On tempera and temperament: women, art, and feeling at the fin de siècle

Clarke, Meaghan (2016) On tempera and temperament: women, art, and feeling at the fin de siècle. 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 2016 (23). pp. 1-29. ISSN 1755-1560

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In her recent book Women Writing Art History in the Nineteenth Century, Hilary Fraser observes that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s account of Hilda’s womanly sensibility in The Marble Faun subsumes her visual agency into the vision of the master painter. Hilda is widely regarded as being modelled on his wife, the painter and illustrator Sophia Peabody Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s reference to a ‘woman’s sympathy’ prompts a wider consideration of the gendering of aesthetic response. Indeed, The Marble Faun is one of numerous texts, most famously Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, which set out artistic roles for women in the Victorian period. How were women visitors to art museums and exhibitions represented visually? There are in fact numerous images of women in museums and galleries from this period. I begin with an exploration of some examples of these, and with recent scholarship that addresses how women ‘looked’ in museums, as a way of thinking about women ‘feeling through a picture’, whether by ‘intellectual effort’ or otherwise. How did these images relate to the association of the female viewer with a ‘woman’s sympathy’? Some of the women featured in museum spaces were at work copying the paintings visible on the walls. These women copyists echoed Hilda’s transformation at the end of Hawthorne’s chapter: ‘All that she would henceforth attempt — and that, most reverentially, not to say, religiously — was to catch and reflect some of the glory which had been shed upon canvas from the immortal pencils of old. So Hilda became a copyist.’ Were the women artists and viewers depicted in museum spaces similarly intent on utilizing their feminine ‘sympathy’ to admire the glory of Old Master paintings? The first section of this article argues that, on the contrary, it is possible to locate examples of a more engaged visual agency in female viewers. The second section asks how notions of Victorian temperament intersected with the modern revival of tempera painting. I pursue the question of female temperament through case studies of three women viewers who were writers and artists. Here, I examine the writings of Alice Meynell alongside the work of the artist Marianne Stokes, before moving on to briefly consider the artist and writer Christiana Herringham, who also published at the fin de siècle. For these women artists, copying and studying early Renaissance paintings was crucial to their artistic practice. Did these artists then fulfil, like Hilda, the role of the woman copyist? Stokes was, like Hilda, intent on studying canvases ‘of old’, but, as Meynell argued, this careful study was undertaken in order to produce her own reverential paintings through tempera, rather than to reflect on the ‘glory’ of Renaissance artists. Herringham similarly took up tempera painting, but as a method of examining and authentically reproducing ‘old’ paintings. The work of Meynell, Stokes, and Herringham can be mapped onto a point where contemporary and historical fine art collide or even collude. Will the revival of tempera instigate revival of ‘feeling’ in art? What will become clear is that their engagement with ‘feeling’ and ‘sentiment’ was not straightforward. Nor were they necessarily unified in their approach. While alert to the new possibilities the medium may offer, they were engaging with it in relation to spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual judgement. In short, these women art critics felt ambivalent about feeling.

Item Type: Article
Keywords: Art writing, feeling, women artists, tempera, Early Renaissance, connoisseurship
Schools and Departments: School of History, Art History and Philosophy > Art History
Depositing User: Meaghan Clarke
Date Deposited: 10 Apr 2017 09:23
Last Modified: 14 Aug 2020 11:45
URI: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/67309

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