The imagery of women at the turn of the century

During mid-19th century the middle class gained in economic power and businessmen sought ways to find credit. Due to not having yet fully established the bank of England and credit checks not being invented yet, Bram Dijkstra argues that ‘one’s worth was established by word of mouth’, and ‘evidence of the eye’. Middle class women who used to wear plain cotton dresses now became elaborately dressed and in short, fashion plates. This confining dress was the first step towards the true virtue, which the Christian businessmen desired in their women. These men were unable to be virtuous themselves in a whirling new economic world of vicious commerce, however a man’s wife could. More so even she could protect her husband’s soul by being as virtuous as humanly possible: she has soul-healing power.

Typical of this time Jules Michelet wrote in 1859 “The man passes from drama to drama, not one of which resembles another, from experience to experience, from battle to battle. History goes forth, ever far-reaching, and continually crying to him: Forward! … The woman on the contrary, follows the noble and serene epic that nature chants in harmonious cycles, repeating herself with a touching grace of constancy and fidelity. … She it is who, at twenty, and at thirty, and all her life long, will renew her husband every night, as he returns deadened by his labour.”
As women found themselves to be forced into this stifling deaf and mute role, more and more women ostensibly became ill and even found an ultimate escape in death. Slowly but surely this strange revolt became passive and eventually became a morbid beauty ideal that persistent well into the new millennium. After all, “the more intense the struggle, the more impressive the triumph of true virtue.”

Naturally this became apparent in the arts and I’d like to point out to some works that are especially troubling for me to read and see and I daresay more fascinating; I guess I’m morbid? I’d like to follow this up with several posts and the iconology of this all. I guess we’ll see if I’ll actually do this but here’s the first batch of paintings that are indeed tempting in their soft imagery.


Ophelia also fits in this role perfectly while we see sick women slowly becoming ‘mad’ while the fascination with mental illnesses and the “degeneration” of people, society and women at the turn of the century. I’m getting back to that in another post.

You can clearly see the “beauty of tuberculosis” in the lank limbs and dark circles under Ophelia’s eyes. Let’s not even get started about the pubescent look of this girl.

More morbid became the increasing eroticisation and fascination of the female dead body.

The more I’m studying this subject, the more I’m seeing some really fucked up resemblance in today’s fashion scene; how many editorials of lank pubescent looking girls staring soullessly have you seen? And what about the increasing editorials featuring supposed dead women? But that’s another rant for another day.