Portrait of a Lady (1551)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve chosen for my second woman artist portrait Caterina van Hemeseen (1527/8 to 1581 or after 1587) because she’s one of the earliest named women artists in Europe (the source books and surveys and collections often begin with her, or include her early on among early modern women. She is also not as favored as Sofonisba and Lucia Anguissola (1536-1625, 1536-65) or the rare (glorious, as in her bowl of peaches) still life painter for the era, Fede Glizia (1578-13). Germaine Greer (Obstacle Race, 109-10, 167, 253) finds Van Hemessen’s work “archaic” with a “carefully restricted range of feeling.” Greer mentions as a parallel in the early 20th century the small, diffident, intense paintings compared to the large originality and variety of her brother Augustus. I disagree, and feel people are not sufficiently taking into account the repressive religious culture of the low countries and Germany in general into account. Any rate I am impressed by Caterina Van Hemessen’s portraits, find them memorable, arresting, appealing.

The above 1551 “Portrait of a Lady” is rightly her most often reproduced work, known as surely by her and my favorite. What is most often described is her attention to realistic detail, her ability to convey textures of clothing, and the things her sitters are seen with: a small lapdog (as in the above), musical instruments played, herself painting. In the above painting the dog’s collar has bells; the woman wears a beautiful lace blouse, open collar to emphasize her shoulders, red velvet sleeves, embroidered skirt. What I’d like to call attention to (which we see above) is the expression on their faces. That is what is arresting. The sad eagerness of their eyes, the worn nature of their lived in skin, their nervous hands. The woman above holds the chain around her waist and fingers a bunched up handkerchief or silk flower. Again and again it is this acuity of vulnerable feeling and personal small movements in their hands that holds viewers — at any rate, holds me.

Here is another “Portrait of a Lady” about which little is known but what we see.


Van Hemessen is capable of photographic realism from a face. Note how she is twisting her ring. Her neck-cloth is individual; the slit opening and area between it and her bodice, the reddish necklace just glimpsed are meant to draw us in, to attract in a modest way sexually. Her sleeves, headdress and neck cloth all have blue highlights, polka-dots on her lace, the ring and jewelry below is red like the necklace. All the women wear corsets; hers is either especially tight or Van Hemessen has given her an artificially slender waist. I wonder what she is thinking.

About ten portraits are signed by Van Hemessen, three are presumably of her. She paints her name, “pingebat” and the year. Borzello (Seeing Ourselves, 41) says Caterina’s portrait of herself is among the earliest, if not the earliest self-portrait of a woman artist. We see her palette gripped by a left thumb, her brushes ready in her fist, a mahlstick. Caterina has a high collar, and presents herself as a professional painter, but she is also dressed richly: layered velvet skirt, fancy work on her sleeves and lace around her neck. The face is a real unique face and resembles the faces of the woman at the spinet and in a nun’s habit below.


I chose her also because how she was able to become a woman painter by trade and vocation, resembles that of many of the women who became painters until the mid-18th century (when conditions in society and attitudes towards women and art began to change enough): she belonged to a painting family. The chief successful painter can be a father, a husband, an male-in-law (occasionally a woman is central too). Caterina van Hemessen (Jordi Vigue, Great Women Masters of Art, 33-38) was the second daughter of the painter Jan van Hemessen who in 1524 became a master of Antwerp, in 1548 a senior member of its guild.

This young woman playing the virginal is thought to be Caterina’s sister, Christina (according to records 2 years older than Caterina):


In Jordi Vigue’s book it’s suggested this one is meant to go with the one of Caterina painting as a set. Christina (if the girl is she) is so richly colored: black background alive, dark shades on her warm brown sleeves, high color, tight framed headdress with lappet. Her instrument is on a diagonal line, a spinet and virginal. The sitter’s skill (her fingers are playing) marks her as upper class, educated.

Caterina studied in her father’s studio and, as Catholic, painted religious scenes, all multi-figured, abundantly detailed. The one below shows they could be unusual because of its depiction of Veronica, kneeling on the ground holding an image of Jesus’s face:


According to an apocryphal text, The Death of Pilate, Veronica was bringing cloth to an artist to request a portrait of Jesus. She met Jesus on her way to the studio, and he took the cloth from her and his image magically appeared there. During the middle ages, she became part of the many legends of the era: she is said to have pitied Jesus as she saw him on the way to Calvary, and the cloth she used to dry his sweating, beaten-up shattered face magically had his image appear on it as a result. The composition is traditional except for the parallelism of Veronica with Jesus, the naturalism of her pose. Care has been take to make her sleeves and headdress a light teal blue, they are loose, her gown, golden flows around her. I can’t make out what the blackish area is; it might be a powerful thigh pushing out under her undershift (unusual for its dark colors). These colors are repeated in a woman higher up in the painting who is praying in a ritual posture, and a nobleman on a horse. Different figures have curiosity on their faces as they turn to look at what’s happening around them: it’s like a miniature, or an illuminated vignette in a book, with an arch to the side, a tower seen in the distance. It’s oil on wood.

She married Christian de Morien, organist for the Antwerp Cathedral, a gentleman, on February 23, 1554; in 1555 she is recorded as maid of honor in an official list of the court of Brussels. She seems to have found a patroness in Mary of Austria, sister to Emperor Charles V: Ludovico Guicciardini who named her as one of the five famous woman painters of the era, explained in his Descrittione de tutti i poesi bassi (1567) that Christian and Caterina were invited to Spain for “rare and excellent virtues” and were to receive an “endowment for the rest of their lives.” But after Mary of Austria’s death, records suggest the couple returned to Antwerp. The anecdotes offered are contradictory: her relationship with Mary of Austria (sometimes called Hungary) is elaborated upon (with no proof cited) as seemingly attached; it’s said she had a generous pension and must have kept on painting; but equally often that she left off painting later in life (see 50 Women Artists, Weideman et alia, 12-15; Honig Fine, Women and Art, 28-29; Heller, Women Artists, 24-25). Mary’s art collection included Titian and was bought by Philip II, became part of the foundation for the Portrait Gallery of the Prado. That’s why Caterina’s connection with Mary is brought out.

Heller sees Caterina as valued as a portraitist and miniaturist. For example, this “Portrait of a Man” (1552):


Although he wears the flattened cap, a variety of bonnet over very short hair. He wears a black doublet with precious stone decoration, and light ocher sleeves and trim, matching the luminous skin color of his face and blonde short beard; a ring hangs from his neck he wears another on his finger, grips a sword (no doubt about his status) decidedly; he other arm is less. I like its somberness and the lack of anecdote.

Caterina van Hemessen was included in Giorgio Vasari’s Vite (1568, published in Florence) in a chapter on Flemish painters (as an excellent miniaturist?). Later a Dutch physician from Dresden, Van Beverwyck (1594-1647) mentions her. There are no known certain works by her after 1555; there are attributions which are uncertain (a portrait of a young woman dated 1560 in the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Two more pictures: Not much is known about this, really only that the image is by Van Hemessen, and (what you see) of an older woman:


Her wedding ring shows; she has rich fur and lace trimming, is in black with a high collar, tight headdress. She looks out warily, is careful about her expression which has a sadness in it; she is controlling her long-fingered hands by keeping them folded one over another.

This last one is of doubtful attribution. The face is very like Caterina’s own, resembles the one of the young woman at the virginals and has been titled: “The artist’s sister in a nun habit:” it shows the same attention to hands doing something, the vulnerable (slightly nervous) expression on the face as most of Caterina’s known portraits. She looks alive; she is just swathed with cloth.


