Nineteenth Century Women Artists, Medievalism, & Their Legacy

Suffrage and the roles and rights of women were matters of deep concern and profound debate throughout the nineteenth century, spurred by Mary Wollstonecraft’s seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792. For the Victorians, men and women were meant to exist in “separate spheres”: men in the public sphere and women in the private, or domestic, sphere. An ideal woman was expected to be passive and pure. Queen Victoria herself consciously modeled a femininity centered around motherhood and decency. However, in the 1850s and 1860s women activists sought the reform of marriage, education, property, and employment laws. Additionally, women authors and artists of the time turned to medieval and fantastical themes to express current political and social beliefs.

Because of new printing technology and access, women were able to participate in the book trade more than ever before. Early women writers tended to publish anonymously or under a male pseudonym. As literacy rates increased, the public’s demand for new writing allowed women to openly join the writing workforce. Many women first wrote on more “feminine” topics such as fashion or domestic tranquility but would soon publish their own stories and engage in popular topics or themes of the time, such as medievalism. This repurposing of historical narratives and motifs was in itself subversive, as the vast majority of surviving medieval literature was male-dominated. Through adaptation and transformation, women artists and authors both explicitly and subtly modified male-centric narratives and reclaimed lost and forgotten women’s voices. The end of the Victorian Era saw the rise of the “New Woman,” a movement in which authors depicted rebellious heroines who fought against the gendered ideas of passivity and “separate spheres” in favor of independence and suffrage.