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ebecca Solomon’s style has been defined as genre, having likely been influenced by other women artists of her time, but she was also influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism, especially in her later works and most likely because of her encounters with Simeon’s friends and members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The Virtuous Undergraduate and The Dissolute Undergraduate
As in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, Solomon comments on ethical issues concerning gender and socio-economic backgrounds during the Victorian era, particularly in the paired works, The Virtuous Undergraduate and The Dissolute Undergraduate (1868, both in the Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas) The simplication of colour, although not characteristic of true Pre-Raphaelite style, reduces the works to their simplest forms, and draws attention to its subjects rather than what is going on around them. This was perhaps done intentionally to accentuate the meaning of what each painting represents. The paintings depict two scenarios: The Virtuous Undergraduate depicts a university student gazing adorably at a bashful, honourable woman who appears to be disclaiming his flattery, while in The Dissolute Undergraduate the subject is a conceited well-kept man conversing with a woman who appears dishonoured and dishevelled. The well-dressed woman in the The Virtuous Undergraduate appears to represent the Victorian feminine ideal. She is clad in a light, clean gown that indicates her innocence and purity. However, the woman in the Dissolute Undergraduate is dressed in black rags, whilst displaying a pained expression as she glares at the man.
Solomon here is critiquing the attitudes of gentlemen towards two different categories of Victorian women: the morally upright and the fallen. Whilst Solomon makes it clear that the two women embody the social categories enforced upon women at the time, she draws attention to the arrogant behaviours of Victorian men. The two men are university students, which implies that they are educated and from respectable upbringings and they embody the traits of what Butler identifies as the masculine ideal: intellectual, confident in their approach, and each desiring the women they contemplate. But the fact that Solomon depicts them as flirtatiously conversing, leaning towards each woman, suggests that they are completely ignoring the fact that esteemed gentlemen are supposed to ‘have a rigid sense of duty and a delicate sense of honour’ (Girouard 51). For middle to high class Victorian men, the rationality of their dominant behaviours could be found through the submission of women. This further strengthens their concept of excessive masculinity which is full of mission and self-indulgence, as they are abusing their positions as Victorian gentlemen and demonstrating the phallocentric attitudes of the nineteenth century. It is evident that the two undergraduates’ body language and stances towards these two women reflect not only haughtiness of some Victorian men, but also societal attitudes towards these types of women in general.
The man in Virtuous is described as such by the title as a virtuous young man who is conversing with a young lady who embodies purity and virginity, whereas, the man in Dissolute’ is shown as a self-indulgent man who is conversing with what Victorian society would have described as a corrupted and immoral woman. It is plausible to suggest, that the difference in countenances of both men show how engaging with the ‘wrong female company’ can corrupt even the most respected and well-regarded of men. However, the reputations of these two men will not be as affected by their involvement with these women. Instead, these two women’s reputations would be severely affected if they were seen alone with the gentlemen, as ‘the custom of chaperonage dictated that a young woman of good family could not go anywhere’ unaccompanied (Mitchell 151). It was also believed that if women were to be spotted alone, they were ‘apt to be harassed by men’ (Mitchell 151), which suggests that women would be the ones at fault if they were to expose themselves to men in public. This shows the difference in attitudes towards what men and women could and could not do at the time. It also indicates how men regardless of social classes would be excused from any blame despite consciously displaying unacceptable behaviour.
In fact, it was well known that the ‘most honourable’ of men in the nineteenth century had secret liaisons and seedy affairs whilst married. Although the public discussion of sexual pleasure was characterized by bashfulness and fear, men were subject to obsessive discussion as a central discourse of power, bent on regulation rather than suppression. To indulge in extra-marital affairs proved to be symbol of male dominance, which explains why the two newly graduated adolescents are seeking female attention. The women however, both appear to disclaim the men’s advances and attempts at engaging in conversation. The woman in The Virtuous Undergraduate is bashfully evading the gentleman’s gaze, whereas the woman in the other painting is glaring directly at her companion, as if disgusted. Solomon depicts both women as resisting the men’s forwardness, in defiance of societal expectations of women to comply with men’s sexual demands.