It’s appropriate to end with a short dedicatory poem by Anna Bijns (writer, schoolteacher, nun, born in Antwerp, by 1516, died 1575). A rare and informative essay on and some translations of her poetry have been written by Kristiann P.F. Aercke (in Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, ed. Katherine Wilson, “Germanic Sappho,” pp 364-97):

Artistic tempers, with art on your minds
Nothing here bu what in good faith was done.
Now knowing this, relish its affection even more.
And in case of a fault, well, ’tis a woman’s work!

Bright spirits, to learn from you what’s right
I am prepared to do; let your wisdom join mine.
In technique my skill, I know, is poor,
Not masterly yet; hence my teachers I praise highly,
So, eagerly, by artists I’ll be taught.

For love of Truth, for an ever stronger Faith
I have blithely worked and shed no tears.

Two more anthologies which offer a good sense of the inner world of early modern women: Jane Stevenson and Peter Davidson’s Early Modern Women Poets (good and ample selection, some from Latin, Gaelic, local dialects, but alas all British); Betty Travitsky’s The Paradise of Women (all Englishwomen except for Mary Stuart who of course lived in Britain).


Alice Vikander as Vera Brittain bringing a telegram to Miranda Richardson as Miss Lorimer telling of Miss Lorimer’s brothers’ death (2015 Testament of Youth)

Dear Friends and readers,

Precisely a month ago, I wrote a blog on a fine documentary about the fashion designer and collector, Iris Apfel, promising to write blogs on those women’s films this summer that I managed to see. Defined narrowly as a film made by women, one where a major figure in the film, director, screenplay writer, the majority of the producers are women, I’ve only watched three thus far. Iris Apfe is a documentary by Albert Maysles. Defined broadly as a film deeply empathetic to women’s points of views with an admirable likable heroine at its center I’m into my sixth.

Iris, promotional shot for her outside the movie

On my life-writing political blog, Under the Sign of Sylvia II, I dealt (however briefly) with a superb re-make of Far from the Madding Crowd, with Cary Mulligan in the key role of Bathseeba derives from a novel by Thomas Hardy.

Carey Mulligan as Bathseeba with Jessica Barden as Liddy, her lady’s-maid, servant, helpmeet (2015 Far from the Madding Crowd)

The screenplay is by David Nicholls and the director Thomas Vinterberg, but what distinguishes the film is its presentation of Bathseeba as a pro-active competent intelligent entrepreneurial farmer-businesswoman; she is not a semi-sullen sex kitten (as was Julie Christie in part). I’ll Dream of You, featuring Blythe Danner, also has a male director and writer, Brett Haley and Mark Brasch, producers Haley and Rebecca Green, but its deep empathy with the lives of older women living alone, comic and realistic makes it a film whose audience is women.

A semi-comic serious scene of Carol with her support-group friends

Izzy and I saw another re-make this time of a 1970s TV BBC mini-series, Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain into a two-hour cinema film, comes closer to a true woman’s film as its scriptwriter is Juliette Towhidi, who was the central force in Calendar Girls and Death comes to Pemberley, not to omit The Jane Austen Book Club, from Karen Joy Fowler’s novel. It was deeply moving and I hope many people will see it and think of (or go see in order to frame the movie accurately) Towdhidi’s previous films.

I am hampered by my lack of memory of the TV mini-series in 1975 and lack of stills: it had 5 parts and was 275 minutes long, and I remember was much admired at the time — as the book is a masterpiece and it was a faithful progressive 1970s good film. This one was a mere 100 minutes. That a film is shorter need not make it inferior. The new Far from the Madding Crowd is much better than the old one; the 2007 Room with a View (by Andrew Davies) only some 95 minutes, a TV adaptation in some ways also better than the much lauded (perhaps overpraised) lush sensual Merchant-Ivory one, despised the especially effective performances of Denholm Elliot, Daniel Day-Lewis and Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helena Bonham Carter.

The young men voluntarily going off to be “heroes” — only one of the young male characters will return

The older mini-series focused on Vera’s career, her trouble getting to Oxford, and while it was filled with grief, much of the hard experience of war was put off-stage; it was decorous, discreet, repressed. The 2014 Testament of Youth, directed by James Kent, produced by Rosie Alison, is too romantic: but I suggest it be seen as expressionistic in the way of Towhidi’s Death Comes to Pemberley, the contrasts of lush green world and romance at the opening are meant symbolically with the wasteland and horror of the later parts, but it does work.

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH - 2015 FILM STILL - Pictures: Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain - Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham   Sony Pictures Classics Release.
There are many portrait shots of all the characters and landscapes of war, trains, devastation and impossibly idyllic green springs which then turn to autumn wastelands

Miranda Richardson as the Headmistress of Somerville is memorable. Anna Chancellor is there as Vera’s financee’s mother; Emily Watson plays Alice’s mother. Cyclical structure, women’s imagery, depth of emotional charge, all are here in all three. The new one is vitriolically anti-war. Indeed I am not sure that if you have recently experienced the death of a beloved person which you feel is the result of social neglect, norms, someone thrown away, this film might not leave you distraught. Both Izzy and I were near that towards the end. But it is also cathartic, as Alice Vikander turns her life around to work as an pacifist. It’s not a great film but made explicitly appropriate to our world of ceaseless imperialistic war today.

Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery has just about vanished after a week in my local moviehouses. It never played in DC itself and turned up in only one art cinema in Northern Virginia. I don’t know how it’s lasted in other areas of the US but if at all like Tamara Drewe, directed by Stephen Frears, screenplay Moira Buffini, produced by Alison Owen (which also played only in one art cinema in Northern Virginia at thee time), Gemma Bovery has hardly been shown and then vanished.

So my recommendation is probably to try it on Netflix, through streaming or a DVD. Like Tamara Drewe which is a re-write or updating of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Gemma Bovery is a rewrite of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and the result has been that the few American reviewers who noticed it, have disliked it as not sufficiently like Flaubert. Since it’s based on Posy Simmonds’s rewrite, that’s not surprising. What did surprise me when I went back to Simmons’s graphic novel is how little it is like the mood of Simmonds’s book, so perhaps this stubborn mistake is just as well.

Fontaine did take over plot points (like Gemma gains and loses weight): the house in France and much else tries to realize the cartoons of Simmonds’s graphic novel

In a way as to major story line, it is more like what people remember Flaubert’s novel for: a woman bored by her husband, takes unworthy lovers and ends up dead.

Neil Schneider is just one of three drop-dead beautiful males who turn out to be worthless (he plays the Rudolph role from Flaubert’s novel)

Only in the film the framing is a POV from Martin Joubert, a French actor Fabrice Luchini who watches from his shop and himself throws a central wrench in the proceedings out of jealousy and as far as the film allows us to see Gemma has no romantic delusions. Posy Simmons’s book is a deeply melancholy one with (to me) a thoroughly unpleasant heroine surrounded by awful people; Joubert (with a different first name) is deeply remorseful; the only bearable character is Charles, an underdog type. The book is as bitter as Flaubert’s novel ultimately is, only not misogynistic: everyone is an egoistic ultimately mean person, all masquerading as ever so liberal, arty, but above all (what counts) upper class in habitas, objects, taste.

Fontaine’s film is comic, ironic: she omits the first half of the novel which explains why Gemma and Charlie have come to France (so Gemma can escape Charlie’s first wife’s demands and her children and her own memories of a affair with one Larry, a vicious handsome type who is of course successful in the world).

