She saw — no, not saw, but felt — through and through a picture; she bestowed upon it all the warmth and richness of a woman’s sympathy; not by any intellectual effort, but by this strength of heart, and this guiding light of sympathy.1

In her recent book Women Writing Art History in the Nineteenth Century, Hilary Fraser observes that in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (1860), Hilda’s visual agency is subsumed into the vision of the master painter.2 Hilda is widely regarded as being modelled on Hawthorne’s wife, the painter and illustrator Sophia Peabody Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s reference to a ‘woman’s sympathy’ prompts a wider consideration of the gendering of aesthetic response in novels of the period. Indeed, The Marble Faun is one of numerous texts, most famously Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies (1865), which set out artistic roles for women in the Victorian period.

Descriptions and images of women as viewers of art and art gallery visitors offer one avenue for exploring women’s aesthetic experience. Although public, museums and galleries quickly became identified as preferred spaces for women visitors. Victorian writers and theorists posited a gendered dichotomy between the temperaments of the sexes.3 The temperament of feminine viewers meant they were uniquely capable of a particular kind of appreciation of art objects. Women had a propensity for sympathy and religious feeling which gave them a particular authority in ‘feeling through art’. In the Victorian period feeling and sentimentality were deployed in the definition of gender roles and norms in relation to art. However, these were complicated at the end of the century with shifts in approaches to understanding aesthetic experience. Writers turned to scientific approaches in order to analyse how viewers looked at and experienced paintings. The move from physiognomy to physiology was influenced by Darwinian accounts and the emergence of the science of psychology.4 Women were among the art writers who contributed to this new understanding, and the tempera revival c. 1900 was a locus for rethinking gendered aesthetic experience. A distinctly feminine feeling or propensity for sentimentality was overlaid with empiricism and scientific or technical methods of interpreting fine art. We can see this at work in representations of women’s relationship with art.

I will begin this article with a discussion of recent scholarship that addresses how women ‘looked’ in museums as a way of thinking about women ‘feeling through a picture’ whether by ‘intellectual effort’ or otherwise. There are numerous images of women in museums and galleries from this period. How were women visitors to art museums and exhibitions represented visually? Do these images support the association of the female viewer with a ‘woman’s sympathy’ or challenge it? Some of the women featured in museum spaces were at work copying the paintings visible on the walls. These women copyists echoed Hawthorne’s transformation of Hilda in chapter 6 of The Marble Faun:

All that she would henceforth attempt — and that, most reverently, not to say, religiously — was to catch and reflect some of the glory which had been shed upon canvas from the immortal pencils of old.

     So Hilda became a copyist. (I, 77)

Were the women artists and viewers depicted in museum spaces similarly intent on utilizing their feminine ‘sympathy’ to admire the glory of Old Master paintings? Or, on the contrary, is it possible to locate examples of a more engaged visual agency among female viewers?

The second section of this article will ask how Victorian notions of female temperament intersected with the modern revival of tempera painting. Tempera and temperament have a common Latin root, of course, but I will argue that a more significant entanglement of the two can be found in women’s aesthetic experience and engagement. Temperament was historically associated with a mixing of elements, while tempera was produced through the mixing of pigment and binder; temperament could be determined by the relative proportion of humours. Temperament implies a balance of tempers, but a mixing of emotions also suggests a degree of ambiguity and contestation that resonated within the period. The revival of tempera painting prompted renewed debate about aesthetic experience that emerged in the work of women artists and writers. Here I will examine the writings of Alice Meynell alongside the work of the artist Marianne Stokes, before moving on to briefly consider the artist and writer Christiana Herringham who also published at the fin de siècle. For these women artists, copying and the study of early Renaissance paintings was crucial to their artistic practice. Did these artists then fulfil, like Hilda, the role of the woman copyist? Stokes was, like Hilda, intent on studying canvasses ‘of old’ but, as Meynell argued, this careful study was in order to undertake her own reverential paintings through tempera, rather than reflecting the ‘glory’ of Renaissance artists. In other words, these early Renaissance paintings centred on religious subject matter and Stokes’s own capacity for religious feeling enabled her to depict similar subjects. Herringham similarly took up tempera painting, but as a method of examining and authentically reproducing ‘old’ paintings. The work of Meynell, Stokes, and Herringham can be mapped onto a point where contemporary and historical fine art collide or even collude. Will the revival of tempera instigate a revival of ‘feeling’ in art? What will become clear is that their engagement with ‘feeling’ and ‘sentiment’ was not straightforward. Nor were they necessarily unified in their approach. While alert to the new possibilities the medium may offer, they were engaging with it in relation to spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual judgement. In short, these women art critics felt ambivalent about feeling.

