Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist

By Deborah Barker | Go to book overview

1
Cultural Reproduction and the Female Copyist

I

IN ESTABLISHING THEIR WORK AS ARTISTIC, MALE AND FEMALE writers were in a very different position vis-à-vis their use of ut pictura poesis and the figure of the woman artist. Nineteenth-century concepts of ut pictura poesis were shaped by gender distinctions articulated in G. E. Lessing's highly influential Laocoon (1766). Although the classical relationship of painting and literature as sister arts was employed in the Renaissance to raise painting from its status as a craft to the level of an original art form, by the eighteenth century, due to the rise of the middleclass audience, the relationship between literature and painting had been almost completely reversed. While painting was still monitored by a whole array of established safeguards (curators, collectors, academies), many feared that literature was passing out of the hands of the cultured elite. In response to the growing prestige of painting as an art form, Lessing sought to reinforce the distinction between the arts and to elevate poetry over painting by declaring that there were fundamental differences between the arts that should be observed. These differences, however, are based on hierarchical categories that reinscribe gender stereotypes: Lessing presents poetry as a dynamic realm of ideas and of the sublime, while painting is portrayed as a beautiful, but silent, static world of bodies in space.' A painting, like a woman, is a beautiful object to be admired, but neither should attempt to comment on religion, philosophy, or politics.

The nineteenth-century revision of Lessing's theories preserved his gendered bias by associating the best in painting and literature with the masculine sublime and the worst, or merely picturesque, with women's sentimental writing. As Roy Park explains, nineteenth-century critics refined Lessing's theory by using poetry as a term to praise the best in

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Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 1
  • Contents 5
  • Acknowledgements 7
  • Introduction 9
  • Reproducing Culture 25
  • 1: Cultural Reproduction and the Female Copyist 27
  • 2: Domesticating the Sublime 39
  • 3: The Riddle of the Sphinx 64
  • 4: Louisa May Alcotts Women Artists 94
  • 5: Kate Chopin's Awakening of Female Artistry 120
  • 6: Edith Wharton's Portrait of a Lady in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction 142
  • 7: Authenticating the African-American Female Artist 162
  • Notes 199
  • Bibliography 239
  • Index 255
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