The situation has been theorized by Butler. The critic discusses the binaries of masculine and feminine desire, arguing that the hetero-sexualisation of desire requires and institutes the production of discrete and asymmetrical oppositions between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, where these are understood as expressive attributes of ‘male’ and ‘female’ (Butler 23). She coined the term ‘the heterosexual matrix’ to describe the assumptions that for people to be culturally intelligible, their biological sex must match their gender, which should presumably coincide with their desires.
Although the men, appearing in slightly different guises, are meeting the requirements of the matrix through desire for the women, it can be argued that The Dissolute Undergraduate depicts the outcome of their youthful desires, should they sustain their ungentlemanly behaviours. The Dissolute painting serves, perhaps, as the inevitable sign that the Virtuous student will corrupt himself to seek sexual pleasure from the darkest corners of Victorian society; in short, young men with newly acquired freedom and status may corrupt themselves with sordid affairs: Solomon not only interrogates the social positions of women, but also questions the strict expectations imposed upon young men. From a young age, they are expected, it can be argued, to follow what Butler defines as a heterosexual performative script – which must be applied to achieve social acceptance. The men in these two works meet these behavioural assumptions in terms of sexual desire: they are biologically male and expressing interest in the opposite sex, but in doing so challenges the conceptions of masculinity enforced upon them as gentlemen. Whereas, these women appear to be following what is socially expected of them as young Victorian women, but rejecting the two men, which does not pertain to Butler’s heterosexual matrix.
The young woman’s behaviour in Virtuous has been influenced by the idea that her identity should be based on the traits she is expected to perform as a moral Victorian woman. Butler comments on how women’s performative scripts are influenced by social systems and that ‘those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished’ (Butler 522). In this case the woman is performing what is expected of her, else she would be branded a tainted, fallen woman. She must disclaim the gentleman’s flattery, as to react with anything other than a dignified composure would be ‘frequently considered as encouragements for further effusions’ (Thornwell 146). It would be expected of this woman to maintain her composure and refrain from any sexual activity. Thus, while Solomon paints her as the idealised Victorian woman through her resistance towards the young man, the fact that she appears alone with him only challenges the traditional conceptions of gender. This reinforces the paradoxical nature of the Victorian era; as noted earlier, as women were not supposed to be in the company of a gentleman on their own as it questions their honour – yet they were expected to submit themselves to men if commanded.
In fact, women were not supposed to go out in public at all, unless chaperoned. Nead proposes that females at that time who were ‘represented as subordinate were also a symbol of sexuality’ (162). In other words, the woman’s submissive gestures are not only a submission to her fate as an oppressed woman, but also a suggestion of her sexuality. This corresponds to the female sexualisation in the era during which unprecedentedly large numbers of women became prostitutes as a result of social and economic pressures (Aiken 89). Women began to realise that their femininity was a strength, and therefore turn to use it to their advantage with regards to courting and securing financial stability. The woman in The Virtuous Undergraduate thus appears as passive in order to promote the vulnerability of her sexuality, to captivate the attention of the young man and acquire control of her own.
The woman in The Dissolute Undergraduate, on the other hand, appears to be in a different situation altogether. Solomon paints her as bruised and dressed in rags, which indicates she is of a lower social class than the gentleman. It is conceivable to argue that the woman’s attendance has been requested by the man to satisfy his sensual pleasures, hence the undergraduate being described as ‘dissolute’ and reading to fuel his ‘pluck’. Whilst we cannot assume that this woman is a prostitute, it is highly likely that she is at the sordid location for that intended purpose, given how the man’s jacket is sprawled against the chair and the garments on the floor. It is even interesting to note the dynamics between the two: their conversation does not appear more than a cold transaction, and that the man is more concerned with continuing in order to fulfil his pleasure.
Of course, the role of the prostitute in Victorian society was paradoxical, as it ‘denied women’s sexuality at the time as it pruriently promoted its existence’ (Garrigan 37). Based on the fact that women in the nineteenth century had huge inequality with men on social conditions, the shamed role of the prostitute reminded women of the potential of their sexual capacities. Many women may have found the profession a reliable source of income. One prostitute declared that ‘she had got tired of service, wanted to see life and be independent; and therefore she became a prostitute … she enjoyed it very much and thought it might be profitable’ (Flanders); after three years, she had saved up enough money to purchase a coffee-house, her own business in her own property.