Women in museums/objects and feeling

How were women visitors to art museums and exhibitions represented? There is a long critical history of the equation of women viewers with sentimentality. In her recent book Museum Bodies, Helen Rees-Leahy quotes the eighteenth-century writer on physiognomy James Lavater on the deficiencies of the bourgeois woman viewer: ‘A man observes’ and ‘a woman glances and feels’.5 Nancy Rose Marshall has linked this gendered split to the emerging field of ophthalmology where women were thought to be anatomically weaker and subject to ocular disturbance as a result of the female reproductive system.6 Rees-Leahy locates women in museums in a chapter titled ‘Disquieting Bodies’, alongside working-class visitors and children. Victorian readers were regaled with anecdotes of women’s susceptibility to sentiment in galleries and a tendency to be overcome with emotion. This phenomenon, named in 1989 as Stendhal syndrome, was in fact associated initially with the eponymous writer (the pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle) who early in the nineteenth century described being overwhelmed by emotion in Santa Croce in Florence. Sentimentalism, often inflected by gender, remains a much maligned aspect of Victorian art, and the recent ‘Victorian Sentimentality’ display at Tate Britain offered opportunities for its re-evaluation. Assessments of sentimentality, as Carolyn Burdett highlights, have been dominated by its critique by late-Victorian aestheticism and literary modernism. In her analysis of empathy as the end of sentimentality, Burdett argues that while the end of the century marks some kind of end for Victorian sentimentality, it is more partial and more complex (‘Is Empathy’, p. 261). Analogously, in fine art the break with sentiment was not complete. Pamela Fletcher has analysed the continued Edwardian presence of narrative in the ‘problem picture’ and its popular association with a female viewer.7

The representation of women in museums both textually and visually later in the century attests to their increasing occupation of these public spaces. Vernon Lee was alert to the gender of the spectator and subverted this wonderfully with her pronouncement that

women do better in a gallery, are more tolerable than men, because skirts and hats make them in a slight degree architectural: and because the action of their gait is dissimulated. A well-hung skirt is one which substitutes a more agreeable movement to the real one of their legs.8

Although women gallery-goers in skirts and hats were not new, images of them recur across the nineteenth century. A familiar example is James Tissot’s painting of a group of people standing in the portico of the National Gallery, London Visitors (c. 1874) (Fig. 1). Marshall has identified the negative reaction to the piece in the press and she suggests this was in part because of the unease about the female gaze, or indeed stare, at the man whose position in front of the canvas is suggested by the discarded cigar.9 At the museum, the woman’s gaze represents the ‘peculiarly modern visual exchange in the public space of the city’ (Marshall, ‘Image or Identity’, p. 31). In an etching of the same subject, a woman appears in the foreground carrying a portfolio, presumably because she has been copying Old Masters in the National Gallery. In another Tissot, L’Esthétique (c. 1883–85), a woman artist is perched on her stool hard at work copying a marble bust (Fig. 2). An etching by Joseph Pennell, titled Primitives: Copying Botticelli, the National Gallery (1891), similarly depicts a woman in spectacles sitting at an easel in front of a roundel of The Virgin and Child with Saint John and an Angel, now reattributed to the workshop of Botticelli.10 Pennell, an American who frequented London galleries with his wife, the art critic Elizabeth Robins Pennell, sardonically gave the print another title — ‘The Two Madonnas’ — referring to the unnamed artist and Botticelli’s Madonna. All these examples show that women copyists were not only glancing and feeling, but were also observing.

Fig. 1 

James Tissot, London Visitors, c. 1874, oil on canvas, 160 × 114 cm, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. Wikimedia Commons.

Fig. 2 

James Tissot, L’Esthétique, c. 1883–85, oil on canvas, 144.4 × 100 cm, Museum of Art of Ponce. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacqueline Musacchio has traced the earlier history of women copyists in Rome through a case study of the successful American artist Emma Conant Church. She emphasizes the public nature of this practice, contrary to the norms of female invisibility.11 These women occupied the galleries of the Louvre and the Uffizi; their sturdy stools, folding easels, and portfolios indicated their status as working artists. Sheila Barker notes that in the period 1770 to 1859 the ratio of male to female copyists in the Uffizi remained constant at about ten to one; however, their ever increasing numbers rendered them a prominent fixture in the gallery.12 The female copyist had historical associations with the female amateur. As Ann Bermingham has argued, the ‘accomplished woman’ was understood to be ‘artistic, but not an artist’; unlike the artist who was a ‘creator and producer of culture, she was a consumer and reproducer of culture’.13 Nonetheless, although writers such as Hawthorne emphasize the woman copyist as a spectacle herself, Barker argues that the existence of women copyists at the Uffizi during this early period helped to shape the notion of women artists as ‘credible, normative, and even admirable’ figures among the cultural stereotypes of modern life (p. 75).

