Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Elizabeth Thompson and Not Making It into the Royal Academy

Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler (3 November 1846 -2 October 1933)

My son recently sent me a link to the first episode of Malcolm Gladwell's podcast, Revisionist History. Titled "The Lady Vanishes," this inaugural episode begins with Gladwell's visit to St. James's Palace in London, where he has arranged to see The Roll Call, a painting by the artist Elizabeth Thompson. Thompson's painting caused a sensation at the 1874 Royal Academy of London exhibition.

Thompson's 1869 self-portrait
After briefly introducing Thompson and her painting, Gladwell links the artist to what he identifies as "the strange phenomenon of 'the token'"--which he defines as "the outsider whose success serves not to alleviate discrimination but perpetuate it." 

Now I'm not at all sure of why Gladwell calls tokenism a "strange phenomenon"--tokenism certainly doesn't seem like a strange new concept to me. Rather, it seems all too unstrange and too familiar. 

And, indeed, Gladwell has found Thompson through a 1990 piece in the Women's Art Journal that, more than twenty-five years ago, identified Thompson as "a case of tokenism" (Paul Underwood's essay is titled "Elizabeth Thompson Butler: A Case of Tokenism"--in the podcast, Gladwell catches up with Underwood, an art historian, and the episode includes some of his comments.) So, tokenism is not such a "strange" new idea when it comes to Thompson.

But, before you can decide whether or not you agree with Gladwell about the "strangeness" of tokenism, he has moved from his examination of Thompson to the subject of "moral licensing." To define the concept, he cities Daniel Effron: moral self-licensing is when "past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral."

Indeed, for Gladwell himself Thompson is a token--her painting, exhibited by the Royal Academy, is his example of a "good deed," one that allows members of the Academy to continue to their behavior of denying most women artists a place in their exhibitions, Thompson's example thus allowing Gladwell the opportunity to focus on, illustrate, and explore the concept of moral licensing. (In other words, he uses her as a token.)

I do recommend listening to the podcast if you're interested in tokenism and the way that accepting a "token"--like a woman painter, for example, or a female political leader--ultimately "give[s us] permission to do something bad."

But, while the title of this podcast, "The Lady Vanishes," seems to suggest that Gladwell will make Thompson the painter reappear, I think it more or less succeeded not in restoring Thompson but in disappearing Thompson once again. She gets lost along the way to Gladwell's real interest, moral licensing. So here's a bit more about her and her career. 

Elizabeth's father, Thomas James Thompson, was born in Jamaica, the son of an Englishman and his Creole mistress; Thomas James inherited a huge fortune from his grandfather, Thomas Pepper Thompson, who owned three sugar plantations and, evidently, the slaves needed to make them profitable (see the entry in the University College London's Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database). After spending a year at Cambridge, Thomas James "dabbled" in politics and in art before marrying, as his second wife, the pianist Christiana Weller, who would become Elizabeth Thompson's mother. (For more on Elizabeth's parents, click here.)

Born in Switzerland while her parents were on a "grand tour" following Thomas James's failed bid for a parliamentary seat, Elizabeth was the first of two accomplished daughters born to the couple. Their second daughter, born the year after Elizabeth, was named Alice. Married to the journalist Alfred Meynell, Alice Meynell became a noted poet, essayist, and suffragist.

After the birth of their daughters, the couple continued their continental travels. Elizabeth developed an interest in drawing and painting, first receiving professional instruction in Italy (by 1862), then enrolling in 1866 the Female School of Art, then located in South Kensington. The London school had been established in 1842 for "young women of the middle class" so that they could "obtain an honourable and profitable employment." 

In her autobiography, Thompson would later write that she despised the kinds of "scrolls" and "patterns" she was given to copy as part of her instruction there--they represented the kinds of decorative arts that formed an "appropriate" curriculum for young women. Instead she filled the margins of her drawing paper with "angry scribblings of horses and soldiers in every variety of fury."

She took advantage of other opportunities while she was in London, for example attending a painting class in Conduit Street and exhibiting an oil painting, Horses in Sunshine, at the Women Artists' Exhibition (1867) and a water color, Bavarian Artillery Going into Action, at the Dudley Art Gallery. She also met the British art critic John Ruskin in 1868.