Gemma and Joubert (Gemma Atherton also played Tamara Drewe)

The film might have been much better if it was as bitter as the book but then no one anywhere would have gone to see it. Instead it presents these awful people neutrally, blandly, and makes Gemma still an utterly irresponsible selfish woman artist through the perspective of a now self-deprecating lecherous Joubert who sees the incongruities of what’s happening, is wry about the motives of the English people who live upper class lives in picturesque rural France. Enough of Posy Simmons comes through — but I’m not sure the effect is not both misogynistic (the other women of the film are jealous and spiteful and cold) and far from delighted by super-handsome rakish males or older lecherous ones. It’s almost misanthropic which is what I thought Flaubert’s cool book ulimately was. It could be said Charlie is again the only endurable character except here he is, as in Simmons, useless except for his income and as a person who restores works of art. Why anyone would want to restore them for people who are so worthless inwardly is a question one might ask after watching the film. A number of the characters are involved in kitsche art: Gemma restores old houses to look like 19th century artisans’ huts for huge amounts of money.

It’s a woman’s satire, and (as a couple of feminist critics of Austen argued in the 1970s, e.g. Alison Sulloway of JA and the Province of Womanhood), is not directed at large “universal norms,” but empirical, revealing the hellhole of meaningless at the of core of daily behaviors.

I saw it with my friend Sophie who is Parisian French, and she said it captured some absurd norms of French life and laughed away again and again. The photography was so alluring, shots capturing painting like scenes; it ends on a still on a window looking out, a long-standing woman artist motif.

Keeley Hawes as Lady Agnes just brought her baby home, Alex Kingston the new half-sister-in-law (2012 U/D, scripted and created by Heidi Thomas) — babies and children play a large role in both episodes I cover

I am probably cheating to include the second season of Upstairs Downstairs, the 40 year re-boot (to use Anibundel’s contemporary term) of the 1970s once much beloved Upstairs Downstairs, conceived by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins. We are three years since. But I am experiencing deep pleasure and new insight over the past few weeks by watching this new series and have already praised strongly the new version, and summarized Giselle Bastin’s film study (in Taddeo and Leggott’s anthology of film criticism, Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama) where Bastin finds series excellent: it deals openly and directly with the Nazi politics of the era. She says it has been much misunderstood because it’s not comic, but serious, realistic melodrama insofar as its genre allows. Tonight I want to endorse Heidi Thomas’s re-make by agreeing with Bastin. As with The Bletchey Circle (Agent Carter, with Hayley Attwell) had a close call for next season), a real disservice to womens’ films was done when the new Upstairs Downstairs was cancelled because the standard for ratings is not just very high, but there is a strong prejudice against women’s aesthetics and norms.

I’ve watched only the first two episodes of the six of the second season but since I’m trying to keep this blog as a concise survey, this helps my purpose as I’ve seen enough to recognize the high quality of the second season. It takes much further the characteristics of the first and moves away from the original 40 year old show altogether. First by unhappy chance Jean Marsh (Rose Buck) had a real heart attack and had to remove herself from the series, and with her removal, Atkins decided to go too. No longer are we remembering 40 years ago.

Mr Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough) has had another life beyond making sure the dinner proprieties are kept up

In the first episode of the second season the attitude of mind is seriously anti-war at the same time as all justice is done to a critique of why Chamberlain gave in. It’s done through having the central character (Keeley Hawes, very good — she is the core of the two hours), having her baby and having two young children; plus in the house they have a Downs Syndrome young woman brought in as a half-sister. They really did hire a Downs Syndrome girl – the way on Breaking Bad the son was a disabled actor. Alex Kingston joins the cast as a half-sister of Atkins (replacing her as an older woman in the house). The thematic center is a justification of conscientious objection (though the story of the new butler who turns out to have been a conscientious objector in WW10 which offers a juxtaposing perspective on the critique of Chamberlain (against war as war). Tragically the monkey left to the protection of Amanjit Singh (Art Malik) is killed because people have been so frightened by the propaganda about chemical warfare (a footman uses the poor animal as a guinea pig).


The second episode takes us into Hitler Germany’s betrayal of the peace pact, the story of an attempt to rescue German Jewish children, again features the Nazi leanings of the aristocracy and Duke of Kent (Blake Ritson plays the part) and brings back Claire Foy (Lady Percy) as disaffected, rootless, exploitative of servants, who I can see is nonetheless going to be a bitter tragic figure. This time the cook-housekeeper Mrs Thackeray (Anne Reid) attempts to re-join her family and finds as an older woman she is obsolete, not wanted, will be taken advantage of, and returns to her job for independence and appreciation of her art.

By contrast as the Indian ex-servant of Maud, Lady Holland, he tries to enact values he associates with her

There is a feast of films made by women, dealing intelligently with women’s issues, endorsing their lives, using a woman’s aesthetic available this summer. Don’t miss them. For myself later tonight I’ll be watching the third episode of the second season of the 2012 Upstairs Downstairs.


Still Life with Blue and White Porcelain (1909)

Dear friends and readers,

I begin my project with transferring one of several brief life and works I did some years ago which were put on a blog created by Jim (it was attacked by a virus). We rescued these but they are buried on my website, most are scattered and not retrievable here but I can begin with one in a revised form here where perhaps it will be seen by more people and see what response I get.


A photograph of Modernsohn-Becker

Her story is moving. In Women Artists: Recognition and Reappraisal From the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century ), a survey where usually no more than a page is given to a particular artist, Karen Peterson and J. J. Wilson devote 4 pages to Modersohn-Becker (pp. 108-111); she is presented as important in Nancy Heller’s Women Artists: An Illustrated History, and in Elsa Honig Fine’s Women and Art (a history covering women’s art from the Renaissance to the 20th century), one finds three double-columned pages (pp. 114-116); Germaine Greer’s Obstacle Race tells in 3 pages her relationship with her husband and intense happiness when she was pregnant, her conflicted piety as central to her achievement and the treatment of the imagery she chose. Jordi Vigue’s Great Women Masters of Art gives her five pages with many reproductions.

p5 Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Self Portrait with Pearl Necklace 1906
A later self-portrait with pearls (1907)

She was born in Dresden, her mother was aristocratic in background; her father a railroad engineer. Her parents paid for a year of study at Bremen, and she was sent for a year to study art in London. They were strongly against her becoming a painter; they wanted her to be a teacher and to be able to paint added to the accomplishments she could teach. She enrolled in the Women’s School of the Berlin Academy (where Kollwitz studied and later taught); later she moved to Worpswede where she set up a studio and joined in a movement with the ideal of “back to nature;” colonies for studies of this kind flourished with throughout the 19th century in western Europe. Poets, novelists, artists were attracted to such places too. The Worpswede school followed a kind of “lyric naturalism;” she painted the same subject matter at first, but using flat forms, giving her figures remote or (children especially) plangent expressions, ignoring conventional perspectives, choosing color for their expressive qualities. When her work was exhibited for the first time it was adversely criticized.


Understandably depressed by her experiences, she took the first of 4 trips to Paris though (between 1900 and 1907), and was much taken with Van Gogh, Cezanne (whom she began to imitate), Gaugin and Matisse.

A girl with a rabbit (1905)

She wrote letters where she questioned the naturalistic style and says “Personal feelings should be the main thing” She wanted to record the textures of things (matte objects, flowers, her husband’s forehead, fabrics). When she returned to Worpswede, her family urged her to give up painting and become a governess. The alternate route was marriage.


Her best friend had for a time been the sculptor Clara Westhoff who, as she had, made romantic impression on Rainer Maria Rilke. Clara and Rilke married, and the two women became somewhat estranged. This experience left a lasting hurt. As Lyn Mikel Brown writes (in Girlfighting: Betrayal and Rejection among Girls [NYU Press, 1903]), many girls and women “depend on close, intimate friendships to get them through life. The trust and support of these relationships provide girls with emotional and psychological safety nets” (p. 4). When the pairing of girls break up, consequent on one of them becoming a male’s partner (as is common), the lasting memory of this betrayal and dismissal of them can be devastating and is not forgotten.

