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Women, Femininity, and Public Space in European Visual Culture, 1789-1914.

Women, Femininity, and Public Space in European Visual Culture, 1789-1914

Edited by Temma Balducci and Heather Belnap Jensen

Ashgate, 2014

This volume complements the 2011 Interior Portraiture and Masculine Identity in France, 1789-1914, also edited by Temma Balducci and Heather Belnap Jensen with Pamela Warner, which examined intersections of masculinity and interior spaces. Focusing on the feminine side of the ideology of separate spheres, the recent work, consisting of sixteen essays, expands the investigative field to consider European visual culture more broadly, from the sidewalks of New York, to the late nineteenth-century illustrated press in Madrid, to the fate of women artists in fin-de-siecle Vienna. The feminine side of the binary has been re-examined over the past two decades by historians and art historians. Scholars such as Aruna D'Souza Tom McDonough, Marni Kessler, Greg Thomas, and Lynda Nead have reconsidered the question of the flaneuse and women's participation in urban spaces in Paris and London (4-5). Likewise, Linda Nochlin, Griselda Pollock, and Lisa Tickner, among others, have challenged the androcentric conceptualization of modernism. The catalyst for the current volume was a session on "Women, Femininity, and Public Space" held at the 2010 CAA conference in Chicago, which helped shape the conceptual framework and international perspective. Although a considerable body of scholarship on the depiction of women in the public sphere exists, as these essays demonstrate, the complex relationship between middle-and upper-class women and public spaces has proved stubbornly resistant to codification and offers fertile ground for revisionist investigations.

As the editors and individual authors convincingly argue, it is essential to rethink our understanding of the public sphere beyond the Habermasian model to include a broader range of liminal public spaces such as parks, cafes, museums, shops, city streets, and public transit, and to take into account the impact of commerce, the fashion discourse, and social networks (2-3). One of the volume's strengths is its internationalism and breadth of field, encompassing art centers across Europe including Berlin, Vienna, Florence, Brittany, and Madrid, in addition to Paris and London, which have received far more attention in the existing literature. While the broad geographical scope makes the volume more comprehensive, it risks making it more diffuse and fragmentary due to the diversity of topics addressed. The authors also consider a wide range of non-canonical media including fashion prints, private journals, watercolors, caricatures, and architectural designs for women's housing. Together with the focus on the active participation of women in the public intellectual and cultural sphere as artists and writers shaping the art historical discourse, these materials enrich and complicate our understanding of women's agency and complex, multifaceted engagement with public spaces. Also commendable is the wide range of women artists examined, from canonical figures such as Mary Cassatt and Emily Carr to understudied figures like the Baroness Hyde de Neuville, Louise Abbema, and Broncia Koller.


Although the essays are arranged in roughly chronological order, there are a number of recurring themes that are examined in different contexts from diverse vantage points that help unify the volume. One such subject is fashion illustration. Heather Belnap Jensen's essay considers fashion plates in relation to the maternal body in post-Revolutionary France, arguing that the domestic ideal co-existed with that of the fashionable mother. Justine De Young analyzes the cultural significance of fashion plates in mid nineteenth-century France, focusing on the deve-lopment of fashion as a discourse that helped to define bourgeois ideals of femininity and attested to women's increasing independence and mobility. Another recurring theme is the urban streetscape and women's visibility and active participation in it. Laura Auricchio's essay focuses on civic engagement through the amateur artist Baroness Hyde de Neuville's egalitarian depictions of daily life and the vernacular in New York in the early 1800s, including sympathetic images of African American workers such as her sketch of a scrubwoman (illus. plate 6). Several essays focus on the urban cityscape and depictions of women walking, highlighting their mobility and linking them with narratives of modernity. Temma Balducci's essay examines the representation of bourgeois women walking, as evidenced in Jean Beraud's late nineteenth-century cityscapes such as Paris, rue du Havre (ca. 1882; Fig. 1), arguing that women of all classes were omnipresent as pedestrians or riding public transit in fin-de-siecle Paris. Similarly, Vanessa Rodriguez-Galindo argues that middle-class madrilenas were highly visible figures in late nineteenth-century Spain; they were prominently featured in the illustrated press and played a central role in constructing modernity. Samantha Burton traces Canadian artist Emily Carr's peregrinations as an art student in turn-of- the-century London as emblematic of modern mobility and examines the role of the boardinghouse Carr inhabited and drew as a site for social networking.

