the era. They were also portrayed as femme fatales, such as vampires, sirens, mermaids or Medusa. And they were also seen as heroic seductresses, such as the Biblical Judith or Salome. In the photo, right, is a close-up of a Neoclassic style goddess (one of three Victorian prints in period frames, $74 for the set; Booth W-407).


Young girls of the Victorian era were raised to be innocent and sexually ignorant, then, once married, to be the perfect lady of the house. Those who strayed? Let’s just say that images of “fallen women” were popular in Victorian art. Paradoxically, as obsessed as the Victorians were with virginity, they were also fascinated by its extreme. Therefore, paintings of fallen women proved to be the counterpart of ideal women, partly because of the moral lesson. Such art served to warn other young ladies to avoid the wages of temptation and ruin. The young lady in the print, at left, is caught up in the roiling waters of sin, but has the good luck to be saved by an angelic creature clinging to the Christian cross.


So often collectors of Victoriana are searching for the ornate and whimsical furniture of the era. The art, however, can be just as interesting a search, as it is also a porthole into the soul of this era. The melodrama and the romanticism make for art that has a beautiful and unique style.

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