Titled Nature Morte

In 1901 Paula married a landscape painter, Otto Modersohn, with the intention of being able to pursue her art as well as a fulfilling life. He said he considered her a “genuine artist, such as there are few in the world” and predicted someday she would be well-known and respected, but she found that the experience of marriage at the time, the place and new friends were disillusioning experiences. She was given Otto’s daughter, Elisabeth, aged 8, and the task of making a home for him, and little time to pursue her work.

Still Life with Oranges, Lemon and Tomato (1906)

From her diary:

My experience is that happiness does not increase in marriage. Marriage removes the illusion, deeply embedded somewhere there is a soul-mate. One feels twice as strong what it means not to be understood, because one’s previous life was a driving desire to find another being, one that might understand. But might it not be better without this illusion, eye to eye with the great truth. I write this in my kitchen account book, sitting in my kitchen, preparing a roast of veal, Easter Sunday, 1902.


Modersohn-Becker also began to realize that she had no space and time to become herself from the narrowness of attitudes towards women and art in this colony. In 1903 she went to Paris again, without her husband; there she was encouraged by a sculptor, Bernhard Hoetger and his wife, and a sense of independence grew, though she had little money.

Self-Portrait towards the Right with Hand on Chin (1906)

Peterson and Wilson present her parents as angry at her; and reprint a pathetically grateful (!) letter to her mother for not being overly angry. She begs her mother to understand she rejoices in her “new life”; however meagre her circumstances, she writes “I live the most intensely happy time of my life” now. She thanks her husband for giving her “the most wonderful thing in the world: faith in myself.” Like Mary Cassatt, she loved the styles dependent on Japanese traditions prevalent in Paris of the day.

Paula Modersohn-Becker

She was also impressed by Egyptian art which she wanted to imitate for striking form. She felt a strong kinship with the work and subject matter of Van Gogh and Gaugin. Her subjects were often people from the poorer classes.

Girl Next to a Birch Tree (1904)

Peasants, brooding, depersonalized, yet full of tender feeling.

Mother and child

During another visit to Paris (1905), she enrolled at the Academie Julien and discovered the work of Vulliard, Denis, Bonnard; the avant-garde dealers. She visited such studios alone (a daring act at the time); she urged her husband to get along living without her, but he joined her in Paris, and she then returned with him to Worpswede (she had no means of support besides his money) and joined in another exhibit, her second and last.

Country Girl from Worpswede Sitting in a Chair (1905)

Greer says despite his love for her, her husband did not understand what she was doing; it did not help that none of her paintings seemed to sell; he wanted her to spend far more time as his wife. This time her work was praised by Pauli for its “use of color, sense of form, and decorative tendencies,” but concluded still “even now her strong and serious talent will not win over many friends among the public at large.”

It was around this time that Rilke knew her as an artist, respected her and they are said to have had many discussions together, but he did not include her or his wife in a monograph he wrote on the community.

This is a painting of her by someone else in this community

Only in later years did Rilke describe her art as “individual,” “strangely approaching Van Gogh and his tendency;” and after she died, he said she had been exposed to the post-impressionists, Maillol, Matisse, Henri Rousseau” and “went beyond the German successors to these artists.”


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876) was born towards the end of the eon-long era where women died young from childbirth. To coin Angela Carter’s phrases in a of Edward Shorter’s A History of Women’s Bodies (in Shaking a Leg, ed. Jenny Uglow [Penguin, 1997], pp. 70-71), the close of “millenia upon millennia of indescribable and largely unacknowledged pain which women have undergone solely on account of the physiology of sexual difference, at the uselessness of both academic and folk medicine in the face of the commonest gynaecological and obstretric mishaps in the past, and at the institutionalized mistreatment of women by their men folk.”

Modersohn-Becker died in 1907, age 31, of an embolism, three weeks after the birth of a daughter.

On her sixth anniversary — she looks very happy; some of her most successful paintings are of nude pregnant women with necklaces, but in fact she was not pregnant when she painted herself her (see essay by Noemi Mercier linked in to the comments).

During the Nazi period her paintings were removed from any museum walls they were found in; she was labelled “degenerate” and her paintings called “embarrassing.”

A child clutching a clinging cat

Of a few hundred complete paintings she had sold very few. She left them all and many etching and drawings. Many have been preserved. Her daughter had a long life and when her daughter died, she was buried next to her mother. Fran (see her comments) has sent me a photograph of their beautiful monument by her friend, Bernhard Hoetger:


This is by her husband, how he saw her in 1901:

1-M71-E1901 P.Modersohn-Becker / Gem. v. O.Modersohn Modersohn-Becker, Paula, geb. Becker, verehel. (Otto) Modersohn, Malerin, Dresden 8.2.1876 - Worpswede 10.11.1907. - 'Paula-Modersohn-Becker im Garten malend'. - Gemaelde, 1901, von Otto Modersohn (1865-1943). Oel auf Pappe, 58 x 41 cm. Bremen, Paula Modersohn-Becker-Stiftung.

Heller describes Modersohn-Becker’s art as “affecting” and “lyrical.” It seems to me what was not understood or liked by (just about all male) reviewers was her typical subject and treatment of that subject: peasant and tribal women presented monumentally, primitively, sometimes crudely, with distortions towards a Matisse stylization, oddly unsexualized. They are plain, seen in adolescence, poverty, old age, and pregnant. Sometimes very sad. They sit or lay down like slightly flattish or still statues amid flowers, vases, beads, crowns and props for festivals. To quote Peterson and Wilson again, these images of women

recur in her many self-portraits with the same unflinching gaze within and without in icon-like paintings. Paula Modersohn-Becker is constructing a mythology for us all out of the still moments in women’s lives.

p18 Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) A Girl's Head in front of a Window 1906

Honig Fine ends her portrait with a comment from Alfred Werner that Modersohn-Becker would not have wanted to be included in feminist art surveys: “Aloof as she was from the Feminist movement, she would have resented putting too much emphasis on her sex in connection with her profession.” I cannot believe this.

I end this brief sketch with Modersohn-Becker’s moving statement in her diary (quoted by Wilson and Peterson):

To sleep among my paintings is beautiful. My studio is very light during moonlit nights. Upon waking I quickly jump up and I look at my work: my paintings are what first meet my eye.

Her art is beautiful, and her life as a woman artist (as Greer says) is characteristic of many women. If you want to know why women are erased from exhibits, not found in books except centering on women, how their careers often look, here is your paradigm.


From Susan Herbert’s foolish Operatic Cats: The Marriage of Figaro: the ludicrous happy ending (felt totally unbelievable in this production)

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d call attention to an ironically worthwhile Marriage of Figaro playing for another weekend at the Barns Theater at Wolf Trap park. I went with my daughter, Yvette (as I call her) and she has written a concise assessment. I concur with her on the Folger Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (which we also saw this past weekend), adding only that what was so vitally resonant in the 1960s, seemed somehow obsolete; all the hurt idealisms of the wit are gone from the air, what tripped off the original actors tongues’ ever so lightly in despair seemed heavy-handed, hard-going and left this audience flat.

What I’d like to add as an analogous truth about this second production is a similar kind of step-by-step production at Wolf Trap, leaving hardly anything out, processing each gesture fully, had the effect of highlighting strongly those 18th century qualities that no longer work for an audience and or the actor-singers. At each turn of the plot, the jarring between what some of the young singers regarded as emotion they could respect, believe in, tolerate was at a distance from what the character was supposed to be emoting about so often the actor-singer became arch or stiff.

Thomas and Lieberman as Figaro and Susanna

Richard Thomas became stronger as Figaro when he was no longer expected to regard the coming adulterous use of his wife by the Count as a part of some comedy. What the 18th century (and Rossini too) found hilarious (cuckoldry, undermining maleness) is no longer socially funny — and the underlying tones of Mozart are hard and came out.

