The Victorian period was an era of constantly shifting and contradicting ideologies concerning women, which extended over many areas of society and culture including politics and the media, the family and domestic field as well as the contemporary and traditional beliefs within the art institutions. The body of the belief systems about women and the feminine ideal that are present in each of these areas involve a combination of established or traditional ideas versus those of a contemporary and revolutionary nature. Whether traditional or revolutionary these evolving ideologies played a consistent and prominent role in regulating the methods by which women produced their art and the subject areas and genres in which they employed themselves. Significantly, the increase of feministic values throughout the nineteenth century dramatically changed the ways in which women could produce art, and also the ways in which their critics assessed them compared to the more traditional beliefs about propriety and established feminine spheres that constrained women artists earlier in the Victorian period.
The Victorian period is often characterised by its emphasis on the importance of political correctness and proper behaviour in specific spheres of gender and class within society. Early in the Victorian era the established and traditional spheres prescribed to women had a profound effect on their limited creative outlets and subsequently their position within the arts. To examine and assess the ways in which women were constrained in their employment from both a practical perspective and from the perspective of the ways in which they were critically viewed by society, it is important to consider the prescribed ideal feminine identity that women were pressed to achieve. Indeed, an established ideology of the Victorians was to achieve the highest attributes according to ones gender. This highlights the Victorians' idea that women were radically different to men not just physically but also mentally and emotionally as well. The ideal Victorian woman was dainty, graceful, domestic and above all obedient, and as men were considered to be the physically stronger sex it was established that they were also psychologically more powerful and able. Therefore, women's activity was generally confined to this stereotype of femininity, leading to the domination by men in the arts and beyond.
If an early Victorian woman did wish to employ herself in something creative she was generally guided towards refined and simple crafts that did not require much skill as a means of occupying herself. The art of oil painting was seen to be unfeminine because it was too smelly and dirty for the delicate Victorian female and therefore sand pictures, feather pictures and shell-box-making was praised to the skies for their suitability as a creative outlet for ladies. However, considering the element of having spare time in which to fill displays the class boundaries that also played a role in determining women's creativity. While it was the social norm for the bourgeois woman to have spare time for creative pursuits the working-class woman was a worker both inside and outside the domestic sphere, and therefore had little time or reason to engage herself in such recreations. As well as displaying the prevalent class women artists were emerging from in this period, the key point here it seems, is that women of any class were very much confined to the domestic sphere from a number of perspectives concerning their feminine identity.
The idea that women's abilities were limited in comparison to men's may be argued to stand as the basis for the way that women were viewed within the arts also. Within the Academies a great importance was placed on the hierarchy of the genres, for example History painting was thought of as the most important subject and themes relating to still life were thought to be the lowest form of fine art. When examining the...
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