Rees-Leahy also asks whether there can be a ‘flâneuse’ in the museum (p. 165). Tissot provides several examples of women looking in museums without the assistance of a man. Rees-Leahy looks to contemporary sketches by Degas of Mary Cassatt and her sister Lydia in the gallery. The series by Degas of a Visit to a Museum or Mary Cassatt at the Louvre does indicate women viewing art in 1879.14 Does the print of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, the Etruscan Gallery demonstrate the experiences of female visitors to museums at the end of the century? Does it give insight into Cassatt’s particular experience of the museum as an artist? From this image, we might also surmise that the female visitor is engaged in what Alison Smith recently referred to as ‘slow looking’; an ‘architectural female body’ stopped in front of, in this case, the archaic forms of Etruscan funerary sculpture.15 Here the location shifts to the interior of a museum, but the women retain agency as observers rather than observed.

Distinct from the ‘accomplished woman’, historically the connoisseur was a specifically masculine image. Yet in a watercolour by George John Pinwell titled The Connoisseurs (c. 1870), it is women who are examining a sculpture (Fig. 3). The three female ‘connoisseurs’ are seated — one gazes critically at a small figurative sculpture. The painting’s background, a gold patterned wall, and the appearance of the women make obvious reference to aestheticism. As Marshall has noted, in Tissot’s paintings it is men who possess the accoutrements of connoisseurship: the female ‘glance’ was appropriate to the absorption of moral and spiritual, but not technical, qualities of art (‘Image or Identity’, pp. 27–29). In the three women connoisseurs painted by Pinwell we see a marked contrast. One clutches a fan, the second a small book, and the third an eyeglass, while a large vase of flowers sits at their feet. Although accompanied by aesthetic objects, the women also clearly possess the tools of expert, technical looking. The Connoisseurs signals contradictory characteristics of the collecting endeavour. Rather than emotional attachment to objects, there is a detached seriousness to the women’s study of the sculpture implied by the addition of the book and glass. Like the Tissot and the Degas, the painting seems to indicate a female visual agency as we see two women observing and a third pensively gazing back out, seemingly lost in contemplation, oblivious to the viewer’s gaze. The image also offers a counterpoint to the many Punch cartoons of the period mocking women’s collecting and contemplation of art objects. George Du Maurier caricatured the frivolous and facile nature of the aesthetic female collector. In one cartoon, ‘Acute Chinamania’, a woman sits in tears contemplating the shards of a broken pot at her feet, as a small child attempts to comfort her saying, ‘Haven’t you got me, Mama?’. The mother retorts, ‘You child! You’re not Unique!!’. China collecting caused the suppression of maternal affection, corrupting women who now loved their china more than their six children. Anne Anderson notes that the series emphasized gendered patterns of collecting, associating women with consumption rather than connoisseurship.16 Pinwell’s painting suggests the latter: thus we see an alternative, perhaps corrective model of women as discriminating collectors.

Fig. 3 

George John Pinwell, The Connoisseurs, c. 1870, ink, watercolour, and gouache on paper, 114 × 143 mm. © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/pinwell-the-connoisseurs-n04085>.

Moving into the 1890s, images of women in museums seem to proliferate. In illustrated newspapers such as the Graphic, women are always present at exhibition openings and private views (Fig. 4). The Guildhall Gallery loan exhibition of 1892 is crammed with people, many of them women. In the crowded spaces of exhibition openings, women existed as icons of fashionability in contemporary exhibition culture, but some exerted considerable cultural agency. Just visible in the top of the Graphic illustration is a portrait by John Everett Millais of Nina Lehmann Campbell seated against a gold patterned background very similar to that behind the female connoisseurs in the Pinwell painting; likewise, she possesses the accoutrements of aestheticism, holding a fan while seated on an oak chest beside a blue and white vase of flowers.17 The portrait had been completed in 1884 just before her marriage and was shown at the home of aestheticism, the Grosvenor Gallery. The portrait signals another reason for the presence of women in gallery spaces: as patrons they were willing to lend works from their own collections. In choosing to loan the portrait to the Guildhall Gallery, Campbell successfully doubly reinserted herself into exhibition culture, both in the gallery and in the press. The turn of the century is seen as the zenith of society portraiture and part of its fashionability meant that it was intensely visible not only on gallery walls, but in reproduction and written discussion.

Fig. 4 

‘Visitors at the Loan Collection of Pictures at the Guildhall’, Graphic, 4 June 1892.

In spite of stereotypes about women’s emotional responses to artworks, the women gallery-goers in the Graphic illustration appear overcome neither by emotion nor heat in the stifling crush of bodies. Moreover, like the earlier examples of women looking in galleries, the image signals the processes of women looking and studying art independently. All of the figures are clutching catalogues indicating their learned engagement with the exhibition. The woman striding purposefully up the stairs is dressed in a jacket and hat, fashionable day dress often associated with the New Woman; she holds a catalogue under her arm, perhaps in conversation with the woman in the middle who is holding her catalogue open as if in the process of checking a painting. She looks out of the illustration at the viewer, but her gaze is presumably resting on another painting on the opposing wall.