The inclusion of understudied women artists, from the copyists working at the Uffizi, to Louise Abbema and the lesbian subculture of late nineteenth-century Paris, to the fate of Viennese artists like Broncia Koller who have been marginalized and largely erased from the historical record, is particularly welcome. The essays by Amy M. Von Lintel and Elizabeth C. Mansfield investigate the overlooked contributions of female art historians, notably Mary Margaret Heaton and Nancy Bell, who wrote for widely read popular journals, and Emilia Dilke, whose comprehensive culturally grounded studies of French art helped shape art historical discourse; these important correctives remind us of women's active participation as art historians and scholars. The concluding essay by Annalisa Zox-Weaver on Gertrude Stein's social network and multi-layered identity as a writer, collector, and active promoter of the avant-garde is a fitting coda. It brings together the strands of modern mobility, urban and sexual geographies, and female patronage and collecting, countering the tendency to underestimate the role of women in the formation of modernism and their complex negotiation between the inside and the outside and public and private spaces.

Other essays expand the purview of the volume to include topics such as salon culture, designing public housing for working women, and non-canonical source materials such as satirical journals or unpublished notes and sketches. Daniel Harkett considers how Juliette Recamier's literary salon at L'Abbayeaux-Bois mediated between private and public spaces, serving as a platform for different political viewpoints and promoting her style and disseminating her image. Karen Leader's essay analyzes women's participation in the art world of the Second Empire and the gendered ideology of art through the lens of Salon caricatures in which women are both subjects and consumers. Julie M. Johnson's essay on the marginalization and erasure of women artists in Vienna c. 1900 focuses on Broncia Koller's career as an example of the misreading of interiority and the ways in which separate spheres ideology has marginalized modern women artists. Erin Eckhold Sassin examines German Ledigenheim, the residences designed for single working women in Berlin in the early 1900s, which were home-like but also liberated women from housekeeping chores, highlighting their reformist agenda and hybrid approach to public and private spaces.

The volume is handsomely produced with twenty color plates and numerous black and white illustrations, although not all the essays are illustrated. Each essay is thoroughly documented, and there is a selected bibliography. As one would expect, the essays vary in length and approach and some are fresher and more fully developed than others. The introduction by Balducci and Jensen provides a useful overview of the shifting perspectives in feminist scholarship, beginning with Nochlin's groundbreaking 1971 essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" The editors and the authors make a convincing case for the need to rethink the ideology of the separate spheres in order to nuance and complicate the picture of genteel women's engagement with public spaces. The individual studies address the issue from different vantage points, while reiterating the central arguments about the limitations of the public/private binary (which becomes a bit repetitive when reading through the entire volume). Both individually and collectively, the sixteen studies make a strong case for the complexities in conceptualizing the boundaries between public and private spaces in the modern era. They show the ways in which bourgeois women were challenging traditional barriers restricting their agency and participation in the public sphere by taking a closer look at their actual activities and practices in a variety of public spaces. Although the essays focus on middle-and in a few instances upper-class women, many of these women were earning a living through their artistic or literary endeavors so they are quite broadly representative. In challenging the public/private binary the collection will undoubtedly be a catalyst for further investigation of women's engagement with the public sphere and the blurring boundaries between public and private spaces during the long nineteenth century.

Heather McPherson is Professor of Art History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has published widely on nineteenth-century French art and visual culture. Her book Art and Celebrity in the Age of Reynolds and Siddons is forthcoming from Penn State University Press.
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Author:McPherson, Heather
Publication:Woman's Art Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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