Thompson then rejoined her family in Italy, studying in Florence with Giuseppe Bellucci and then attending the Florentine Accademia di Belle Arti. By 1869 she had moved on to Rome, where she set up her own studio. There she completed The Magnificat, a large religious piece accepted for an international exhibition in Rome.

While returning to England with her family in 1870, Thompson traveled through Germany and France; in Paris, she saw battle paintings of Edouard Detaille and Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier. Ultimately these images helped to shape and develop her own interest in painting battle scenes.

Thompson's 1874 The Roll Call
After visiting army maneuvers with her father once the family had returned to England, Thompson began drawing the soldiers and activities she had seen.

She submitted her oil canvas, The Missing, to the Royal Academy in 1873, where it was accepted for display but "skied" (hung up high in a spot inconvenient for viewing). This painting depicted an imaginary scene following a battle during the Franco-Prussian war.

The next year a second painting, The Roll Call, a scene from the Crimean War, was also accepted for the Royal Academy exhibition, this painting becoming a sensation--ultimately acquired by Queen Victoria. Thompson and her work were widely--and wildly--celebrated

As art historian Paul Usherwood notes, one reason for Thompson's success was "her choice of the role of honorary male"--she was ambitious, and her choice of subject matter, unusual for a woman, "was governed by a desire to win the respect of those whose opinion counted at the Academy." (It was also a depiction of men that, Usherwood adds, was "flattering to the male egos that ruled the Academy.")

Calculated or not, Thompson devoted herself to painting battle scenes. The Twenty-eighth Regiment at Quatre Bras, completed the next year, also received critical praise and popular celebration if not the prominent display position that The Roll Call had received.

Still, this particular painting, depicting an encounter between British and French soldiers two days before the battle of Waterloo, received Ruskin's praise. In his 1875 Academy Notes he wrote that he had "always said no woman could paint." "But," he added,
it is amazon's work this; no doubt of it, and the first fine Pre-Raphaelite picture of battle we have had; -- profoundly interesting, and showing all manner of illustrative and realistic faculty. Of course, all that need be said of it, on this side, must have been said twenty times over in the journals; and it remains only for me to make my tardy genuflexion, on the trampled corn, before this Pallas of Pall Mall.
Further achievements followed quickly: a figure from her Tenth Bengal Lancers at Tent-Pegging was reproduced as a special supplement to the London Graphic, a weekly illustrated magazine, in 1876; in the same year, she painted The Return from Balaklava, and in 1877, The Return from Inkerman, for which was paid fifteen thousand dollars by the Fine Art Society, a London gallery that had the publication rights for The Roll Call. Her work was regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy.

But, while Thompson's accomplishments were manifest, and while her paintings continued to be the popular among those displayed in Academy exhibitions, she was not elected to membership in the British Royal Academy although she was nominated three times between 1879 and 1881--she would have been the first woman to become a fellow of the Academy. She came within two votes of election, and in order to avoid such a calamity, the institution deemed that since its rules said only "men of fair moral character" were eligible for membership, she was disqualified by her sex.*

In the mean time, in 1877 Thompson had married Major William Butler. She combined her career with marriage, motherhood, and extensive travel with her husband--he was posted in various places throughout England as well as in Egypt, the Sudan, and South Africa. In addition to continuing to paint and exhibit, she published three books: Letters from the Holy Land (1903), From Sketchbook and Diary (1909), and her autobiography (1923). 

Her 1924 submission to the Royal Academy was rejected--but it was rejected not so much because of Thompson's sex as because of changing tastes and artistic styles. After the Great War, her depictions of battle scenes had become anachronistic. While there is no doubt that her marriage (and giving birth to and raising six children) and travel had removed Thompson from the London art scene and affected the focus and attention she could pay to her own work, marriage and family had not ended her artistic career. 

