The Impossibility of a Female Artist
By Claire Margerison
2018 marks the two hundredth birthday of Emily Brontë. It also happens to be the year that I’ve decided to read all of the Brontës’ novels. Having dabbled in a little Emily and Charlotte before, I decided to start with Anne. Her two novels are filled with questions about the role of women, the choice of marriage, and the treatment of individuals across the classes.
In particular, the role of working women is a central focus to both Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The very idea of a woman working acts as an allegory for potential freedom and autonomy: it provides an alternative to being dependent and, to a certain extent, an alternative to marriage. This article will explore how the female artist is portrayed as limited in these two novels, as well as looking at the ways in which this limit still exists given the reaction to Lily Cole’s appointment as creative partner to the Brontë Society.
In Brontë’s Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham works to sell her art in order to escape her abusive husband whom she no longer loves. Similarly, in Agnes Grey, Agnes works as a governess to support her family following the death of her father. What strikes me about both of Anne Brontë’s novels in particular is the autonomy with which Helen and Agnes act; though they are limited in their ability to be free to make their own choices, ultimately they are allowed to choose the path their lives take. However, unfortunately both Helen in Wildfell Hall and Agnes’ sister Mary in Agnes Grey find that they are unable to sustain a living and gain total autonomy through the creation and selling of their art. They are given a glimpse of freedom, but they are unable to wholly achieve it.
Despite being published over one hundred and fifty years ago, the ways in which Anne Brontë approached art continues to be relevant today. Art is a form of expression – a freeing of the mind and a documentation of voice; as has often been the case with female expression, female voices in art have been eradicated from records throughout history. It is important to note that Emily, Charlotte and Anne Brontë were all encouraged by their father to think creatively and to create art and pieces of writing. They spent many hours rambling across the moors and sharing their work around their writing table. You only have to walk into their house to gain a sense of their lifestyle in their little parsonage in Yorkshire. These women were afforded a freedom of expression not often given to women in this period. In more general terms, female artists weren’t legitimised and it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that a movement emerged advocating female art and artistry.
When we consider the emerging dominance of a liberation narrative in the past one hundred years, art has been one of the most expressive means for individuals to circulate and share their voices. For instance, during the Suffrage movement there were a number of women who became artists in order to share their political message in what was thought to be a very masculine form. There was a recognition within this movement of the importance of sharing their message through their artwork in order to reach larger audiences. This particular movement harnessed the power of creating art (a skill traditionally associated with men) and spread their political message, gaining autonomy and control whilst doing so. The expression of views, feelings and messages through art is a liberating feeling and represents a use of a person’s individuality; thus it can be seen as a threat to power.
If Helen or Mary could sell their paintings as well as any man could, why couldn’t they have power over their money, or choose who they marry, or have the same level of education? Brontë used her authorial power in order to suggest to the reader that there was an alternative life for women – despite not explicitly and radically stating that the women in her novels could and should have as much autonomy as men, the author used her art to suggest an alternative to her audience.
Unfortunately, it feels even more apt to consider the impossibility of the female artist when we look at the outrage from a particular male member of the Brontë society in response to Lily Cole's appointment as a creative partner in the society. Cole is not only an activist, model, and actress, she also has a double first in History of Art from Cambridge; she is an accomplished young woman and her appointment is in my opinion a very positive move for the society. If it encourages younger people to visit the parsonage, to pick up the books, and to ultimately engage with the legacy of these three young women, then I don't see how you could argue otherwise.
When we study novels such as the Brontës’ in school and when we approach them at university, or even when we pick them up ourselves to read, we are engaging with the legacy of three women who wrote and put their artwork out at a time when women had to write under a pseudonym in order to get published. The female artist, embodied not only in the characters of the Brontës’ novels but also in themselves as writers, is empowered, legitimised and recognised when she is read and observed. Yet, the figure of the female artist is a tricky one to navigate and still today is met with dissatisfaction. With this member’s disapproval of Cole's appointment, comes an undermining of her legitimacy as an artist. Whether we look at the way in which the Brontës used their art to convey the need for freedom of expression among those marginalised, or at Cole’s appointment as creative partner to the Brontë society, there is a definite limit established as to the power the female artist can have. The disapproval with which Cole is met, and the obstacles both the Brontës characters face exemplify the struggles the female artist undergoes.
Ultimately, Anne Brontë’s novels in particular present women who create art in order to be financially and ideologically independent, and struggle to do so due to their femininity. They are not seen as legitimate artists, despite acknowledgement of their artistry by others throughout the novels. Just as women and their voices have been eradicated from the records of history, so today does their power remain limited, and the figure of the female artist seem to be an impossibility.
Title image sourced via pixabay