Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"My Name Is the Right One" Lady Elizabeth (Rigby) Eastlake's Professional Art Criticism

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"My Name Is the Right One" Lady Elizabeth (Rigby) Eastlake's Professional Art Criticism

Article excerpt

This paper examines an influential but now neglected Victorian critic: Lady Elizabeth (Rigby) Eastlake (1809-1893). Eastlake developed a sizeable reputation beginning in the 1840s as a travel writer and art critic. She was an expert on German culture and was one of the first writers to introduce the British public to early Italian art. Most important, Eastlake differed from more canonical male art critics by focusing on both historical facts and the formal analysis of artworks. At the same time, Eastlake developed a prose style that rivaled that of John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde. In combining expertise about artworks with a critical style, Eastlake revises our notion of when and how art commentary became a professional discipline. While scholars generally claim that professional Victorian art criticism was consolidated through the work of male writers in the 1860s and 1870s, Eastlake became a specialist some twenty-five years earlier.

Writing in her 1876 essay, "The Letters and Works of Michael Angelo," Elizabeth (Rigby) Eastlake (1809-1893) argues that Michelangelo's letters help us to see the artist and the Renaissance without the "highly coloured glasses" used by prior art historians, who superficially "obscure the faults of the period" (124). Eastlake aims to see beyond the legends promulgated by Giorgio Vasari and his Victorian followers, considering the actual challenges faced by famous Renaissance artists. Michelangelo's preoccupation with money, his constant struggles to be paid by Italy's rulers is in Eastlake's analysis indicative of a culture that failed to allow financial independence to even its best artists. As we will see, Eastlake's criticisms of the Italian Renaissance betray an anti-Catholic bias. However, she was primarily motivated by a desire to establish herself as an art historian focused on expertise and carefully researched facts about artists and artworks.

Eastlake's emphasis on the art historical fact was central to her strategy of establishing herself as a professional essayist. Eastlake began her career in the 1830s and early 1840s as a travel writer and translator, two common ways in which women entered the publishing world. Women, with their supposedly more keen observational skills, were thought to be especially suitable for travel writing, a genre which often referenced local artworks and was important to the later development of art criticism. But as art writing became increasingly masculinized beginning with the emergence of John Ruskin in 1843, women critics sought to differentiate themselves. As she began to focus on art writing in the 1840s, Eastlake claimed to be more committed to the art historical fact than such canonical male critics as Ruskin and Vasari. This factualism included the precise attribution of artworks as well as the analysis of the material conditions under which artworks were produced. This art historical expertise, pioneered by Anna Jameson and significantly formulated by Eastlake and Emilia Dilke, threatened male art critics (Ruskin belittled the contributions of all three) and exacerbated at least one Victorian fear about professionalization: that women would lose their feminine qualities by catering to the culture's growing need for scholarly expertise. As a result, women critics were often both sexualized by their male counterparts and criticized for their factual approaches.

While distinguishing herself from Vasari and Ruskin, Eastlake helped shape two developments in professional Victorian art criticism: the analysis of artistic form and an art critical writing style that could rival even the most famous artworks for the attention of readers and viewers. Eastlake argued that she was both a more precise writer and more concerned with formal analysis than Ruskin, the figure often considered the first professional art critic in Britain. Beginning her career as an essayist on a variety of subjects, Eastlake gradually gained expertise in specific art historical fields, especially German culture. …

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