Women and men are also present in James McNeill Whistler’s lithograph of the Grande Galerie in the Louvre, visitors and copyists occupying the gallery space. The copyists are working from the High Renaissance Italian Masters which occupied the eastern end of the bay.18 The subject of women looking at art within the gallery was simultaneously addressed by another artist and printmaker in the Tissot–Whistler circle, Paul Helleu. In an etching and dry point by Helleu titled Woman Looking at Watteau Drawings in the Louvre (c. 1894), the posture of the woman mimics that of Degas’s portrait of Mary Cassatt, but we see an altogether more detailed example of a woman standing in front of works of art in a gallery (Fig. 5). The woman bends at the waist so that her head is directly opposite one of the small framed works. Helleu crops the image and draws the viewer into the frame so she or he stands just behind the woman peering at the Watteau drawings in the Louvre. It signals close inspection.

Fig. 5 

Paul-César François Helleu, Woman Looking at Watteau Drawings in the Louvre, c. 1894, dry point, reproduced in the Studio, 1895.

The viewer is left in no doubt about the object of the woman’s gaze or her approach to looking. We know the woman is Alice Helleu, the wife of the artist. The print was exhibited at the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers in Pall Mall in 1894, where a reviewer noted the ‘freakish’ multicolour printing technique of the Watteaus.19 Writers on Helleu tend to quote Edmond de Goncourt’s introduction to the 1895 catalogue that emphasized the seductive and serpentine female form in front of the troiscrayons de Watteau.20 However, the contemporary context opens up readings of the print beyond that of Alice Helleu as the object of a male gaze. The circulation of popular facsimiles and art-historical texts gave a historical and intellectual context for Helleu’s print. Watteau was an artist who was widely circulated through Braun’s carbon-print facsimiles in the Armand albums of 1895 and reproduced in the Gazettes des Beaux Arts. The image suggests both Watteau’s popularity and the dissemination of his images through facsimile.21 Elizabeth Mansfield has recently demonstrated the significance of the revival of the eighteenth century and the rococo at the turn of the century. This revival was in part facilitated by another woman who exerted considerable intellectual effort viewing art, the art historian Emilia Dilke, who spent years undertaking research in French collections and completed several volumes on the art of the period.22 As Mansfield argues, Dilke emphasized women’s active contributions to the formation of style as artists or patrons, as exemplified by Watteau’s relationship with the artist Rosalba Carriera.23 The Helleu print could be considered in dialogue with these contemporary reproductions and reinterpretations of Watteau. What adds further interest to the Helleu print is that we have a doubling of this process of reproduction and circulation. It was printed in the new Studio magazine in 1895 (as was the Whistler the year before); thus, like the illustration from the Graphic, these prints of women in museums were widely distributed. Did women reading the latest articles and reviews in the Studio see themselves as part of this scopic regime of studied looking? This relationship is implied by the names of its contributors and featured artists and designers, several of whom were women.24

A key piece in the recent exhibition ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends’ at the National Portrait Gallery in London was indeed John Singer Sargent’s plein-air portrait of Alice Helleu and her husband Paul sketching by the side of a river.25 One of several writers featured in the exhibition was Vernon Lee. We now know that Lee was one of a group of women art critics working in the 1890s, who by virtue of their profession were always observing. Carolyn Burdett has recently shown that Lee’s psychological aesthetics illuminate a transition between Victorian and modernist ideas about beauty.26 Lee was particularly concerned with psychophysical responses to painting and, indeed, her diary extracts documented her own experience of standing in front of Watteau paintings in the Lacaze Room in the Louvre: ‘In the state I am in I have critical observations, comparisons, but no real emotions, only purely intellectual experiences, aroused by a sustained attention.’27 Lee was frustrated by her response to the Watteaus in relation to her own experimental mode of looking in search of bodily change and resultant emotional feeling. Although not pursuing the same corporeal experiments in galleries, other women writers of the period can be considered as intermediaries between Victorian and modern. Indeed, a woman art writer who was at least implied in the National Portrait Gallery’s Sargent exhibition, although not present, existed in a ghostly fashion between the exchanged glances of Coventry Patmore and George Meredith (which were placed on opposing walls). The portraits were haunted by Alice Meynell. Both Patmore and Meredith were devoted to Meynell and it was Patmore who asked Sargent to complete her portrait.

On tempera and feeling

Meynell was also giving paintings ‘sustained attention’ and assessing their ability to evoke emotion. Lee and Meynell occupied two different circuits: Lee focused on art history and connoisseurship, while Meynell was primarily a critic of contemporary art. However, like Lee, she was raised mainly in Italy along with her sister, the artist Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler.28 Fraser writes eloquently of Meynell’s evocative descriptions of visual phenomena and the process of perception. In this section I will turn to the question: How did these women ‘lookers’ articulate ‘feeling’ and ‘sentiment’? I will consider two women writers whom we might position at the nexus of new developments in contemporary art and art history. Meynell’s writing suggests that the break with sentimentality at the turn of the century was both complex and partial. She simultaneously evoked and subverted Victorian notions of a feminine temperament grounded in sympathy, religious feeling, and sentiment. These feminine virtues were inflected with ‘slow looking’, experimental techniques, and careful study.

