“No.”: Women and Rejection in Nineteenth-Century British Painting
By Sukayna Powell
Historically in European painting, the women depicted have said ‘no’ to men in only two ways – either the ‘no’ was teasing and coquettish (and they actually meant or would eventually mean ‘yes’); or the ‘no’ was genuine and coming from an instinct for modesty and virtue. These depictions of rejection often have to do with sex alone, and are often either allegorical or titillating (and sometimes both). With regards to the rejection of proposals of marriage, however, the female ‘no’ was almost never depicted. In the nineteenth century, however, depictions of women saying ‘no’ to proposals of marriage in person and for personal reasons start appearing. This is not to imply that it was a particularly popular subject – in fact it was quite rare – but its mere existence illustrates neatly the shifting position and perception of women and their agency during this time.
Proposals (as opposed to courting) only began to be depicted as interest in social realities became more pronounced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the same time, as this interest grew, understandings of love and marriage shifted, with a greater degree of allowance being made for the feelings of the parties involved (as opposed to simply their dowries or social value).
The role of the parents in arranging or brokering a deal was still strong in the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, however. This, combined with the burgeoning interest in the drama of everyday life and the depiction of social mores, results in a number of paintings of men applying to the parents of the women they desire to marry (often as the woman herself looks on blankly). The first painting in Hogarth’s ‘Marriage a la Mode’ series, The Marriage Settlement, 1743, embodies this development.
The tone and focus of William Powell Frith’s Pope Makes Love to Lady Mary Montagu, 1851, is vastly different to that of The Marriage Settlement even though Frith’s painting retroactively depicts an incident (possibly apocryphal) that supposedly occurred in the 1720s. The painting features two specific characters, and cannot be taken as typical of, or useful for commentary on social mores. However, where the incident of Pope’s rejection by Lady Mary would have held little interest for Hogarth beyond the superficial, for Frith it represents an opportunity to depict a dramatic moment of great psychological power and complexity, and an opportunity to comment on the nature of private interpersonal relations.
The vigour of Lady Mary’s laugh, her beauty and cultivation (the Turkish sash round her waist, for instance, is an indication of her unusual breadth of experience) contrasts amusingly with Pope’s lined, mortified face and skinny legs. The statue of two entwined lovers in the background is a cheerfully cruel embellishment from Frith. The psychological states of both figures are the point of this painting – Pope’s tension and mortified pride and Lady Mary’s spontaneous and powerful disdain must have captured Frith’s imagination. The result is a painting of a woman responding and acting as a self-determining individual, possessed of a private interior world as well as a private life.
This interest in the “drama of private lives” is related to the emergence of the Victorian 'problem picture,' which E.D.H Johnson describes in Paintings of the British Social Scene (1986) as dealing 'with the manners and morals of the economically stable middle and upper classes' and an 'appeal was directed...to the viewers’ psychological acuity.' There is, in these paintings, a 'quality of reticence in the portrayal of scenes so intimate in nature as to convert the viewer into an eavesdropper in secrets not meant for sharing.'
Sir William Quiller Orchardson’s daughter asked of one of his paintings ' "But whatever is it? Are they quarrelling? Or has he proposed or been refused? Or does he want to propose and feels afraid?" "I don’t know," her father replied, "it might be any of those these things, it’s an enigma."' This painting, An Enigma, 1891, explores the drama of a suspended moment, with all the tensions of possible individual choices that the figures depicted might make. Orchardson’s daughter might have assumed that the male figure was the primary actor in this painting, but part of the tension is the balance between two discrete wills; the woman has an equal part to play in any action, and rejection, for personal and private reasons, is well within her scope.
A more unambiguous exploration of the psychology of female rejection is Edmund Leighton’s Off, 1899. The curt single-word title conveys the sharp mood clearly still lingering in the aftermath of an acrimonious rejection. The battered bouquet and the tension in the woman’s posture are evidence of offense taken – probably on both sides. The woman, however, is the psychological focus of the work; we cannot even see the man’s face. She is off-balance, has extended her arms, creating tense straight lines, and is deliberately not watching her suitor retreat. Her face is inscrutable, leaving the audience to wonder about her motivation and enjoy the aftertaste of drama.
This kind of rejection is depicted in these paintings because it is both an interesting dramatic moment and represents a kind of mystery; private motivations are to an extent an enigma. In some ways women having them represents a social problem, and in some ways it adds to the effectiveness of the painting, but ultimately what these paintings represent is an increased interest in exploring the consequences of the fact that they do. This development can be framed in terms of literature as being between Austen and Ibsen, influenced by both. The acknowledgement of and fascination with women’s interior lives and their capacity for self-determination is combined with a taste for the drama and comedy that these things can engender.
They also represent a relatively new and short lived way of depicting women’s individual relationships with society, with men, and with themselves, before classification and simplification inevitably resulted in the enigmatic and private, self-sustaining ‘no’ of these few paintings being broken down into tropes as impersonal as that of the ‘virtuous no’ and the ‘coquettish no’, which would be both explored and exploited throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century (for example in the Lichtenstein, which plays with pop psychology tropes as it plays with pop culture visuals).
This is not to say that the nineteenth century was a high point for the acknowledgement of women as people, rather that this (extremely niche) sub-genre includes a number of those rare works in which female self-determination is depicted without being wholly explained, simplified, or tropified. Their existence illustrates a time of rapid change, uncertainty, and permeable boundaries, which (despite its rather turgid and conservative reputation) the nineteenth century certainly was.
Bills, Mark, and Vivien Knight, eds. William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age. New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 2006.
Grundy, Isobel. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Johnson, E. D. H. Paintings of the British Social Scene: From Hogarth to Sickert. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1986.
Tucker, Herbert F. A Companion to Victorian Literature & Culture. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.