Susan Herbert’s Figaro (from the Barber of Seville)

Reginald Smith as Count Almaviva sang the whole of his long aria at the opening of the third act where he is indignant that his valet could conceive of happiness for himself, while he, the Count, was deprived of his least whim; the whole thing reeked of egregious disdain for anyone beneath the aristocratic order was pulled out line-by-line; the offensive obliviousness of the man’s utter selfishness and lack of concern for “lower others.” I realized for the first time was what roused audiences to call this opera-play inflammatory. Kim Pensinger Witman and her crew were (like those at the Met) unwilling to present Abigail Levis as Cherubino as a sexually-starved obsessive transvestite so as usual the role of Cherubino made no sense but it was so crassly acted, kept from being banal, that the underlying idea came out. More ordinarily Kerriann Otano sang her notes beautifully, never missed a line, seemed to enact poignancy perfectly but her voice (just that trifle reedy) and acting (just that trifle stiff) failed to move anyone, and the applause was (this is rare for this character) tepid.

Herbert, a drawing of the Countess

Tayla Lieberman as Susanna was trivial to a T (her voice not resonant either). The reform motive was absurd, stuck-out because of this and I felt how much this ironic play owed to the sentimental comedy of the stage.

Herbert, Susanna

The most entertaining singer-actors who might just go on for a career were those who seemed to be able to inhabit these older roles. Christian Zaremba as Bartolo, the guardian of the Countess who wanted to marry her for her money himself and turns out to be Figaro’s father; and Jenni Bank, as Marcellinas his housekeeper, jealous of Susannah who turns out to be Figaro’s mother. They believed in their utter selfishness and stupidity and envy, came up with appropriate funny gestures and had resonant voices.

Herbert, An urchin — her best cat images are the ones where tails are comically featured

One effect is to make the characters all seem half-mad and what is presented as comedy comes out as vexed egotisms clashing in blind obsessions, each of which is utterly selfish or delusional. Perhaps this is what Mozart’s text intends. Ironically then, this was curiously riveting and much better than the HD Met production which smoothed out anything untoward and was acted with banal vagueness about what were the emotions and thoughts involved in the different scenes. If nothing, else go for the music, which is well-played.

I would use more stills or photos from the production if I could, but like so many of these live performances here in the DC area, there has been a severe control on all photos or stills so I could find only one larger (see the site for a few thumbnails). Presumably the Wolf Trap people would love for their audience to promote their production by word-of-mouth, but they cannot seem to understand that this is helped along by good pictures. So I have taken the opportunity to display the gentle and intelligent mockery of Susan Herbert’s insufficiently appreciated and attended-to cats — .

Herbert, The statue, the embodiment of some force against the world’s evil comes alive in Don Giovanni — and cats understandably grow nervous


I saw this tucked away on a shelf in the Museum’s library,and this evening have bought a copy from Bookfinder  — woodcuts, lithographs, etchings and other prints created by Vanessa Bell, Dora Carrington, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant with various colour and black and white reproductions.

Dear friends and readers,

I visited the National Museum of Women in the Arts with my friend, Sophie, this past Wednesday, and we saw their new exhibit called “Organic Matters;” it was made up of recent art by women, mostly landscapes, most installation art, collages, with a strong autobiographical perspective. Kato uses digital photography to create surreal environments in which a figure of herself reappears; looked at carefully you see frustration, indifference, people apart, people seeking something somewhere else. We saw a common theme among women novelists, artist, poets, the search for some kind of refuge in the natural world:

Mimi Kato (b. 1974), Landscape in Retreat: in the Woods, 2012

We enjoyed just as much some of the items in their small permanent collection, like the row of paintings by 18th century women painters, mostly of women, some of them portraits of real women, others mythological, partly because there was a healthy representation of women artists from the same school and era, like a row of French and English painters, most not masterpieces, but set amid one another, they sort of interact and you could see how the women painted within an analogous set of aesthetic criteria and how women wanted to be seen.

Adelaide Labille-Guiard (1749-1803), Augustin Pajou, sculptor (not there, but some of her work was)

There were moments of uplift among the collection of 19th and 20th century artists, and on the fourth floor, in the library, a small exhibit of Vanessa Bell’s cover illustrations and book art for her sister, Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press.

(c) Henrietta Garnett; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Vanessa Bell, Italian scene (not there, though there is art aiming at this by her there)

When we went for tea outside the museum, we talked of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which is our favorite novel by her (for me, The Years; Sophie remembered Mrs Dalloway), and I told Sophie about the history of French translations of Woolf. I like best Woolf’s literary criticism and life-writing, at least as much as a couple of her novels (I love The Voyage Out). Sous la Sable, an unforgettable French film starring Charlotte Rampling is about a woman scholar who teaches Woolf in English in a French academy. Rampling as professor lectures on To The Lighthouse.

But as usual when I go to this museum, it saddens me. As my reader will see from my choice of images, even to try to discuss women’s art that is found there, one has to resort to other pictures to show something more adequate.

Tina Blau Birches, Near the Rotunda, Vienna (not there, nor, to tell the truth, anything like this — there is no courage to go outside fashionable modernist criteria)

The museum is open for limited numbers of hours, its collection so small, much of the wall space more than half bare, and among the items some laughably poor stuff to represent this or that age or country or type. Every once in a long while the museum will host a remarkable exhibit of women’s art, and a catalogue from it ensues. They support lectures (sometimes on women artists), and over the years I’ve lived here (35 in Alexandria, Virginia) I’ve seen them have regular musical events, plays and other performances in their auditorium. It depends who is running the museum at the moment. But its online presence beyond its actual site shows it is known in the local area for using its building as a place for your wedding, fancy party or luncheon (try and google for images).

The explanation was given us at the opening of the 20th century by Virginia Woolf in her A Room of One’s Own: women have had nowhere near the time, encouragement, education — and money. Money matters. This museum doesn’t have enough. I subscribe to the Women’s Review of Books: it comes out every two months (not twice a month or every week like the LRB, NYRB, or TLS) and is 1/8th the size of the first two.

On my Women Writers Across the Ages @ Yahoo that week we had had quite a thread on the erasure of women artists in museum exhibits, to the point that only two women impressionists are ever cited as if Mary Cassett and Berthe Morisot were the only two ever to have painted. One women had put a URL to an indignant article by Griselda Pollock, which led to an outpouring of postings on various women artists and exhibits where women were left out, or permanent installations where women were left out except as muses to men. There were a large number of women impressionists, post-impressionists in several European countries, to name a few, Fanny Cherburg:

Fanny Churberg (1845-92), Winter Landscape (1880)

Marie Bashkirtseff, Gwen Johns, Anna Bilinska, Lila Perry, Paula Modershon-Becker.

There are a number of Pre-Raphaelite English women: the only ones usually cited are those sisters or mistresses of the men who painted, so to give credit, the museum has a wall-length mural by

Elizabeth Forbes (1859-1912), Woodland Scene (1885) (not this one but her art is found in the museum)

A recent issue of the NYRB is a case in point; it is billed as about art and money in the 21st century, and while one of the important long reviews is by Ingrid Rowlandson (of the new Whitney and its exhibit from its years as a museum and years of American art across the century), there is but one woman artist mentioned. In an essay purporting to be equally about the Detroit Institute of Arts, her husband, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo, most is about Rivera and the museum; Kahlo is treated as a “sacred object” of our era (no explanation), then we are told of her impressive looks; she gets a paragraph and one half about how she is ever autobiographical and a mention of an exhibit in NYC about her depiction of gardening. Her central feminist themes, themes about disability are never mentioned; that she’s a woman comes up only in how she is treated: her appearance, a painting of her in the midst of her husband’s work.