In light of this, the woman in The Dissolute Undergraduate, appears to trouble societal expectations altogether as she is not only going against every moral value, but may also be concerned with securing a stable financial position and defying the rigid socioeconomic hierarchy that separated the social classes. Women were not supposed to be sexually inclined or own and manage their own property. Solomon questions societal attitudes that favour the reputation of men over the liberties of women.
Through the physical portrayals of the two women and questionable behaviours of the undergraduates, Solomon thus argues that during the nineteenth century women were categorised by their reputation and respectability whilst men abused the social authority that has been entitled to them; and that these women have the ability to take control over their position. Solomon explores these issues in several other paintings.
In The Governess, the well-dressed young woman is of a noble stature. The governess however, is plain; dressed in black, she sits beside the couple’s child, who is currently engaged in a lesson. The governess’s employer is wearing a grand, pink dress that connotes femininity as well as her social status, which contrasts to the fleeting beauty of her employee. The governess appears jealous of the liaison between the couple, judging by her side wards glance towards them. The couple’s relationship reminds the governess of what she could potentially aspire to be – a married woman with her own husband and children, yet she is unable to pursue her true aspirations because of the social conventions enforced upon her as a governess. Her desires have been tainted by the idea that her identity should be based on the traits she is expected to embody in her role. Butler states that the role of the governess entails ‘the exclusion of those who fail to conform to unspoken normative requirements of the subject’ (6). This suggests that the governess’s situation is actually punishing her, because it serves as a constant reminder of what she should be pursuing as a young and fertile woman. If she fails to perform her duty as an educator, she is likely to be socially excluded.
This image is problematic, and reflects the governess’s complex position within society. Millicent Bell outlines what she describes as the paradox of the Victorian governess: ‘she was a lady and yet a worker for wages’ (Bell 26). The governess is supposed to be maternal and dignified in nature, and her role in education indicates her respected upbringing. Yet despite her reflecting traits of the Victorian feminine ideal as caring and nurturing, her investment in wealthy families implies that she is unable to bear her own children. This is paradoxical, as she fails to meet the expectations of ‘lying back and thinking of England’ (Murdoch 113).
Rebecca Solomon’s The Governess.
In this picture, her averted gaze towards the man and woman symbolizes her longing for her own family whilst being consciously aware of her failure in finding a suitor; she is forced to accept the reality of her situation and continue employing her time for the sake of other families. Moreover, the role of the governess is a complicated one in itself, as it troubles gender boundaries as much as it embraces them. Butler’s notion that society represses deviating gender performance, as much as generating heteronormative ideals applies to this painting because of the restrictive nature of the role of the governess. Referring back to Butler’s notion that those who fail to meet gender expectations are penalised by society (522) may refer to the punishment of looking after other people’s children whilst being unable to bear her own.
Similar to the woman in The Virtuous Undergraduate, she is expected to perform her duties as a respectable woman, but also like the woman in The Dissolute Undergraduate, she is being punished by the role which she must uphold. She evidently cares for the child as she is placing a loving hand on the child’s shoulders, but this child is not her offspring, and she has not born any children of her own owing to her professional commitments. It is almost as if society is punishing her for working rather than prioritising marriage and motherhood as she has failed to do her ‘gendered duty’. However, this women aspires to be able to perform her gendered scripts by assuming the role of a reputable mother and wife in order to meet the requirements of the feminine ideal.
But the social stigmatization of women within society and gender performance does not exist by chance. Butler argues that it serves as a system of power structures, which is constantly reproducing and sustaining itself. These power structures both repress deviating gender performance as much as they generate heteronormative gender performance. Although the governess is aspiring to break away from her duties to pursue her own desires to raise a family, what she wants to aspire to achieve is nothing more than what is expected of her as a young woman, and not in any means subverting the script.
