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Genteel Mavericks

Professional Women Sculptors in Victorian Britain

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Shannon Hunter Hurtado

Sculpture was no occupation for a lady in Victorian Britain. Yet between 1837 and 1901 the number of professional female sculptors increased sixteen-fold. The four principal women sculptors of that era are the focus of this book. Once known for successful careers marked by commissions from the royal family, public bodies and private individuals, they are forgotten now. This book brings them back to light, addressing who they were, how they negotiated middle-class expectations and what kind of impact they had on changing gender roles.
Based on their unpublished letters, papers and diaries coupled with contemporary portrayals of female sculptors by novelists, critics, essayists and colleagues, this is an unprecedented picture of the women sculptors’ personal experience of preparing for and conducting careers as well as the public’s perception of them. The author examines each woman’s ability to use her position within the historical and cultural context as a platform from which to instigate change. The analytical emphasis throughout is on the art of negotiation and the result is an interdisciplinary work that delves deeply into the experience of an undervalued cohort of artists who had a disproportionate influence on Victorian social norms.

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PART II Public Perceptions 205

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PART II Public Perceptions CHAPTER 5 Critical Appraisals Just as the physical production of a piece of sculpture involves several con- tributors, so too, the object’s aesthetic value is constituted by an array of participants including colleagues, patrons, exhibiting societies, art schools and critics. Each of these agents makes aesthetic judgements based on personal (or institutional) dispositions in interaction with the ideological, historical and social structures of the time. As Janet Wolf f observes, evalu- ations of art ‘are not simply individual and “purely aesthetic” decisions, but socially enabled and socially constructed events’.1 Thus, in a Victorian context, judgements are inf lected by such issues as women’s capacity to produce fine art and society’s tolerance of women entering the art market. Keeping this in mind, I will analyse the ef fect that various members of the Victorian art world had upon the public’s perceptions of the female sculptors. Of this company, the art critics wielded the greatest inf luence, af fecting the way that an artist was perceived during his or her career and, more especially, by succeeding generations. Consequently, I will examine their contribution in more detail toward the end of the discussion, con- cluding the chapter with an assessment of the women’s sculpture relative to the aesthetic trends of the era. The analytical framework (though not the theoretical approach) for this discussion is adapted from Kurt Lang and Gladys Engel Lang’s work on artistic reputation, specifically the distinc- tion they draw between art-world ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ approval.2 I...

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