There are quite a few examples of talented female artists in Jane Austen’s novels. Georgiana Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is portrayed as a girl who could both play instruments and execute good paintings and drawings:
The picture-gallery, and two or three of the principal bedrooms, were all that remained to be shewn. In the former were many good paintings; but Elizabeth knew nothing of the art; and from such as had been already visible below, she had willingly turned to look at some drawings of Miss Darcy’s in crayons, whose subjects were usually more interesting, and also more intelligible.
And in Sense and Sensiblity it is Elinor who is the artist. Marianne plays the piano with passion, but the more emotionally restrained Elinor paints. Her drawings decorate the walls of the sitting room at Barton Cottage, and she, very kindly given all the circumstances, painted some screens for her dreadful sister-in-law,Fanny, which were nastily dismissed by the equally foul Mrs Ferrars:
Before her removing from Norland, Elinor had painted a very pretty pair of screens for her sister-in-law, which being now just mounted and brought home, ornamented her present drawing room; and these screens, catching the eye of John Dashwood on his following the other gentlemen into the room, were officiously handed by him to Colonel Brandon for his admiration.
”These are done by my eldest sister,” said he; “and you, as a man of taste, will, I dare say, be pleased with them. I do not know whether you ever happened to see any of her performances before, but she is in general reckoned to draw extremely well.”
The Colonel, though disclaiming all pretensions to connoisseurship, warmly admired the screens, as he would have done anything painted by Miss Dashwood; and the curiosity of the others being of course excited, they were handed round for general inspection. Mrs. Ferrars, not aware of their being Elinor’s work, particularly requested to look at them; and after they had received the gratifying testimony of Lady Middleton’s approbation, Fanny presented them to her mother, considerately informing her at the same time, that they were done by Miss Dashwood.
”Hum” — said Mrs. Ferrars — “very pretty,” — and without regarding them at all, returned them to her daughter.
So…the question naturally arises, what might these painting, by these accomplished ladies, have looked like? We have some examples that have survived from the early 19th century before us to examine. First, Diana Spurling’s quirky watercolours of life with her family in Regency Essex, as collected in the book, Mrs Hurst Dancing. Here we see her mother, Mrs Spurling and her accomplice , the maid, murdering flies:
And we have the evidence of a talented child’s efforts in the book, A Picture History of the Grenville Family of Rosedale House, which contains the work of Mary Yelloly. She documented the lives of the members of her fictional family, the Grenvilles. Mary painted these interesting watercolours from the age of eight to 11 years. Astonishing.
But there were more technically gifted examples, and I do like to think that both Elinor and Georgiana were artists of the more professionally accomplished kind. Certainly Georgiana would have and the opportunity of being instructed by the best masters while living in Town. her brother would no doubt have seen to that. And possibly this would have been the situation with Elinor, until the Dashwood’s wealthy life style ended with the death of their father. Some examples of the best possible watercolours executed by accomplished ladies is currently on show at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It is a small but exquisite display of botanical watercolours by Pierre-Joseph Redoute and his pupils, the kind of small but perfectly formed event that Fitzwilliam excels at producing on a regular basis.
Redoute is of course well-known for his watercolours of roses and lilies, commissioned by the Empress Josephine, and it is interesting to note that he was also patronised by Queen Marie Antoinette prior to the Revolution. His works have become almost ubiquitous, and his Rosa Mundi rose, seen below, has been used on countless greetings cards and framed on many a bed and breakfast/hotel wall. As a result it is very easy to no longer “see” them as the exquisite works of art they are. Familiarity does indeed breed contempt.
However , the opportunity to rediscover these paintings by Redoute redresses this jaded view: his works on display in this exhibit are simply breath-taking. The skill on display is astounding. But I was most intrigued to discover that, in addition to producing such beautiful watercolours, he also ran a school of painting in Paris. In 1822 he became Paintre du Roi, and began teaching members of the d’Orleans family as well as other students from Paris and from overseas. His school was based in the sale de Buffon in the Jardin des Plantes, and you can see him teaching, standing in the centre of the illustration below:
Note the overwhelming number of women students…Some were members of the Royal family or were aristocrats. This watercolour of a bunch of summer flowers is an example of the work of Eugenie-Adelaide-Louise d’Orleans, the sister of King Louis-Phillipe:
But some students were more ordinary souls. This delicate watercolour of camellias was executed by one Sarah Bray:
Sarah was an Englishwoman. Born in Sunderland she exhibited watercolors of flowers at the Royal Academy in 1821, but by 1835 she was the headmistress of a boarding school at Chaillot where she died in 1842.
If you can get to this exhibit, which closes on October 30th, then do. Entrance to it and the rest of the museum is free. A small but exquisite catalogue of the exhibits, with fascinating biographical details of the artists is available from the museum’s shop. I would have happily paid to see these rare and exquisite examples of the work of amateur men and more importantly, women from nearly all classes who were painting, like Elinor Dashwood and Georgiana Darcy, in the early 19th century. It was a rare opportunity to discover exactly what sort of work they may have been capable of producing.