The noble woman on the other hand, is entirely negligent in her symbolic role as a mother in this scene, as she proceeds to flirt with her male companion who is gazing at her over the piano; is she perhaps the child’s sister? It is presumed that the man and woman are betrothed, as their flirting would only be respectable if they were romantically involved. It is important to note however, that the woman has no wedding ring on her finger, and similar to the governess and both women in Virtuous and Dissolute, she is not displaying characteristics expected from her at the time – although it is not precisely clear. This woman does not appear uncomfortable in her situation nor does she show any signs of hesitation or doubt, unlike the Governess, who clearly feels uncomfortable. Solomon depicts her standing in an unorthodox pose, which exhibits her flamboyance, of showcasing her privileged social status and in contrast to the governess sitting down.
It is also possible to propose that Solomon’s work harbours an erotic quality. The gynaecologist William Acton stated that ‘The majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind’ (162). The mere fact that the mistress (if that is what she is), is gesturing herself towards the gentleman completely defies societal conventions. Hartley states in The Ladies Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness (1860) that a woman must show a degree of composure in front of others, and ‘to be truly a lady, one must carry principles into every circumstance of life … and never forget to extend the gentle courtesies of life in every one’ (4). Hartley’s manual is exactly what a middle class woman would be expected to turn to for guidance regarding social situations. However, the flirtatious woman in this pictures opposes these ideals by acting with anything but modesty. She explicitly displays her sexual desire by gesturing towards the man whilst seductively gazing at him. It could be argued that her hand is deliberately placed near the man’s groin; and she exerts her authoritative control by standing over him while he is utterly captivated by her. Such posing subverts the power dynamic between Victorian men and women entirely. In light of Butler, this woman does not meet the performative script assigned to young women at the time. The supposedly wealthy women in this painting appears to be more concerned with flirting than preserving a sense of propriety.
It is important to note, that Solomon’s female subjects within this painting trouble the typical dynamic between male and female characters in art. Laura Mulvey outlines the usual interactions between male and female subjects in art: the male character is predominantly the active subject and capable of enacting change, whereas the female character becomes nothing more than an object upon which the plot is projected (837). Mulvey also comments that the sexual imbalance between male and female subjects is a source of pleasure in the spectator, as it validates the expectations society has instilled into them. This is apparent given the male-centric nature of the art community during the Victorian era. Solomon’s work however, particularly in The Governess and A Birthday Gift subvert the sexual imbalance in that the female subjects are the active protagonists who are driving the plot forward. Both the man and the young boy are entirely reliant on their female counterparts: the young boy is dependent on his tutor, as the man is enchanted by the flamboyancy of the noble woman. As Butler proposes, to fulfil the heterosexual matrix, each gender must pertain to their performative script in terms of sexuality and behaviour. The woman does fit into the heterosexual matrix by her showing of sexual curiosity towards a male counterpart, but opposes the script in terms of acting provocatively whilst maintaining her control over the submissive gentleman. Solomon in these paintings highlights how even women with a reputable upbringing long to break away from the traditional gender scripts that repress society, and long to achieve their own desires.
A Birthday Gift
Similar to the noble woman in The Governess, the woman in A Birthday Gift(1861, Private Collection), appears to come from a respectable middle-class background. The woman is gifted jewellery by a man. Her facial expression appears complacent, yet frustrated, causing the viewer to wonder what she was gazing at through the window, prior to the man’s approach. Looking at the painting, the woman’s potential is symbolised by the plant at the window, in which the flora portray the image of the ideal garden: lush and fertile, which also presents the image of the ideal woman. The flowers harbour all possibilities of growth and freedom, while simultaneously asserting the reality of the woman’s seclusion. The woman’s own possibility of growth is obstructed by the window, reminding the viewers of the isolated nature of the social spheres in which the woman is expected to remain. What the woman saw through the window may have shown her the possibility of acquiring her own independence. Her potential however, is obstructed by the window that she was gazing through before the man approached her with a stereotypically feminine gift. The mere fact that there is evidence of an outer space implies that she is aware of her potential to be liberated from the restraints of her partner and room. The concept of ‘hors champ’ or in other words, ‘out of scope’, highlights the dynamic ‘between the pictorial space and the notional world that exists outside the picture’ (Hibberd 146). The concept emphasizes how the woman is restricted by her situation within the painting whilst being conscious of the goings on of reality outside of the room. Also, the fact that she is holding onto one of the flowers picked from the plant facing the outside world implies that she was facing the window and possibly watching something outside of it. Although the woman appears to meet the expectations of Butler’s performative script by remaining within her own domesticated private sphere, her curiosity towards what is going on outside implies her curiosity in the goings on beyond her social sphere. It is only the man, who theoretically holds her back from exploring it further.