I could go on, but all this has been said before and too many times. So partly as a result of this visit, I’ve decided to try to do something in a small way constructive: make series of blogs on women artists. For a number of years on my WWTTA listserv I’d put a new picture up on the main site each week, accompanied by a short life and works. I can draw on these. One of the problems is names are not known, but I have in my library enough to be getting on with beyond what I’ve already written as postings to start:

Frances Borzello. Seeing Ourselves; Women’s Self-Portraits
Whitney Chadwick. Women, Art and Society (Thames and Hudson book)
—————-. Women Artists and the Surreal Movement.
Judy Chicago. The Dinner Party.
Deborah Cherry. Painting Women.
Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Peltz. Brilliant Women: 18th Century Bluestockings
Elsa Honig Fine. Women and Art: A history of women painters and sculptors from the Renaissance to the 20th century
Germaine Greer. The Obstacle Race
Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists, 1550-1950.
Nancy G. Heller. Women Artists: An Illustrated History.
—————, ed. Women Artists: Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts (an exhibit put on by the museum (quite a number of relatively unknown artists or unknown paintings by familiar women)
Linda Nochlin. Women, Art and Power and other Essays.
Karen Petersen and J. J. Wilson. Women Artists: Recognition and Reappraisal from the early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century.
Claudio Strinati and Jordana Pomeroy. Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque (from an exhibit put on by the National Museum of Women in the Arts)
Jordi Vigue. Great Women Masters of Art.
Christiane Wiedemann, Patra Larass, Melanie Klier. 50 Women Artists You Should Know

I have so many books in my library, I might as well share their titles and some of their contents before I die, and the books are dispersed. It’s a bit ambitious, not easy to do so I’ll aim at one a month, or simply from time to time.

Emily Carr (1871-1945) — she is the sort of artist I want to cover: the shape of her career is different from that of men, but career she nonetheless had and is one of the great women Canadian artists and autobiographers.

My hope is people coming here will see pictures by women they’ve never seen before and fall in love with them.


The American Lady improved as went on — but still the same faults in part recurred, 11 Jan 1809 … I made my mother an excuse & came away; leaving just as many for their round table, as there were at Mrs Grants, 19 Jan 1813 … I have disposed of Mrs Grant for the 2nd fortnight to Mrs Digweed; — it can make no difference to her, which of the 26 fortnights in the Year, the 3 volume lay in her House, 9 February 1813 (Jane Austen)


The cover and one of the sketches of the 18th century Scots woman artist, Lady Anne Barnard (1750-1825)

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of months ago now I reported that I had submitted a panel proposal for papers on Forging Connections Among Women for the November 2016 EC/ASECS conference at West Chester. The due date for paper proposals is fast approaching and last night I wrote a proposal for a paper:

Three Scots women writers: Anne McVicar Grant, Anne Home Hunter, and Elizabeth Grant Smith (“the Highland Lady”, 1797-1885)

I propose to discuss the writing of Grant, Hunter and Grant, from a different yet related perspectives than is usually done. Anne McVicar Grant is discussed from the point of view of how her poetry and prose fits in with idealized or sentimental images of early America, and helped create the national identity and nation creating of Scotland and seen in the context of Walter Scott’s slightly later achievement. Anne Home Hunter’s poetry is discussed as it relates to her lyrical writing for Joseph Haydn’s canzonettas; she is also brought up as the beloved partner of her famous surgeon husband, John Hunter, and a London saloniere; occasionally her moving poem to her daughter upon her daughter’s marriage is brought up (mostly because it’s a poem favored by anthologizers of women’s poetry). Elizabeth Grant Smith is still known as the Highland Lady, discussed as a kind of Jane Austen from traditional private non-fictional writing selves, a mirror of her era. Using Paula Backscheider’s categories in her study of women’s poetry, and various studies of Scottish women’s writing (especially those edited by Dorothy McMillan), I will try to see their work in terms of their lives and women’s traditions of writing: Grant and Hunter as writing poetry and prose of friendship, Hunter passionate elegies, and Grant as creating a counter candid universe.

To a Friend on New Year’s Day

Dear friend, for thee, through ev’ry changing year,
Unchang’d affection draws the tie more near;
Treasure most precious, dearest to the heart,
Increas’d in value as the rest depart.
Tho’ kindred bonds may break, and love must fade,
Friendship still brightens in the deep’ning shade.
Time, silent and unseen, pursues his course,
And wearied nature sickens at her source.
Methinks I see the season onward roll,
When age, like winter, comes to chill the soul:
I tremble at that pow’r’s resistless sway
Who bears the flowers and fruit of life away …

Let me not linger on the verge of fate,
Nor weary duty to its utmost date;
Losing, in pain’s impatient gloom confin’d,
Freedom of thought, and dignity of mind;
Till pity views untouch’d the parting breath,
And cold indiff’rence adds a pang to death …

Let me still from self my feelings bear,
To sympathize with sorrow’s starting tear …

Let me remember, in the gloom of age,
To smile at follies happier youth engage;
See them fallacious, but indulgent spare
The fairy dreams experience cannot share.
Nor view the rising morn with jaundice eye,
Because for me no more the sparkling moments fly.
— Anne Hunter (1802)

I’ve written about Elizabeth Grant only as part of what I had hoped to learn from an ASECS session on women’s public and private writing in the form of weekly notes taken from a group read we had on Eighteenth Century Worlds @ Yahoo in draft stage, and thought tonight I might add concise succinct summary to these, and a couple of references to recent work on Anne Grant and Anne Home Hunter that I overlooked or have come across since writing of them as foremother poets.


In A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, edd Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan, two essays tell the story of the final publication and value of the voluminous life-writing of Elizabeth Grant, McMillan’s “Selves and Others: Non-fiction writing in the 18th and 19th century” [of women writers in English], and Peter Butter’s “Elizabeth Grant.” Over the course of a long life, Elizabeth kept up a vividly written, perceptive, unsentimental and candid record of her varied life, beginning with her grandparents (before she was born), her parents’ relationship, her own early thwarted love affair, semi-coercive marriage, and later years, only part of which were published in compilations from 1846-54, to make money. She includes trips to Cheltenham, descriptions of university life in England, and projects some surprisingly radical views of what she lived in Scotland (with real respect for local attachments in the Highlands at any rate). She is known for her ability to delight the reader with her scenes, but she can do far more than that, like enter into a tragedy of a woman whose husband dies on moors:

It was not till late autumn when our gamekeeper was on the Braeriach shooting grouse, that he saw seated on a shelf of rock midway down a precipice a plaided figure. It was all that was left of the missing shepherd … and his Colly dead beside him … His widow was past all knowledge of his fate; her anxiety had brought on premature childbirth, fever ensued, and though she recovered her strength in a degree, her mind was quite gone. She lived in the belief of the speedy return of her husband, went cheerfully about her usual work, preparing all things for him … Sometime towards evening she would look wearily round and sigh heavily, and wander a little in her talk, but in the morning she was early up and busy as ever. She was never in want, for every one helped her; but though she was so much pitied, she was in their sober way much blamed. The highlanders are fatalists … We must ‘dree our weird’, all of us, and ’tis a ‘flying in the face of providence’ to break the heart for God’s inflictions. They feel keenly too; all their affections are very warm and deep; still, they are not to be paraded. A tranquil manner is a part of their good breeding, composure under all circumstances essential to the dignity of character common to all of the race. (quoted by Butter, 231)

These were bowlderized and censored as well as abridged. Above are the first full texts unexpurgated and annotated to be published. Grant’s great-great-great-granddaughter allowed Canongate press to go forward presenting these texts as mirrors of the Highlands, as part of reconstituting a national Scottish identity. It is common for women’s autobiographies from before the 20th century to be published even centuries later by an editor whose purpose and agenda is different from the woman author’s.