As her Sargent portrait suggests, Meynell is perhaps best known as a poet. Both Patmore and Meredith revered her work and she has been labelled as the incarnation of Patmore’s ‘Angel in the House’.29 However, in reality she spent a great deal of her time in the public spaces of exhibitions. She wrote voluminously for the art press, both the Magazine of Art and Art Journal as well as her own periodicals the Weekly Register, Merry England, and the more popular press such as the Pall Mall Gazette. We find Meynell in the gallery in another illustration from the Art Journal of 1892 titled ‘Press Day at the Royal Academy’; she can be seen gliding through the gallery at the top of the image (Fig. 6). A working flâneuse, she was viewing and reviewing the works on display.

Fig. 6 

‘Press Day at the Royal Academy’, Art Journal, 1892.

Scholars have attended to her corpus of literary works. Linda Peterson has written cogently of Meynell’s transformation of ‘the poet’ at the fin de siècle, positioning her as central to the flowering of literary professionalism.30 However, Meynell’s verse has not been aligned with ‘feeling’ or sentiment. Elizabeth Gray considers the suggestion of feeling in her work and argues that Meynell’s style was profoundly anti-emotional and unsentimental.31 Meynell’s art writing was so prolific it is difficult to categorize. Although she was an early supporter of Impressionists associated with modern life subjects such as Degas, she also promoted a diversity of other artists and styles. Meynell’s writing on Sargent was also prescient (as the Sargent portrait suggests) and is exemplified by her writing on Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–86), subsequently purchased for the nation.32 Today this painting of two girls at twilight might be seen as emotive, although Meynell emphasized its impressionistic qualities.

The Austrian Marianne Preindlsberger Stokes was also part of this circle of French-influenced artists. Her work in the 1880s was plein-air. She was part of the group of artists that settled in Newlyn and St Ives. Although the Newlyn School used new French-influenced techniques, they depicted the working lives of fishing communities. Many of these would be categorized as sentimental today and the paintings have come to epitomize nostalgia for a historic Cornish seaside life. However, her painting of a woman standing in a red cloak holding a bundle of sticks of wood as smoke billows skywards, titled Passing Train (1890), is arguably symbolist in style and Stokes shifted her attention to religious subject matter with works such as St Elizabeth of Hungary Spinning for the Poor (1895) (Fig. 7). She also experimented with a new medium, tempera, as exemplified in Candlemas Day (c. 1901) (Fig. 8). In tempera, the powdered pigment is mixed with a binder, usually egg yolk, applied over white gesso ground on panel. The result is fast drying and permanent; artists therefore worked with exceptionally fine brushstrokes. In an extended essay on Stokes for the Magazine of Art, Meynell addressed both this shift and the ‘contempt’ for ‘feeling’ and ‘sentimentality’ in art:

Mrs. Stokes is a painter of keen apprehension in simple things. No man or woman beginning the world at the time of the re-arising of art in Europe, when Romance began, could have a fresher spirit than hers, a clearer heart, or sincerer sympathies. It needs her noble simplicity to begin the reaction against modern contempt for feeling and thought in art. That contempt itself doubtless had its use as a protest against the sentimentality of the middle of the nineteenth century; but if so, its purpose is more than fulfilled, and the correction is becoming tedious […]. No one at Clapham would dare to admire a picture because it tells a story. Let the critic, then, consider his work more than done on this point, and let him allow the twentieth century to give back to painting all visible things, emotion that has expression, and histories that make pictorial signs and bear symbols clear to the eye. Mrs. Stokes has never deprived her pictures of these interests, but has used them sweetly in the scheme of direct and frank decoration.33

Fig. 7 

Marianne Stokes, St Elizabeth of Hungary Spinning for the Poor, 1895, oil on canvas, 96.5 × 61 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Fig. 8 

Marianne Stokes, Candlemas Day, c. 1901, tempera on wood, 416 × 340 mm. © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/stokes-candlemas-day-t02108>.

Mid-nineteenth-century genre painting had been the subject of ridicule, in spite of its widespread appeal, due to its associations with narrative and anecdote. In part this had become associated with class distinctions, hence Meynell’s intimation of distaste for sentiment expressed in suburbia and Clapham. Here she attempts to overturn this rejection of emotion and advocates a return to pictures that ‘tell a story’ precisely because Stokes’s paintings appeal to both sentiment and storytelling. For Meynell, in Stokes’s work ‘emotion’ had ‘expression’. On the one hand, we hear in Stokes’s ‘clearer heart’ and ‘sincerer sympathies’ echoes of Hawthorne’s description of Hilda’s ‘strength of heart, and this guiding light of sympathy’. Meynell appears to be making the same claims for Stokes that were made four decades earlier for the character of Hilda. The characteristics of feminine ‘sympathy’ are redeployed in order to support her artistic authority in conveying emotion.