The man who is literally collaring this woman with his gift embodies the male-centric attitudes of men and how they genuinely believed they did right by their wives, daughters and other female relations. Ann Oakley discusses the ‘safety’ of the home depicted by husbands for their wives and recalls what a feminist supporter stated in 1825: ‘Home … is the eternal prison-house of the wife: the husband paints it as the abode of calm bliss, but takes care to find out of doors, for his own use, a species of bliss not quite so calm’ (Oakley 19). The gentleman in A Birthday Gift encloses the woman from any exits to ensure that she remains within that space. In contrast to their male counterparts, bourgeois women in the nineteenth century could either remain at home or venture out in select public spaces only if accompanied by a male or ‘proper’ chaperone. Because of these restrictions, female experiences were limited. The woman in this painting is constricted by this space and husband, and is therefore limited of her independence – even within her designated ‘private’ sphere. It is further apparent that the man has just returned from exploring the outside world due to the placing of his hat on the plush stool. Solomon paints the woman bearing a slightly irritated expression whilst being accosted by the gentleman to express her own frustrations of being unable to fully acquire independence. Solomon would have also been unable to access public space without a male relative by her side, which explains why she never owned her own studio, and spent a large proportion of her career painting alongside her brothers.
Griselda Pollock discusses how contemporary gender roles impacted the subject matter depicted by women artists. She states that artworks produced by women ‘do not represent the territory which their colleagues who were men so freely occupied and made use of in their works’ (Pollock 56). This reinforces that although there were pioneering female artists such as Solomon who challenged gender logic, they were still constricted by their inability to explore and paint the same spaces that male artists were exclusive to. Solomon, much like her female subject in this painting was restricted – by the very scenarios that she painted and critiqued.
The gentleman in A Birthday Gift is adhering to the ‘social construction’ of masculinity: he appears to be acting protectively towards his female counterpart by encircling her and gifting her with a necklace that he most likely purchased in town. It was expected of men to go out and bring produce back whilst the woman stayed home. Charles E. Hurst proposes ideas similar to that of Butler, and states that society ‘automatically determines one’s gender demeanour and role as well as one’s sexual orientation’ (377). We automatically assume that the man is living up to the gentlemanly expectations imposed upon him, similar to that of the gentlemen in Virtuous and Dissolute. However his leaning towards the woman whilst alone in a dark and enclosed setting may indicate the man’s wishes for some privacy. Although we may read this painting as a harmless exchange between what appears to be a married couple, it is plausible to point out that there is intimacy in the two characters’ embrace. Despite the frustrations the woman may feel in terms of her restricted social situation, she does not show signs of reluctance in being so close to this man. The lack of space between the two implies how the two are comfortable in each other’s company. The couple in this painting pertain to the characteristics of typical Pre-Raphaelite subjects, as the woman in particular is challenging pre-existing conceptions of womanly behaviour.
Sophia Andres proposes that the Pre-Raphaelite art such as this picture acknowledges the ‘sexuality of a mature woman in a way that is difficult to reconcile with our conventional preconceptions about the Victorians’ (63). As noted earlier, women were not permitted to enjoy sexual intimacy, let alone if they were married or mature. Sexual appetite was a ‘male quality’, and revisiting Butler’s comments on the ‘asymmetrical oppositions between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’’ (23), it is assumed that sexual pleasure is a ‘male’ behavioural trait. One could suggest that the mature woman in this painting is complying with the man’s proximity, which subverts behavioural expectations of gender entirely. When looking at the painting closer, sexuality entirely pervades the painting, depicting what can be perceived as phallic objects. Solomon depicts a phallic hat on the right with an open wide casket resting against it, as well as the phallic indoor plant resting by the window, all of which connote sexual desire. This in turn, reinforces the potentially intimate nature of this scene. Nevertheless, it is important to note that objects highlight the sexual difference between male and female. Butler concludes that the idea of the phallus centres on the notion of a ‘divide’, a primary or fundamental split that renders the subject internally divided and that establishes the duality of the sexes’ (73–74). Indeed, Butler claims that the phallic signifier completely reiterates the traditional binaries of gender. Regardless of what it implies, the woman remaining in her precarious position still questions gender logic; and the woman’s frustration with her confinement implies Solomon’s own personal and professional frustrations.