Elizabeth wrote not only of her Highland life, but of her time in Ireland and France; she spent considerable time in London, England growing up, during her adolescent years, and in her later married life, Bombay, India too (alas never written up coherently, something may be learned from Bombay to Bloomsbury: A Biography of the Strachey Family by Barbara Caine).

The new full Memoirs of a Highland Lady is a masterwork of life-writing, and the other two of great interest too, yes partly as offering an incomparable depiction of all sorts of aspects of gentry to impoverished life wherever she was, but just as much of her own inner life through her telling of her struggles and all the many people she interacted with on many levels. The dry saturnine tone she can affect, the conservative framing and the real plangencies and cruelties (as when she was a child, the treatment she and her siblings were subjected to by governesses and parents) may tempt people to see her as a Jane Austen who gives us the authentic underbelly of existence, and daily life’s subversions and larger politics; there is a similarity in the authentic subterranean currents of women speaking to women where (as in what is left of Austen’s letters) a lack of publication means more liberty to speak. Like a Jane Austen or Frances Burney heroine, Elizabeth seems rarely to have been able to find a congenial female companion in her local place and time with whom to confide so she turns to forge connections with an imagined community.

For Anne Grant I omitted Catherine Kerrigan’s An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets and Paula Feldman’s British Women Poets of the Romantic Era; for her and Anne Home Hunter, Jennifer Breen’s Women Romantic Poes, 1785-1832. For Anne Home Hunter, the extraordinary revealing The Life and Poems of Anne Hunter (given the inevitable subtitle based on only a few lyrics), Haydn’s Tuneful Voice, ed, introd. Caroline Grigson (with an essay by Isobel Armstrong), essays in Mary Hunter and Richard Will’s collection, Engaging Haydn and sections in Wendy Moore’s The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery and John Kobler’s The Reluctant Surgeon, both basically biographies of her husband John Hunter.

I conclude with a link to a thread we’ve had on Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo over the past few days on the erasure of women’s impressionist artists from impressionist exhibits (yes there were a number), on how much of the women’s canon of poetry has been lost, destroyed, abridged, censored, how women artists as a group not understood at all. This paper I meant to write, this panel and the two I chaired on The Anomaly (women living alone from the later 17th through the mid-19th century in the UK and US) are part of my small effort (among many others on the world wide web) to do bring forward some of these women in their own right.

Marguerite Gerard (1761-1837), known as The Cat’s Lunch.

The above painting shows companionship between the woman depicted and her pets; she was Jean-Honore Fragonard’s sister-in-law, and he enabled her 40 year artistic career. Click on the image to enlarge and see full beauty of it. You will see that the cat is not as anatomically correct as the dog or later 18th century depictions of cats will become (say by Stubbs who is as good at cats as horses), suggesting the cat was not as commonly domesticated as yet as an at home pet as the dog was fast becoming.



It is however but Justice, and my Duty to declare that this amiable Woman [‘Anne Bullen’] was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, of which her Beauty, her Elegance, and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the charges against her, and the King’s character … The Crimes and Cruelties of this Prince were too numerous to be mentioned … and nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses and leaving them to the ruinour depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general … (Austen, The History of England, which unfortunately omits Mary Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, doubtless for reasons of space)

Dear friends and readers,

Though my daily presumed following remains at 83 (a mere drop of electrons in cyberspace), and on average I get about 200 hits a day, I here announce a new matter as if it might be influential.

When I studied medieval literature, I was told that imaginative literature did not value (nor was there money in copyright) literal originality of character and story, but everyone took from basic understood matters: 3 central ones were the matter of Arthur (still with us and producing new fiction and art), the matter of Charlemagne or France (this has gradually ceased, and its texts descend from Roland, as Orlando Furioso, Jerusalem Delivered), and the matter of Troy (Greek and Roman mythology and characters, viable until the mid-20th century and opera). The Renaissance and Shakespeare turned to contemporary short fiction in vast collections, mostly Italian in origin, Greek romance of the 3rd century.

I propose a fifth: the Tudor matter. These are all those familiar stories and characters which begin with Henry VIII, his court, his wives, and conclude with the death of Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Tudor I. It encompasses the stories of Mary Stuart (a foremother poet).

All these matters are open to endless re-doing and interpretation. Maybe we should credit the re-invention of this history as so much imaginative matter to Sophie Lee in her The Recess (1783, one of the first gothic and historical fictions), the first to tell the later parts of the Tudor matter as about the rivalry of Elizabeth and Mary Stuart through Stuart’s twin daughters; Walter Scott in several of his novels (Kenilworth, The Abbot, The Monastery), and Schiller in Mary Stuart. I’ve been deeply engaged by Renaissance women since I was 13 when I got my first adult library card and took out two fat tomes from the adult library, the lives of Jeanne d’Albret and Marguerite de Navarre (the latter woman as one of the acquaintance-friends of Vittoria Colonna part of a many years study). And this past couple of weeks in what spare time I had I’ve read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (both, both won the Mann Booker prize), watched and blogged about Robert Straughan’s mini-series (the best PBS has aired in years), and been disappointed by the RSC stage play in NYC.

As everyone paying attention to this cultural phenomena thinks he or she knows, Mantel meant to rewrite Robert Bolt’s untenable idealization of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons out of a couple of recent decades of scholarship re-formulating our view of Thomas Cromwell as no longer the corrupt complicit thug (as so indelibly played by Leo McKern).

I suggest here she had another source, or at least another kind of inspiration: women’s historical romance and feminist biographies, her stealth heroine out of Eric Ives’s The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, and the idea of re-visioning Philippa Gregory’s bringing out of the shades and into public memory, the almost forgotten Mary Boleyn, not to omit Jane (whom I reserve for anther blog, on Julia Fox’s biography of Lady Rochford). There’s nothing unusual here: women have been crediting as their source prestigious male books from Fanny Burney’s list in her Evelina, to Virginia Woolf who seems never to have read a woman contemporary, to Ann Patchett who attributes her Bel Canto to Mann’s Magic Mountain, when it’s clearly rooted in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden. Mantel also followed the rule for success for women writers by having a male hero as her surrogate.

Tonight I want briefly to defend the version of The Other Boleyn Girl directed by Justin Chadwyck, screenplay Peter Morgan, lavish production, done in HD (very early for this) with an expensive cast of brilliant actors, seemingly limitless budget for costumes, production design, locations. A commercial success, it was lambasted by the critics — by contrast to Wolf Hall, which has been praised as much as Brideshead Revisited (to be sure the 1981 mini-series) itself. It’s not a profound or great movie, but it is competent and has enriched and changed some of the directions of Tudor matter ever since.


The question of course is which Boleyn girl is “the other:” answer, both.

Mary Boleyn (contemporary portrait)

Scarlett Johansson turned into luscious yet nun-like Mary Boleyn on her way to Henry’s bed (ever obedient to her family’s aggrandizing will)

I’d like to admit that my first reaction as I began to watch was as adverse as the most sneering of the reviewers at the time. The film presented the woman as at once all powerful (machinating openly, and especially both Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn) pressuring men by telling them home truths that undermined their masculinity:

Anne Boleyn (contemporary portrait)

In Columbia PicturesÕ/Focus FeaturesÕ The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman, pictured) schemes not only to take the bed of King Henry VIII, but to become queen as well.  The film is directed by Justin Chadwick from a screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory.  Alison Owen produces.  Executive producers are Scott Rudin and David M. Thompson.
Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn actively manipulative schemer to become Henry’s wife

The romance trope also duly includes the idea they are helpless against demands of men that they have sex with them, follow their ambitions, even though they are stronger and smarter and foresee the destruction of what might make their children have long and valued and contented lives: if you are paying attention, there are more “other” Boleyn women beyond Jane Parkman, married off to George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. Lady Elizabeth Boleyn, the mother, who lost her son, daughter and a third daughter exiled in disgrace from court; Sir Thomas, her husband, died two years after the execution of George and Anne


Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Elizabeth Boleyn as the highly intelligent strong faced woman who tells off her feeble corrupt husband, Sir Thomas (played by a weak Mark Rylance) but does not defy him

Gregory and after her, Peter Morgan, turns Katharine from the usual pious resigned stone into a woman who suffers intensely in childbirth and when she sees her Henry take up with Anne Boleyn very seriously asks him forthrightly if he means to break up his kingdom’s order and his marriage because a specific woman has denied him (fucking)


Ana Torrent as Katharine eschews cant piety, and

Yes the film also followed the exaggerations of the conventions of historical romance since Madame de Scudery wrote her Clelia, giving sumptuous and expensive visual realization to what has been used to give women’s historical fiction a bad reputation.

