|New York's Latest Fad: The Michaux Cycle Club (Harper's Weekly, 19 Jan. 1895)|
One of the biggest changes in late 19th century America and one which would have the most significant impact on women’s lives was the growth of cities. Urban life created new problems as well as new opportunities for both men and women. Women had already been trying to find ways to expand their lives. With urbanization, at the very least the female sphere began to include evenings out with their husbands. For some women, it also included bicycling. But in both cases, as she becomes more visible in the social world, her behavior is more likely to be scrutinized for transgressions. As a result, she has to find some mean between displaying class and status and demonstrating etiquette and propriety. As one newspaper columnist worried, women who were riding bicycles and wearing more relaxed costumes which might even show their ankles were barely a step removed from becoming prostitutes. He may have been worrying a little too much about the relationship between prostitution and bicycling, but given that women's roles and activities were changing along with fashions, he may not have been wrong to be worried--he just had the wrong fear.
|"Household Decoration" (Charles Dana Gibson, from book of his latest drawings and cartoons, publ. in 1916)||J. S. Sargent: Mrs. Fiske Warren and Daughter, 1903||Whistler: Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862|
|"Advice to Caddies: You will save time by keeping your eyes on the ball, not the player." (from Charles Dana Gibson, The Gibson Book, 1907)|
The "new woman" was captured in
the cartoons of Charles Dana Gibson so often that his name began to stand
for the new woman (despite the fact that in other drawings, such as the
two women adorning the fireplace, he depicted the opposite point of view).
In a 1901 magazine article, Gibson's new woman, or the Gibson Girl, engaged
in an imaginary dialogue with a "steel-engraved" woman, the term given
to the visual depiction of womanhood associated with Godey’s Lady’s
Book. The latter, in the article, talks of how she was prepared
for the home environment while the Gibson girl is unprepared, unfit, for
it; the Gibson girl talks of being involved in the new utilitarian age,
leaving "footprints in the sand of time." If the Gibson girl
was not really an active reformer, she was, however, an example of some
of the influence of the dress reform movements of the 19th century.
|Gibson Girl, ca. 1890s||Currier and Ives: the Bloomer costume, 1851||Godey's: February fashions, ca. 1859|
The bloomers did not last long because
they attracted too much attention. Other versions of the split skirt
(the Turkish Trousers, for example) were equally unsuccessful. Corsets
were becoming less popular and if they didn't disappear entirely, they
were becoming less restrictive. Even the Gibson Girl looks as though
she was wearing a corset, despite the fact that she was playing gold.
But the Gibson Girl was not traditional, even at the end of the century.
This was still a time when the female sphere ruled women’s lives, even
if they had begun to believe that they had the ability to imagine a life
beyond this sphere, as many of them already had. As Susan B. Anthony
wrote in 1855,
“When society is rightly organized, the wife and mother will have time, wish, and will to grow intellectually, and will know that the limits of her sphere, the extent of her duties, are prescribed only by the measure of her ability.”
|J. S. Sargent: Mr. and Mrs. Fields, 1882||J. S. Sargent: Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes, 1897|
Mrs. Stokes looks like a real life
version (in a painting) of the Gibson Girl. Although the story behind
the painting--that Sargent caught Mrs. Stokes leaving the tennis court
and decided to paint her how she looked at that time, after which he had
to fit Mr. Stokes into the painting--belies the notion that Sargent or
Mrs. Stokes was interesting in creating a radical statement about women's
rights, the painting does offer a very different image of the relationship
between husband and wife. That difference is only too apparent in
the comparison between Sargent's earlier painting of the Fields and the
later painting of the Phelps Stokes.
|Edmund C. Tarbell: The Breakfast Room, 1903||J. M. Whistler: Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room, 1860|
Women who tried to follow through on Anthony’s prescription for women to expand their sphere by expanding their minds may have encountered some mixed messages (and not only from their clothing). Whistler provides an intriguingly early depiction of this as the little girl in the painting sits absorbed in a large book. The woman seen reflected in the mirror, Whistler’s half-sister, was married to a surgeon and as shown in the painting, led a much more restricted life than the visitor who is dressed in a black riding costume. In France, where his sister lived, the costume was also associated with the role of courtesan. Although we have no way of knowing whether the visiting woman was in fact a courtesan, the child in the painting, Annie, seems oblivious to both women. Faced with two possible choices in life, she ignores both of them and reads. Annie is probably reading a book of fairy tales–there is some indication of a picture on the cover. But it was still fairly unusual to show a woman (or little girl) in a painting who was reading a book, as opposed to just holding one.
In Tarbell's painting (made in the
same year as the Sargent portrait of Mrs. Fiske Warren), we see both the
male sphere and the female sphere, but although they appear to coexist
in the same space, they avoid interaction with one another. The woman
is reading something (and ignoring her husband), while the man, whom we
can barely see, is stabbing an orange. If he had been the one reading
the newspaper, the message would have been clear: the husband was no longer
as entranced by his wife as when they first married. As we look more
closely, we notice a lot of paintings in the room, a fact which might lead
us to wonder if this room is an artist’s studio. But whose?
Is she the artist? By 1903, it's quite possible, although this is
an unlikely way to depict an artist. The suggestion made in the 12:00
class, that the woman is a model and taking a break, very nicely explains
her disheveled appearance. And perhaps the man, the presumed artist
in this interpretation, is gesturing with the orange as he imagines some
part of the composition he has yet to paint. But it is still difficult
to account for the fact that the man takes up so little of the painting.
That alone makes it unusual.
If we assume that the woman at the table is the mistress of the household, then we are faced with the problem that she is not really dressed for the day, and on top of that, she’s reading. Although it was readily acknowledged by the turn of the century that women were as interested in pleasure as men were in business, this interest of theirs was not seen as something to praise. Tarbell’s woman at the table is idle–obviously a member of the upper, leisure class, seemingly dissatisfied with her marriage, and apparently trying to follow through on Susan Anthony’s prescription for women to expand their sphere by expanding their minds. Tarbell's painting may be passing judgment on this goal as well as on the female propensity for leisure.
While paintings of women before
the middle of the 19th century were unlikely to show women reading–they
might be caressing a book but rarely did they make eye contact with it–after
the mid-century the female reader became increasingly commonplace, in real
life as well as in paintings. Not all men approved of this development
(women reading), and if they did, they often assumed that reading was another
form of vanity. But to be completely fair, we should note that paintings
of women reading, especially the newspaper, remained less, rather than
more, frequent in American art. So perhaps the fact that she's reading,
even if it's just about herself, is a sign of progress in art works.
|The Announcement of Her Engagement (Gibson's Latest Cartoons and Drawings, book publ. in 1916)|