There is a great deal of available information about Elizabeth Thompson and her work--unlike so many of the women artists I have written about on this blog, she did not, despite Malcolm Gladwell's title, "vanish." If she is less visible than we might expect, given both her critical and popular reputation, it may well be, as Germaine Greer suggests, "due to the downfall of her subject matter" and not because of Thompson's sex.

When Greer wrote about Thompson in her 1979 The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, she claimed that no public galleries in England had her work exhibited and accessible for viewing. Now it appears that at least some of Thompson's work is publicly accessible--if not The Roll Call, which Gladwell arranges to see at St. James's in a private viewing, then at a number of museums and galleries, including the Tate (London), the City of Manchester Art Gallery, the Leeds Art Gallery, the Ferens Art Gallery (one of nine public museum venues in Hull), and the public gallery at the Defence Academy of the UK (which has several of Thompson's paintings). The Art UK website--"Welcome to the Nation's Art"--lists 17 paintings currently on view and illustrates their locations. (Paintings by Thompson are also exhibited publicly in Scotland, Ireland, and Australia.)

There is an excellent account of Thompson's life, training, and work in Jo Devereaux's The Making of Women Artists in Victorian England: The Education and Careers of Six Professionals. For online reading, I recommend Krzysztof Z. Cieszkowski's biographical essay of Thompson at The British Empire.

Given my constant bitching about the lack of women included in the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica, it should not surprise you that the current online edition does not include an entry on Elizabeth Thompson Butler, though older print editions of a supplemental dictionary of "arts, sciences, and general literature" contain at least a note (see the seven-line entry here, for example, from an 1893 edition).

Johann Zoffany's painting of the "first academicians" of the
Royal Academy, sort of including Kauffman and Moser--
they are represented by portraits (above right)
rather than in the room with the men (and a nude model)

*The Royal Academy of Arts, established in 1768, included two women artists among its "founders," Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) and Mary Moser (1744-1819), though neither woman was considered a "full" member, eligible for holding an office or lectureship and able to participate in so-called life-drawing classes--that is, figure drawing using live (unclothed) models. After the deaths of Kaufman and Moser, women were discouraged from attending the Royal Academy Schools. In 1922, Annie Louisa Swynnerton was accepted as an associate member. The first woman to become a member of the Royal Academy was Laura Knight, elected in 1936.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Barbara Strozzi: Venetian Intellectual, Performer, and Composer

Barbara Strozzi (baptized 6 August 1619)

A c. 1630 portrait, The Viola da Gamba Player,
generally regarded as a portait
of Barbara Strozzi
Almost certainly the daughter of the poet and librettist Giulio Strozzi, Barbara was born to Isabella Garzoni, a member of Strozzi's Venetian household. Although her 1619 baptismal certificate lists the father as "incerto" (unknown), and although Giulio Strozzi's 1628 will gives Barbara's last name at that time as "Valle," scholars generally assume that she was Strozzi's child. 

In Giulio's final will, dated to 1650, Barbara, by then identified as Barbara Strozzi, is named as his figliuola elettiva--his "adopted daughter," though music historian Ellen Rosand notes that this is likely a euphemism for "illegitimate." (Illegitimacy presents not quite the same social stigma we might assume--a member of the ancient and noble Florentine family, Giulio Strozzi was himself the illegitimate son of Roberto Strozzi, who was the illegitimate son of . . . Well, you get the picture.)

Whether Barbara was his natural or adopted daughter, Giulio Strozzi provided his figliuola elettiva with an education and training--and entrance into a musical world that would otherwise have been closed to her as a woman. Although not much about of her formal training is known, she later named the composer Francesco Cavalli, an early composer of operas and the musical director of St. Mark's Cathedral, as one of her tutors. 

By 1634, Barbara Strozzi was noted for her performances at gatherings of both writers and musicians at the Strozzi home, perhaps arranged by Giulio in order to advance her career. If so, his plan succeeded--her voice and performance inspired the composition of two separate sets of songs by Nicolò Fontei, who described Barbara as la virtuosissima cantatrice (the most virtuosic singer).