But as I carried on watching, by the time I came to the end I saw that it had all the considerable strengths and offering to women of characters surrogates which account for the continued strength and relevance to women readers of this form, and of historical biographies of women. This was clinched for me as I witnessed the closely similar unflinching presentation of the beheading of Anne (which I now think Wolf Hall 5 imitated)


I said to myself, if we (Mantel) can revise Cromwell the ruthless instrument of Henry VIII, turning England into a groups of people seemingly unable to fight back against state terror tactics, into a basically deeply human man, deeply engaged in throwing off the hypocritical cover-up superstitions of a fanatical Catholic regime, why not revise Anne – and Mary, Katharine as a wounded angry woman, bring in the mother of these two sisters, as an intelligent thwarted one who would have done better by her son and daughters — though in this version (as in Wolf Hall) Jane Boleyn is again the spiteful sexually frustrated product of a coerced marriage, and Norfolk a ferocious non-thinking monster (Bolt, I remind my reader, had Norfolk as well-meaning if obtuse, a loyal friend to More, indifferent to religion but not friendship).

Mantel has been doing and taken seriously for what Diana Wallace says most women’s historical fiction does: re-constructing marginal figures, bringing sexuality into play as an unspoken deep motive, extending what affects public life: Anne’s plight in both films, but made more central in The Other Boleyn (as all the births are showns as hardships, dangerous, out of the control of the woman) is she cannot will a healthy boy. The difference is Mantel centered her re-vision on a man who was once in public power and changed the nature of the English state church. Much more important than any woman writhing in childbirth (which we see Anne and Mary do more than once), and weep when either what emerges is stillborn or premature, or for whatever reason is rejected by the father (as when Henry VIII rejects his illegitimate healthy son by Mary Boleyn because he is now intent on gaining Anne).

The depiction of Anne is not one people will admit to finding likable. She is too performative — too amoral. A friend suggested to me she was a kind of Becky Sharp; I thought of Austen’s Lady Susan, Trollope’s Lizzie Eustace.

Another serious flaw derives from the attempt to make the film have wide reach (people who might not know or remember the details of the Tudor debacle). This probably led to the film-makers making the characters far too explicit. It is an exaggeration to present Anne as in councils with men and family members leading some plan — women didn’t do that. Every norm and punishment prohibited it. The explicitness with which sex was discussed was not done, unreal, improbable. What Mantel and Straughan have is literary tact — the difference between Richardson’s Grandison and Austen’s Mr Knightley is literary tact. So in Wolf Hall (the mini-series) Jane Seymour sits in on one council, but it is to ask advice, not to take any lead, and to seem to obey. If she is manipulative and ambitious, we must pick it up from the actress’s face.

From Wolf Hall, Kate Philips as Jane Seymour appealing to her brother Edward (Ed Speleers) for advice

We might fault Mantel for adhering to the conventions of good woman=docile and loyal (Liz Cromwell), presenting the hardship and pain of parturition discreetly, off-stage.

One might ask (and such romances implicitly do), if Anne is (and in histories seems to have been) ambitious and successfully manipulative (she is implicitly that in Wolf Hall — that’s what Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn is there to tell Rylance as Cromwell), so are most of the men — only this film they are mostly depicted as weak, and with misguided hubristic aims (Norfolk too), with Bernard Cumberbatch as the complicit courtier-husband, Carey,

He can dance but no more …

and Eddie Redmayne as William Stafford, if well-meaning, equally supporting the Henry regime, at least not active on behalf of either Anne or Mary, but waiting in the wings (as it were) to become good husband material for the remmants left of the Boleyn family rescued by the maternal power of Mary

This film ends with an exulting intertitle that Anne and Mary won after all when Elizabeth took the throne (another part of the Tudor matter is the story of Henry’s last intelligent wife, Katharine Parr who brought her up too)

Henry (played by Eric Bana who admittedly from the feature seems to have known little of the history) is presented as weak before women, duplicitous, stupid, sexually predatory, with some attempts at different kinds of shots.


This is the kind of historical romance where you are shown an evil world careless of women and children, where the only decent safe option is retreat. History tells us Mary did this twice in life, first with Carey (who did die), and then with Stafford for which she was severely castigated by her family, funds cut off from the pair, with the implication they were miserable. Well we don’t know that and they did live a long time and died in their beds.

The 2008 Other Boleyn Girl (there is another, earlier, 2003, which I hope to watch and comment on as an added comment to this blog soon) comes with features almost as long as half the film. These showed the care for and beauty of the cinematography (the many angled intriguing and sumptuous shots), how effective the costumes, and the uses of production design far shots in landscape, and heritage places. The actors in both sets of features talked about their roles. The actresses were made to feel central to their characters was their sisterhood; Jim Sturgess was told that the explanation for George’s behavior to Jane Boleyn (he would not have full sex with her) was he was gay, over-sensitive, and was nearly driven to incest because Anne feared that Henry could not give her the healthy “seed” for a boy.


He is shown as shattered by the pressure and terrified and protesting as the axe came down on him. This differs from the written records of the executions, but are they not biased in the direction of decorousness on behalf of the king’s “justice.” Chadwick said was he was aiming for was emotional immersion in family politics and fierce individual psychologies. As with the contrast between say Winston Graham and Daphne DuMaurier’s Cornish histories, Mantel’s book (like Graham) and Straughan’s film insofar as six hours allows roots and embeds her Tudor in the politics and wider social and economic realities of the Tudor era, while Gregory’s book (like DuMaurier’s King’s General, Jamaica Inn, and both the 2003 and 2008 films) keeps central focus on inward subjective private life.

The film begins with a married pair and three children (Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn walking, Anne, Mary and George playing in the grass) and ends symetrically (William and Mary Stafford walking, Mary’s two children by William or Henry and Elizabeth Tudor playing in the grass). Cyclical like woman’s life writing, like their experience of life. It would have been far greater to show the second set of children later on, but the soft-focus trope of refuge is too urgent.



I agree with Jerome de Groot (Consuming History), Helene Hughes (Historical romance) and the seminal essay by Miriam Burstein (on the typology of women characters in historical romances and history) that the key to the traditional approach to women figures (pre-feminism let’s call it) is to value the woman who is loyal above all, wary, stays in conventional roles, preferably at home; she is rewarded (as is Mary Boleyn by Gregory and in a way by Morgan) unless she drops dead from disease (Mantel’s Liz Cromwell). But I admit I often identify with these women. So part of the revision of Anne’s character comes from that. But by no means all: Anne argues ferociously with Henry in this film — this is born out as a “tempestuous marriage” by older historians like Scarisbrook on Henry VIII and Eric Ives too. Mary attempted retreat with Carey and then with Stafford in the historical record.

As I recently defended the Hampstead novel: women’s domestic themed fiction, women who write primarily to and for other women so as to forge imaginative connections and support, I have here at least explained and briefly explicated this well done women’s historical romance film.



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