Friday, July 27, 2018

Female Academics in the Eighteenth Century

I was alerted on Twitter that yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Elena Cornaro Piscopia - which is as fun a name to spell as it it is to pronounce, but alas, many are still unfamiliar with Elena.

Elena was a Venetian who, in 1678, was the first woman to receive her PhD.  Her doctorate was in Philosophy as her true love, Theology was deemed inappropriate for woman - baby steps toward progress, I suppose.  She was awarded it at the age of 32 which I personally think an excellent age to gain a PhD *wink*.  Elena's successes has made me wonder about female academics in the age of Enlightenment, though.  Sadly, sexism and gender division was still rampant during the so-called Age of Enlightenment and that unfortunately didn't produce many female academics.  However, that did mean the few to come out of the eighteenth century, were exceptional women indeed.

Dr Laura Bassi, was another Italian woman who earned her PhD in 1732.  Unlike Elena, Laura was interested in the Sciences, more specifically, Physics.  She defended her thesis at the age of 20 (!), becoming the second woman to hold a doctorate, 54 years after Elena.  She devoted much of her academic career to spreading the study of Newtonian mechanics to Italy.  In 1776, at the age of 65, she applied and was appointed to the chair in experimental physics by the Bologna Institute of Sciences, making her the first woman to earn a professorship.  Perhaps the best part: her supportive husband, who also had his doctorate, became her teaching assistant.

The mathematician, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, like Laura Bassi, would also be elected to a chair.  In 1750 she became a professor of mathematics,natural philosophy, and  physics at the University of Bologna which was apparently a very forward-thinking university in the eighteenth century.  Maria was an amazing mathematician, the likes of which I could never convey as someone who struggles with basic arithmetics.

If you're not Italian and starting to feel ashamed for your country of origins' historic lack of female empowerment in academia, have no fear, there is one more female academic.  Oh wait...she's Italian too.

Dr Maria Pellegrina Amoretti was awarded her Doctor of Law at the University of Pavia at the age of 20 (!) in 1777.  She initially applied to the University of Turin but was turned away because of her sex - get with the times, Turin!  Sadly, she only lived for a decade more after receiving her degree but in that time she worked on dowry laws, meaning she used her privileged position to help make other women's lives better.

Friday, July 13, 2018

British and French Print Media's and the Death of Marat

On this day in 1793 a young French woman named Charlotte Corday sought a meeting with the prominent French revolutionary, Jean-Paul Marat, promising information on an future uprising.  After being turned away in the morning, Corday was admitted in the evening to Marat's bathroom, where he conducted business now due to a debilitating skin disease that kept him submerged in his bathtub.  Corday recited the names of dissidents while Marat wrote them down, proclaiming that they would soon be guillotined.  This was Corday's cue; she drew out a kitchen knife hidden in her clothing and stabbed Marat in his chest, killing him almost instantly.  She then calmly waited for the police to apprehend her and was guillotined four days later.

Corday hoped that this act of violence would put an end to the violence of the French Revolution which she felt was now out of hand.  She blamed Marat for the excessive and repulsive bloodshed and she was not alone in this sentiment.  A search in the British Museum's collection of prints reveals a stark contrast in how France and Britain interpreted the assassination. 

Anonymous, 1793

Paul André Basset, 1793

Corday is often portrayed in French prints as a savage (though well-dressed) beast of a woman.
Isaac Cruikshank, 1793

William Holland, 1793

Whereas in British prints she is often depicted as a pretty young woman stabbing a buffoon.  One example is my favourite image of Corday, by James Gillray which portrays her with the dignity and grace of an eighteenth-century heroine. 

There are many depictions of the event by French and British printmakers that survive and of course, not all of them can fit within these two categories.  Notably this French print which is thought to have been printed a few years after the dust had settled and seems to give an accurate representation of Corday's arrest.  She sits patiently, next to victim while men rush in to apprehend her.

Jacques Swebach-Desfontaines, c. 1793-8

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Devonshire Children's Portraits

Henry Howard, Harriet Cavendish, 1798
Henry Howard was a well-known portraitist and history painter in the late- eighteenth and early- nineteenth centuries, who unfortunately doesn't get as much notice nowadays.  Luckily, his visit to the Devonshire family around 1798 resulted in three portraits of Georgiana's three [legitimate] children, Little G, Harryo, and Hart.  Though, I must apologise for the not-so-great quality of the photos of these portraits which now hang in the King William bedroom at Althorp, you can still decipher a certain je ne sais quoi quality to these portraits.  What is it...what is it...oh I know!

Awkward adolescence.

Henry Howard, Georgiana Dorothy Cavendish, 1798
These three portraits were painted when the painfully shy Little G was about 15, the painfully awkward Harryo was about 13, and Hart (who, perhaps, doesn't look totally uncomfortable) was about 9 or 10.  The ages of the daughters, specifically, is of interest because, outside of the rare family group portrait, adolescence is rarely commemorated in portraiture.  Baby and childhood portraits were common enough, and young women were often painted before they were married, or at least when they were in the marriage market.  However, this strange and, somewhat brief, period of youth was rarely portrayed in individual portraits.

 You can almost imagine adult Little G and Harryo cringing every time they passed these portraits; cursing their hair do and choice of headband.  While Little G's posture hints at a discomfort in sitting for her portrait, Harryo's somewhat more confident pose is mismatched with her still childish appearance.  ...and yeah, um, Hart just looks like any elite little boy-heir of the time in his portrait, so I'm just gonna leave that here as a contrast to his poor sisters.  In conclusion, rich eighteenth-century teenagers, they're just like us.  That would make the Devonshires similar to our camera-weilding parents and grandparents, snapping photos of their teenagers out of love, blind to any awkwardness.   When Howard was commissioned with these portraits, by either the Devonshires, or Lady Spencer, the children had already endured a two-year absence of their mother, after she was exiled to the continent by their father upon discovering her pregnant with Earl Grey's child.  It may be safe to say the separation of family members influenced commissioning such portraits.
Henry Howard, William Cavendish, Marquis of Hartington, 1799

If you would like to see these portraits, they are on display in Althorp House, amongst other lovely family pictures of Georgiana and her Spencer siblings as children.  However, if you can't make it to the glorious home, Althorp's website now has an amazing virtual tour.

Monday, August 28, 2017

New Video Detailing the Ritual of Dressing

The Lady Lever Gallery in Liverpool has commissioned a video detailing how well-to-do women dressed in the eighteenth century.  The seven-minute long video produced by Pauline Loven and made by Crow's Eye Productions leaves no one pondering why getting dressed (or undressed) required the help of another person.  To think, it only shows dressing, and not even other daily rituals such as styling hair or cosmetics; it makes me feel much better about how long it takes me to get ready in the morning!

I love this video for its portrayal of a rather mundane activity that is often forgotten about when we look at portraits, such as the Lady Lever Gallery's own Mrs Peter Beckford by Joshua Reynolds. My one critique is that as the narrator begins talking about pockets, the model is handed what looks like a giant popsicle stick and slips it down her stays between her breasts.  Quite a loud omission in my humble opinion!  The item in question is a busk, which added additional structure to the stays.  According to dress historian extraordinaire, Elisabeth Gernerd, they were often decorated with love poems due to being 'worn next to the heart' (I may or may not have questioned her anatomical accuracy was when she told me that).  Busks aside, this is a fantastic video to provide you with a better idea of just how intensive and time-consuming it was for privileged women to dress every day.