On the other hand, Stokes’s particular kind of ‘sympathy’ was art historical, rather than mid-century, and it was linked to creativity as well as mimicry:

In England, where there is no primitive art, the search of a modern painter for mediaeval method and the self-inspiration of mediaeval feeling lead him [sic] not only into the past but far a-field […]. Mrs Marianne Stokes is freshly, simply, and directly a Primitive in art and heart. She stands very much alone, her impulse being all her own and purely characteristic. (Meynell, pp. 241–42)

Meynell labelled her work ‘primitive’ which was a term used at the turn of the century to describe artists working during the early Renaissance. Thus, Meynell was suggesting a way of considering Stokes’s work alongside the religious subject matter of these historical painters. This echoed comments Stokes made about tempera: ‘It seems to me, a medium which lends itself most to spirituality, sincerity, and purity of colour. Much of the charm of quattro cento art is due, not only to the spirit of the time, but also to the medium which does not allow irreverent work.’34 These early Renaissance artists, who worked almost entirely on works such as altarpieces commissioned for churches, were, like Stokes, more attuned to the depiction of pure ‘feeling’.

Meynell’s claims for Stokes’s reaction against ‘modern contempt for feeling’ were also linked to her Catholicism. Stokes, like Meynell, was Catholic and was part of a network of Catholic artists that Meynell wrote about and supported. (Not only did Meynell edit two Catholic periodicals with her husband, she also wrote for the Catholic journal, the Tablet.) Stokes’s skill was aligned with her restoration of spirituality and decoration (Meynell, p. 244). In addition, having been raised in Italy, Meynell was familiar with the ways in which religious painting had historically expressed emotion and signalled meaning to the viewer through Christian iconography. Stokes was interested in depicting Catholic themes and her method for doing so was to utilize Catholic painting ‘techniques’ found in southern Italy as opposed to the oil associated with the Northern Renaissance. Their interest in mimicry of tempera and fresco could be allied with a romantic historicism. Stokes clearly shared her revivalist interests with the earlier Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who also took up religious subject matter while remaining radical in their rejection of academic hierarchies and in their use of flat, bright colour.35 Art historians have positioned Stokes as part of a later generation of Pre-Raphaelitism that sought to extend its exploration of early Renaissance materials and techniques.36

For Meynell, Stokes’s success in depicting ‘feeling’ was in part the result of her ‘pure method’ of achieving luminous colour:

Her first conviction of the greatness of colour was gained when she was ready for it, in the galleries of Italy, and in the study of the primitive painters who seem to look not against the light, so as to see the shadows of a luminous world, but with it, so as to see the colours of an illuminated world. Doubtless Mrs. Stokes would hold most important two passages of her life — the conversion to colour, in the first place; and, in the second place, the abandonment of oil-paint as an encumbering material. (Meynell, p. 243)

However, this particular revival required new skills, because, as Meynell observed, unlike oil painting, tempera could not be fixed or repaired. Working methods were more precise and severe, therefore akin to handicraft. The colour was achieved with meticulous tiny brushstrokes and layers of cross-hatching. The word handicraft connoted associations with labour and craftsmanship associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement and earlier Pre-Raphaelites.

For Meynell, ‘craftsmanship’ was tied to two key elements of Stokes’s practice: firstly, the careful study of early Renaissance paintings in ‘the galleries of Italy’. In this, Stokes appears to echo Hilda’s location ‘in the Vatican, in the galleries of the Pamfili-Doria palace, the Borghese, the Corsini, the Sciarra, her easel was set up before many a famous picture of Guido, Domenichino, Raphael, and the devout painters of earlier schools than these’ (Hawthorne, I, 77). However, unlike Hilda her focus was on study, rather than repetition and, more narrowly, on ‘the devout painters of earlier schools’. Hence, we are to imagine Stokes in Italy, rather than France, but similarly peering at the paintings like the figure of Alice Helleu. It was only through this close contemplation of early Renaissance works that Stokes’s work achieved its emotional effects. It is also likely that Stokes studied works in the National Gallery. Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn suggest that the pentimenti and head and hands of Stokes’s earlier St Elizabeth of Hungary Spinning for the Poor recall Rogier van der Weyden’s Magdalen Reading (p. 148). It is logical that if Stokes worked from sketches she had completed in the gallery, she would have continued this pattern of study through sketching in Italian collections. Secondly, we learn from Meynell that ‘Mrs. Stokes studied Cennino Cennini in the course of her researches. She found the gesso ground, and the fresh and single medium, that put her in the place of the painters she best loved’ (p. 244). In order to paint like the early Renaissance artists, Stokes was also referencing early treatises on painting. It was these texts that discussed techniques and methods of painting on gesso-prepared panels.