Rebecca Solomon’s The Appointment or The Letter.
The woman’s situation in A Birthday Gift (1864) is similar to another of Solomon’s paintings – The Appointment (1861, Geffrye Museum, London). The woman in this image is being approached by a man whilst being limited to her own private room. The painting is characteristic of Solomon’s style, as it retains its story whilst having an element of ambiguity. It has been speculated that Solomon herself was the model. The female subject is to bear a certain resemblance to that of Simeon Solomon’s The Painter’s Pleasurance (1862) in which Rebecca was confirmed as the sitter. She also bears a striking resemblance to the young poacher’s mother in Solomon’s other work The Lion and the Mouse (1865). However, as Pamela Gerrish-Nunn observed, ‘this theory has yet to be substantiated’ (Marsh & Gerrish-Nunn 163).
In The Appointment the young woman appears to have received a letter from an older man whose reflection appears in the mirror, but her emotional state and relationship with him remain unclear, and the letter may have been sent from an unknown source. She appears to be of a certain age and is dressed as if she is in mourning. Given the intricately decorated furniture and the grandeur of the room’s reflection in the mirror, this woman comes from a middle-class Victorian background similar to that of The Governess and A Birthday Gift. When analysing this painting, it is clear to see Solomon’s restricted experiences as a young middle class woman herself, as most reflected in her limited range of subjects.
As previously mentioned when discussing A Birthday Gift, Pollock explores ways in which nineteenth century women were restrained by societal expectations which meant they largely remained at home. Unless Solomon was with a family member or chaperone, she would not have been able to experience studying the outside world and expanding her art’s subject matter to more than that of a dressing parlour. As Eleanor Gordon comments, ‘middle-class women’s behaviour in public was an important means to preserving class differentiation’ (229), a priority to maintain. That was because it was thought that the more visible the respectable women were, the more likely that would encourage ‘disreputable’ women to roam more public streets – and risk the undesirable integration of the social classes. Judith and Daniel Walkowitz argue that ‘women’s freedom in the city was constrained by the ever present danger of being mistaken for a prostitute (111). According to Butler, middle-class women were required to remain at home to satisfy what society expected of them, so that ‘identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results’ (25). This explains why the identity of the Victorian woman in history is that of a meek and submissive one. The ‘expressions’ that Butler says establishes gender identity are enforced by society for women to live up to. At first glance, we automatically assume the woman’s social identity through how she is presented and the scenario in which she is painted.
The woman in this painting bears the same frustrations Solomon must have felt, as she is glaring at the man who has just freely walked into her private space. She also seems irritated with being disturbed from her reading, indicating that correspondence is important. It is worthy pointing out that she has a large collection of letters stored on the wall and stuffed in the frames of the mirror. Whether they be a collection of ignored missives or eagerly anticipated correspondence, it is clear to see the woman’s irritability, and this feeling can again be explained in relation to its time.