By 1637, Strozzi had founded his own musical salon, the Accademia degli Unisoni (Academy of the Like-Minded), the group's name a pun on both "like-minded" and the practice of singing "in unison." Barbara Strozzi's role as both a participant in the meetings of the academy (Rosand indicates she was a kind of "hostess and guiding spirit" directing intellectual debate of the academy) and as an exceptional performer drew the attention of male observers--a pamphlet published by a member of a rival academy not only attacked the "like-minded" members of Giulio Strozzi's academy, it insulted Barbara Strozzi, linking her musical performances to her sexuality, suggesting that she was promiscuous if not perverse (the pamphlet claimed she had not become pregnant because she was spending most of her time with and all of her affection on a castrato) and implying she was a courtesan.

This attack was probably either intended as satire or as a "joke," but the suggestion has stuck--in her recent Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, Anna Beer not only seems to accept the old story at face value but also suggests that Giulio Strozzi prostituted his daughter--adopted or otherwise--to one of his own patrons. Okay, Beer doesn't "suggest" this--she claims it. 

Barbara Strozzi, trained and encouraged by Giulio, had a prolific and public career, her achievements recognized and accepted in Venice. She was also widely published--between 1644 and 1664, she produced eight volumes of work, some 125 compositions, including madrigals, arias, and cantatas. It is a significant body of material, and while the genres may be limited, Rosand notes that her work and its contents "places her directly within the cantata tradition of the mid-seventeenth century, along with such major figures as Luigi Rossi, Giacomo Carissimi, and Antonio Cesti. . . ." 

As Rosand also notes, it is "immediately striking" that Barbara Strozzi planned and oversaw the publication of her work, which today survives as an impressive testimony to her accomplishments.

While Beer seems unintentionally to belittle Strozzi's life and work, describing it as "erotic songs" performed by "a teenage girl" for men, Rosand provides extensive, thoughtful analysis of Strozzi's varied compositions and many examples of text and musical settings. Her article, "Barbara Strozzi, 'virtuosissima cantatrice': The Composer's Voice" (Journal of the American Musicological Society 31, no. 2 [1978]: 241-81) is an excellent resource.

And while I usually bitch about the crappy coverage--or missing coverage--of women in the Encyclopedia Britannica, you'll can find the encyclopedia's excellent entry on Strozzi by clicking here.

Rather than linking to performances of Strozzi's music on YouTube, I'll just note that there are so many available, you're spoiled for choice.

Update, 20 December 2019: A truly wonderful essay on Barbara Strozzi in today's New York Times, Bonnie Gordon's "She Quickened the Pulse of 17th Century Music," on the occasion of "her 400th birthday year." 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Ida Craddock and Free Speech, Sex Education, and Women's Rights

Ida Craddock (1 August 1847-16 October 1902)

A dedicated advocate of sex education, Ida  Craddock is a fascinating figure, one who can be dismissed as something of a crackpot, as the title of one recent biography suggests: Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman

Ida Craddock
Yes, she can be labeled a "pseudo scholar." Yes, she claimed to be a priestess of the church of yoga. Yes, she claimed to be married to an angel named Soph. And yes, her mother tried to have her institutionalized.

But this "sexual outlaw," as another recent biographer has described her, is also a figure who demands our respect even more today, when so many twenty-first century crackpots and pseudo scholars are intent not only on controlling women's bodies but also on controlling our sexuality and returning to some imagined nineteenth-century "norm."

Ida Craddock might have been the first woman admitted to the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of the Arts and Sciences--in October 1882 she had passed the university's entrance examinations and was recommended to the University for admission by the college's faculty, but the committee of trustees denied her admission and followed that denial up with "a resolution explicitly prohibiting the admission of women to the College."

Having denied Craddock admission, they decided to create a (separate but equal?) college for women, once they had raised enough funds. But, you guessed it: although the trustees "committed themselves to establishing a college for women at Penn," it took "more than fifty years . . . before the College for Women matriculated its first students."

Despite this disappointment, Craddock went on to publish a textbook on stenograpphy, her Primary Phonography, in 1882 (to see a copy, click here), and found a position teaching stenography at the Quaker Girard College. 