Here the reader was referred to the work of another woman art writer, Christiana Herringham, who in 1899 published a translation of Cennino Cennini’s manual of painting. Meynell quoted extensively from Herringham’s introduction on the case against oil painting:

It has produced […] many masterpieces, but destroyed monumental paintings, not only in developing the taste for petty things, and petty methods, but also in rendering the labour so slow and so arduous that in this method a great undertaking seems impracticable […]. If the Middle Ages preferred fresco and tempera — that is size-vehicles — monumental painting proves the justice of the preference; and the work of Cennino establishes victoriously that it was not done through ignorance. (Meynell, p. 244)

Thus, although Meynell was advocating a return to the appreciation of feeling in art, this was also grounded in art-historical arguments. These concerned the methods and techniques used to achieve large-scale frescoes and altarpieces in the early Renaissance period. Moreover, Meynell’s assertion that tempera suited Stokes’s ‘genius’ betrayed a conscious avoidance of the gendered associations of women with an amateur tradition.

Herringham and tempera

Herringham’s translation of Cennini was linked with her own interest in tempera painting.37 Like Stokes, she had been trained as an artist and was specifically focused on early Renaissance painting; however, religious feeling and sympathy were not the sole focus of her inquiry. Rather than align herself with these facets of feminine temperament, Herringham was intent on pursuing a historical understanding of tempera painting through technique. Herringham’s edition included personal commentary and several chapters based on her own experiences, titled ‘Notes on Mediaeval Art Methods’. These had nine different sections including, for example, the ‘Chemical Behaviour of Egg-Vehicles’ and ‘About Cennino’s Pigments’.38 We might think about Herringham’s work with tempera as essentially experimental and corporeal. She described tactile engagement with the materials of paint and ground. Should you mix plaster or size with your hand or pass it through muslin or linen? Her investigations were about grinding pigments and making recipes as a way of understanding Cennini. Herringham, like Stokes, had undertaken a careful study of early Renaissance paintings. She had done this, like the woman in the foreground of the Tissot print Portico of the National Gallery, London (1878), by copying. There is a story that John Ruskin found Herringham copying paintings in tempera, rather than oil, in the National Gallery and he asked her why this was. She then corrected his mistaken assumption about their medium. He revealed in 1877 in St Mark’s Rest:

I must note in passing that many of the qualities which I have been in the habit of praising […] as consummate achievements in oil painting, are as I have found lately, either in tempera altogether or tempera with oil above.39

It is not certain what it was that she was copying, but there are several extant works by Herringham copied from works in the National Gallery.

Herringham, like Stokes, extended the roles available to women gallery visitors beyond that of mere copyists. There are two ways in which we could see Herringham as separating herself from the female copyist. Firstly, she was not interested in copying the same kinds of paintings traditionally copied by women. Considerable scholarship was devoted to Raphael in the first half of the nineteenth century, including volumes by Carl Friedrich von Rumohr and J. D. Passavant. Gabriele Guercio argues that in these the identity of Raphael was crucial to the development of the artist’s monograph and the idea of an artist’s oeuvre (or corpus of work).40 Musacchio notes that Raphael was associated with the highest ideals for copyists in Rome. This was made explicit in contemporary literature: in The Marble Faun, Hilda was labelled the ‘handmaid of Raphael’. Hawthorne also alludes to the mechanical reproductions of Rome’s ‘Raphaelic machines’ (I, 81, 79). These earlier copyists were reproducing paintings for a market of tourists or would-be tourists who wanted replicas of paintings held in Italian collections. However, Herringham, like Stokes, differentiated herself from these ‘Raphaelic machines’ through her investigative interest in earlier artists who worked in tempera. Meynell emphasized the significance of the ‘age before Raphael grew up’, and Hannah Spooner has noted the tendency of Meynell and others to ally tempera with youth and simplicity as opposed to oil’s age and realism.41

Secondly, Herringham’s interest in copying extended beyond merely reproducing a painting to reproduction as technical analysis. Although in the notes, Herringham referenced Ruskin’s writings on tempera and early Renaissance artists, she also gave clear indications of her own experimentation and authority on the medium. For example:

It is commonly stated that old tempera pictures become penetrated with their varnish, and cannot be distinguished from oil. On the contrary, most fourteenth and fifteenth century tempera-work has shed the original varnish by this time, spontaneously or with assistance. It does not seem to sink in at all. I have seen all the varnish crumble away from a recently painted tempera picture which was hanging on a rather damp wall, and the picture remained uninjured. (Book of the Art of Cennino Cennini, p. 263)

The addition of the commentary emphasized the role of the text as more than a translation. Unlike Meynell and Stokes, she did not emphasize the spiritual or emotive aspects of ‘feeling’; instead, ‘feeling for painting’ was the source for an experimental or scientific mode of inquiry. Copying had a long history in the academic tradition as a method of study. This method is distinctive from Hawthorne’s linkage of copying with a feminized practice, producing replicas ‘by the thousands’. Rather, the goal was a singular work which exactly replicated the method of production. It was linked with the academic convention of copying from antique or Renaissance examples as a method of study.

