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Women in the European Art of the Late 19th Century Essay

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Updated: Jun 16th, 2020

The European art of the late 19th century is characterized by the painters’ focus on depicting women as the main subject of their works. In spite of the fact that many artists of the 19th century worked to portray females in their paintings, the authors’ styles and approaches to representing the women’s nature and their role in the society differ significantly, as it can be understood with references to the works painted by John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Aubrey Beardsley, and Gustav Klimt.

In his work Mariana, Millais represents his vision of a medieval woman living in the Victorian idea, as it was typical for the Pre-Raphaelites’ paintings in the 19th century. The woman becomes the main subject of the art works in the late part of the 19th century, but artists choose to refer to the traditions of the Middle Ages in depicting females. Thus, Mariana depicted in Millais’ painting seems to be rather static, distant, and weary, as it is common for the representations of women according to the Gothic traditions. The females in the Pre-Raphaelites’ paintings of the discussed period are associated with enigma and melancholy valued in the Victorian works.

John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1850-1851
John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1850-1851

The opposite image of a seductive female is observed in the painting of the other Pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His Bocca Baciata depicts a woman who is traditionally isolated and melancholic, but now she can be discussed as an erotic subject. The woman’s long vivid hair, bright rose lips, full neck and face, and the unbuttoned dress attract the viewer’s attention and make think about seduction. The title of the painting translated as the ‘kissed lips’ can add to focusing on the sexual associations.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata, 1859
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata, 1859

If the woman in Bocca Baciata is a seductress, the woman in Aubrey Beardsley’s The Climax is an embodiment of a masculinized female person who is rather equal to men. The image of depicted Salome is provocative for the Victorian era because this portrayed woman makes the male dominance in the world rather questionable. Salome is depicted as a sinister and cruel androgynous person who is not associated with beauty.

Aubrey Beardsley, The Climax, 1893
Aubrey Beardsley, The Climax, 1893

The late part of the 19th century is associated with the representations of females in the works by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). Klimt also focused on depicting women as seductresses, but he chose to put their images in interesting contexts in order to accentuate the beauty. Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is an example of depicting the woman with the help of gold leaves and intensive colors in order to emphasize the nature of the female as a goddess.

The technique of ornamentation adds to creating the isolated image of a woman who is perceived by the author as a goddess because of her eroticism and beauty. However, the accentuated distance from the viewer has the other effect on the audience than the melancholic portraying typical for the Pre-Raphaelites.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907
Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907

The depictions of women in the European art of the late 19th century are important to be discussed in detail because of the variety of approaches used by artists to represent the female subject in their works. Thus, women in paintings can be portrayed as isolated melancholic figures, as seductresses, as masculinized creatures, and even as goddesses.

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