The concept of the woman receiving letters is a reflection of the vast improvement in the postal service, following the invention of the penny post by Sir Rowland Hill in 1840, and suggests that the woman, would have largely communicated through the medium of letter sending, as it was considered a ‘proper private–sphere activity’ (Mahoney 411). As John Todd remarks, ‘it is more than an accomplishment for a young lady to write a beautiful letter, though an accomplishment of the highest kind; it is a positive duty’ (132). In this case, the woman is meeting the requirements of the Victorian feminine ideal, as she is engaging with an activity expected of her social status and gender, conforming to Butler’s performative script. However, the fact that she has a vast amount of letters, perhaps unopened and sporadically scattered around her indicates that she is not entirely performing what is expected of her by abandoning her letters in her grief. Interestingly, the letters are stacked around the perimeters of the woman’s mirror. One could suggest that, as in The Governess, the woman is constantly being reminded of the expectations of her role and what she must fulfil to achieve social approval. The letters are constantly in her eye line when she looks at the mirror, hence why she may be turning away. Regardless of whether the man’s intrusion has attracted her attention, the fact that she is looking away from her vast collection indicates a defiance towards performing her ‘duty’. As Moya Lloyd points out in light of Butler, applying universal identities to gender intends to ‘exclude those who fail to fit with its ‘descriptivist ideal’ (38). This woman appears to be ignoring the activities assigned for her gender and socioeconomic status, and the array of letters serves as reminders of her isolation.
It is implied that the news she has received is grave news, given her expression. It is therefore most likely to assume that the woman is in mourning of someone, wearing dark clothing, having a pained expression and is alone prior to the heavily whiskered man’s intrusion. Of course, it was expected of Victorian widows to curtail social behaviour for a certain length of time. The length of mourning depended on the widow’s relationship with the deceased; widows were expected to wear full mourning attire and seclude for a period of time. Widowhood for women was perceived as a devastating experience on women whose central role was to be the spiritual guardian of the family. As a consequence, widows were ‘set apart from society … a final destiny and an involuntary commitment to a form of social exile’ (231).
The widow in this painting, like every widow in the nineteenth century fails her gender right (522) by being unable to protect her husband and home. Victorian widows were socially exiled for something beyond their control, and Solomon covertly challenges the notion in this work. Solomon paints this woman as failing to accept her fate as a widow by abandoning her duties and expectations enforced upon her by society, whilst being punished for something beyond her control such as her late partner’s demise.
She might also be mourning the total loss of her independence, as ‘few alternatives existed for middle and upper class widows, other than teaching for a pittance, and spinsters were often seen as human failures’ (230). She would be considered too emotionally bereft with few expectations of her to remarry. The social and cultural identity of a widow was shaped by her relationship to the deceased. The trappings of widowhood reminded Victorian society that the role of the widow was not entirely independent, as her apparent independence is still tied to her unrelenting bond with her husband beyond the grave. The few widows who did remarry prioritised their children’s economic future over marrying for love, as widows were often excluded from any inheritance from their husband’s property. While the legal and social systems pressured them against remarriage, financial survival pressured them into it.
That being said, the liminal space the widow occupied in society came with its privileges. A widow with young and dependent children ruled her household with similar authority that her husband may have exercised. Unlike a married woman, a widow could engage in economic discussion, speak in court and make decisions with regards to her children and property. This is perhaps what the painting’s title is referring to. Indeed, the painting’s title, The Appointment, may indicate the fact that the man is entering the woman’s room to either inform her of an upcoming appointment or has arrived to attend the appointment himself; and the appointment may well be concerned with such economic matters.
This situation suggests the paradoxical nature of the widow within society, which is similar to the role of the women in The Governess and the prostitute in The Dissolute Undergraduate. In each case, the roles trouble gender boundaries as much as they embrace them. The The Appointmentman could also be interpreted as a voyeur, spying on the woman initially unseen. Mulvey’s concept of ‘male gaze’ can be applied here, as the man’s looking at the woman sitting in the room is simultaneous with the male viewer’s gaze. The male subject in this painting represents how Victorian women were always under the watchful eye of a male-centric society. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the woman in this painting takes her place as the active subject, rather than the passive object that her viewers would expect her to be. Mulvey’s perception of the female subject in art as the ‘bearer of meaning not the maker of meaning’ (15) cannot be applied here, because the woman appears as the active protagonist, in contrast to the man who appears more passive. Solomon here covertly criticises how women were incessantly watched and judged by men, but proves that women have the capacity to take control of their own positions. In short, the key female social roles depicted in Solomon’s work adhere to their performative scripts as well as challenging them. By using her platform as an exhibiting artist, Solomon critiques attitudes towards gender and social class while showing the frustrations of her own social position and those of other marginalised figures.
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Created 28 September 2021