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

By Deborah Barker | Go to book overview

3
The Riddle of the Sphinx:
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Story of Avis

I

FANNY FERN AND E. D. E. N. SOUTHWORTH USED UT PICTURA poesis primarily to critique the literary “artistic fraternity” for its elitism and its commercialism. They did so by magnifying the distinctions between the art world and the literary marketplace, depicting painting as a medium in which women artists could freely express themselves without being censured by the “coarse pen” of unscrupulous editors or critics. They achieved this distinction between literature and art only by ignoring the material practices of the art world, by refusing to scrutinize the everyday economic interactions that regulate the production and the consumption of art. More than twenty years later, another best-selling woman writer, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, analyzes the material and ideological practices of the art world in her own version of the female Künstlerroman, The Story of Avis (1877).

The Story of Avis has generally been read as a representation of the incompatibility of artistic creation and the social and familial expectations placed upon women in nineteenth-century America.1 Although the novel does indeed present a feminist critique of marriage and the limitations that it imposes on women's professional ambitions, Phelps does not limit herself to the Enlightenment liberal feminist belief in equality of opportunity and education as the ultimate solution to gender inequality: Avis has talent, education, and opportunity, yet she still does not succeed.2 Nor does Phelps valorize the feminine and the domestic realm over the masculine world, as is characteristic of Fern and Southworth. Phelps, therefore, does not simply present the female visual artist as a liberating image, but neither does she join the ranks of those who condemn women's artistic ambitions. Rather, Phelps uses Avis's failed ambitions

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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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