Meynell’s article on Stokes was published the month before an exhibition of tempera works opened at Leighton House. Among the exhibits were pieces by both Herringham and Stokes. For example, Herringham’s Head of Saint Catherine and Head of the Magdalene (Fig. 9) (both after Sandro Botticelli) were copied from a Botticelli altarpiece, Madonna and Child with Six Saints, in the Uffizi. These works indicate that Herringham, like Stokes, travelled beyond the National Gallery to Italy in search of examples. Another Botticelli replica was copied from a work which had been owned by Rossetti, titled Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli, later bought by Constantine Ionides, and now in the Ionides collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum.42 These were shown alongside Stokes’s Little Brother and Little Sister (1899) which was based on the Grimms’ fairy tale. The painting depicts the point in the narrative where the little girl’s brother drank from the forbidden water and was transformed into a deer (Fig. 10). Herringham and Stokes were among a group of artists from both London and Birmingham who founded the Tempera Society in November 1901. The members would gather in one another’s studios and discuss techniques. Herringham’s translation of Cennini was fundamental to their work and propelled the revival of tempera into the next century.43 The society emphasized the physicality of the medium and its attendant aim of spiritual renewal.44

Fig. 9 

Christiana Jane Herringham, Head of the Magdalene (after Sandro Botticelli), c. 1897, tempera on panel, 45 × 28.5 cm, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Fig. 10 

Marianne Stokes, Little Brother and Little Sister, 1899, reproduced in Magazine of Art, 1901. Art UK.

Meynell’s article on Stokes was followed by one published in the Studio in November 1901 on the ‘Tempera Revival’. In this article, Aymer Vallance quoted Ruskin’s description of discovering tempera painting from St Mark’s Rest, adding:

When the prophet himself has spoken thus authoritatively, what have we any further need of witness? His testimony has the more value, as being the humble avowal of conviction arrived at, not without reluctance, nor until after years of laborious investigation, through the sheer, irresistible logic of facts. (Vallance, p. 156)

Ironically, it was Ruskin who received credit for ‘laborious investigation’ and the ‘sheer’ ‘logic of facts’, rather than the tempera practitioner: Herringham. Given the continued importance of Ruskin as a critic and art historian in 1901, the year following his death, it is not surprising that it is his authority that is cited for the new movement. However, it is interesting that Meynell had already articulated a similar kind of authority based on ‘laborious investigation’ or technical analysis in her description of the work of both Stokes and Herringham. Meynell’s positioning of Stokes and Herringham within the tempera revival posits a complicated redefinition of gendered dichotomies between masculine and feminine temperament in 1900.

Conclusion

This article began by asking how women ‘looked’ through an exploration of representations of female visitors to exhibitions and museums. Although women in art museums were generally stereotyped as emotional visitors, lacking in technical expertise, paintings of the 1870s indicate the existence of a more active female viewer. By the 1890s images of exhibition spaces are peopled by a plethora of women and signal their presence in the gallery for various reasons: as artists, as patrons, as critics, and as exhibition-goers. The dry point by Helleu referred to above offers an example of a woman undertaking close examination of a work and it was widely circulated through contemporary print culture. These images suggest alternative possibilities for reading female agency in ‘feeling’ ‘through a picture’. Hawthorne’s Hilda evokes the accomplished female copyist ‘reflecting’ the ‘glory’ of great artists through her feminine ‘sympathy’. Meynell ascribes similar values of sympathy to the work of Stokes, but offers an alternative model of an informed copyist. This, she argued, was inherently modern, an investigative practice in tempera that was the result of careful study of the early Renaissance. This article has traced the emergence of a network of women art writers and artists who wrote about and experimented with tempera. Turn of the century networks, like that of Meynell, Stokes, and Herringham, have remained largely hidden from art-historical scholarship, however they complicate assumptions about women’s emotional responses to art. Through their writing and exhibition history we can map a pattern of exchange, a triangulation of art-historical scholarship and artistic practice. These women were also part of a wider collective of art writers and art historians associated with ‘connoisseurship’, including Bernard Berenson who has garnered considerably more attention.45 In 1902 Meynell published a translation of Adolfo Venturi’s The Madonna: A Pictorial Representation of the Life and Death of the Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The large illustrated folio highlighted again the spiritual significance of this imagery, but also located Meynell as an intermediary in a scholarly network beyond Britain: Venturi was appointed Chair of Art History at the University of Rome in 1896. On the one hand, Herringham, like Hilda, continued to pursue work as a copyist. At the end of the Edwardian period she undertook a major project to copy the cave paintings in Ajanta, India.46 But, on the other hand, she exceeded the category of lady copyist. Herringham was friends with Roger Fry (also a member of the Tempera Society) and she served on the consultative committee of the Burlington Magazine. The Burlington, founded in 1903, became a key site for the articulation of connoisseurship and the development of the discipline of art history. Herringham’s ‘intellectual effort’ was diverse and wide-ranging; she was crucial to the Tempera Society where she continued to exhibit with Stokes, was an important contributor to the Burlington, and a founder of the National Art Fund also in 1903. These women avoided suggesting a specifically female ‘sympathy’; instead offering a renegotiation of arguments about the ‘modern contempt for feeling in art’.