Thursday, July 28, 2016

When a Victorian Painting Isn't What It Seems

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Isabella reporting,

Some of the most popular 19thc painters were storytellers as well as artists, filling their realistic canvases with characters and symbolism that gallery-goers of the time could "read" as clearly as if the paintings were books. Poignant farewells, heroic soldiers, thwarted lovers, fallen women, scenes from history and from current events all found their place in these often-oversized, detailed paintings.

When I recently came across the painting, above, on Twitter, I was sure I understood the story it told. Even the title with its Biblical quotation seemed filled with obvious meaning: Nameless and Friendless: "The rich man's wealth is his strong city" - Proverbs X, 15. (As always, please click on the image to enlarge it.) Painted by Emily Mary Osborn in 1857, I thought it must be a poignant representation of a young widow forced to sell her belongings to survive. Her somber clothes must be a stage of mourning, and her melancholy expression hints at painful memories of happier times. Perhaps the painting that the gallery owner is appraising was even a favorite of her late husband.

And wow, was I ever wrong.

To learn the real subject of this painting, go to this page on the site of the Tate museum, who owns it. A hint: the female artist of the work drew from her own personal experiences for her subject.

But before you go over there - what do you see in this painting?

Above: Nameless and Friendless: "The rich man's wealth is his strong city" - Proverbs X, 15 by Emily Mary Osborn, 1857, The Tate.


Lucy said...

I think it's easy to assume she's an impoverished widow because we simply don't think of women taking on careers outside the home in those times, except perhaps, for domestic service, or the "nursing" provided by women who came generally from the lower classes.

That she's in a position of disadvantage and poverty is plain enough; the biggest room for misinterpretation, to me, lies only in the reason for both.

What I find interesting in Victorian painting is how so often it combines fantasy and prettiness with a certain realism that's hard to resist believing.

S said...

I certainly think shes poor and bereaved but the glances if the men with the ballt dancer painting is suspicious.Victoruan womens vulnerability when it comes to being exploited ny men?

S said...

Pardon my poor spelling.On a cell phone.

Cindi said...

Loved this post!

Sanfranpk peak said...

Don't know if you can receive this , however; I really enjoy your posts.

Dot S.( said...

I enjoy all of your posts concerning Victorian art. This one is lovely. I don't believe the woman is all that young and the boy could very well be her son and she could be a widow in dire straits. Thank you so much for another terrific post.

Gehayi said...

The idea that she's a widow (or a bereaved daughter) being forced to sell her property to make ends meet makes sense. that boy a porter? And is he carrying a portfolio of hers? she trying to sell a painting of hers to an art dealer, pretending that it was done by her dead father, husband or brother?

Jane in Portugal said...

This painting immediately reminded me of the scene in Thackeray's Vanity Fair where the poor, widowed Amelia, accompanied (I think) by her little son George, tries to sell her paintings to earn a bit of money.
And look! The name of the artist is the same! Emily Osborne = Emmy Osborne (Thackeray often calls Amelia 'Emmy'). So... who was inspired by whom? Since Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair in 1846, and Emily Osborne painted this in 1857, I suppose Osborne could well have taken the idea from Vanity Fair - her imagination caught by the accident of the names, perhaps.
In which case, the inclusion of the painting of the ballet dancer could be a reference to Becky Sharp, whose mother was an opera dancer.

Karen Anne said...

A bummer, regardless.

The painter in the painting might have been able to sell the work by pretending it was by a male, or having a male friend try to sell it as his own work. Certainly some women did this in various endeavors, Andre Norton and so on. I would like to go back and suggest this to her.

Even today, this works in some areas. I saw this when I edited wikipedia as myself, a female, and then as a lark created a new account with a male name. It was astonishing how less often my edits in the later account were challenged.

Nadine said...

I would assume that she is the painter and trying to sell her work to the wealthy merchant.

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