Craddock had been born and educated as a Quaker, but by 1887 she had become a Unitarian and was involved with the Theosophical Society, studying, translating, and unifying mystical literature. She moved to Chicago and immersed herself in sex education, offering marriage and sex counseling to men and women in a clinic she established on Dearborn Street. 

In addition to personal counseling, she offered a course by mail, the "Regeneration and Rejuvenation of Men and Women through the Right use of the Sexual Function." The course cost ten dollars, no small sum, but in return she provided reading material, a questionnaire, and two personal letters of advice and instruction, based on the questions provided by the "student."

She also drew attention by her public defense of Fahreda Mahzar, also known as "Little Egypt," a belly dancer who performed at the "A Street in Cairo" exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Conservative critics wanted to close down the popular performances--Craddock wrote in defense of the dance, describing it as a "religious memorial" that was about "purity and self-control." That description may not have persuaded authorities, but the exhibit stayed open. 

Craddock's follow-up defense of the performance, published in the medical journal Chicago Clinic, drew the attention of Anthony Comstock to Craddock and her work. Comstock was the U.S. Post Office's "special agent" whose job was to enforce federal obscenity statutes.* His pursuit of Craddock would be relentless.

The 1873 law prohibited "obscene, lewd, and lascivious materials" from being sent in the mail. Included under this law was "any article or thing intended for the prevention of conception or the procuring of abortion" and any advertisements for those "articles" or "things."

Although she defended what she called the danse du ventre, Craddock hardly advocated sexual "perversion." In fact, she agreed with many of Comstock's own views of sex and sexuality--she condemned prostitution, masturbation, and, perhaps surprisingly, oral sex, the use of contraceptives, and abortion.

But she differed from Comstock in her view that sex was normal and natural. She did not think sex should be limited to procreative acts, and she believed that women, as well as men, should participate actively in--and should enjoy--sex. 

To educate men and women about her views, she produced a number of privately printed educational tracts to be distributed to her clients, including "Letter to a Prospective Bride" (1897), "Advice to a Bridegroom" (1897), "Right Marital Living" (1899, published in and by the Chicago Clinic), "Spiritual Joys" (1900), describing the tantric sexual technique of "controlled orgasm and sustained thrill," and The Wedding Night (1902), a twenty-four page pamphlet addressed to both women and men, preparing them with frank anatomical descriptions, honest information about sexual positions and orgasm, and a stress on the importance of sexual pleasure.

It was the piece in the Chicago Clinic that spurred Comstock to action. On 27 October 1899, Cradock was indicted in federal court under Postal law 3893, commonly referred to as the Comstock Law. Clarence Darrow posted her bond, and Craddock herself pleaded not guilty to the charge of having published an "obscene, lewd, and lascivious" pamphlet, too obscene, lewd, and lascivious to be entered into the record. (reformer Alice B. Stockham would be charged in 1905 under the same law.)

But after her decision to fight, sensing the way the prosecution would go, Craddock  decided to plead guilty after all, and she received a suspended sentence. Believing that she was "divinely led," Craddock moved to New York--as she wrote, she was determined "to face this wicked and depraved man Comstock in open court and to strike the blow which shall start the overthrow of Comstockism." 

On 5 March 1902 she was again arrested, this time under New York law for having sent a copy of The Wedding Night in the mail. She was sentence to a three-month term served in the Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island) workhouse.

Craddock served her sentence, but as soon as she was released, she was arrested once more, this time under the federal Comstock law. While her defense was in preparation, she wrote to make public the conditions in the Blackwell's Island workhouse. She was found guilty.

Facing a five-year sentence, Ida Craddock committed suicide on 16 October 1902. In a letter to her mother, she wrote: "I maintain my right to die as I have lived, a free woman, not cowed into silence by any other human being." 

For an excellent introduction to Craddock, you may want to check out the website dedicated to her by clicking here. You will find some full texts of her work, as well as two letters she wrote about her decision to commit suicide, the letter to her mother and the "letter to the public," both composed on 16 October, the day of her death.

*For Grace Haley's informative piece on the Comstock Act and the way it is being deployed by forced-birth activists and politicians today, here is a link to the essay, published at Jessica Valenti's Abortion, Every Day.