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

By Deborah Barker | Go to book overview

6
Edith Wharton's Portrait of a Lady
in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

I

IF THE WOMAN WRITER'S DESIRE TO “PAINT WITH COLOR,” AS expressed by Kate Chopin's Miss Mayblunt, clearly valorizes the role of the woman painter and seeks to transfer some of her power to the woman writer, Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth explores the limitations of the woman artist and her devalued status in the age of mechanical reproduction. Wharton's concern was not whether or not women had the creative capacity to succeed in high culture but whether or not high culture in the age of mechanical reproduction had anything to offer to the woman artist.

Written in 1905, The House of Mirth is part of the same historical moment that witnessed the birth of the cinema, the coming of the age of photography, and the proliferation of the popular press. These technological and institutional innovations created a mass-produced culture that could, for the first time in history, immediately incorporate any aspect of elite culture, thus making “art” available to virtually all members of society. The effect of these innovations—limitless reproduction of individual works of art, their ready accessibility in the mass media, and the popular press's ability to influence their reception—constituted a frontal assault on the privileged and carefully controlled position of both the artist and the work of art in the world of high culture.

As critics have rightly observed, Lily Bart's status in the novel is that of both artist and artistic object. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, who defines the novel as Wharton's first Künstlerroman, explains that the novel turns to “art and the artist for its subject. Not the woman as productive artist, but the woman as self-creating artistic object.”1 And Linda Dittmar maintains that, although Lily does not produce art, her life “registers] an

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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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