Founding feminists: Two artistic women in 18th-century London take on high society

The engraving “Maria Cosway, 1785” is on view in “Two Extraordinary Women: The Lives and Art of Maria Cosway and Mary Darby Robinson” at The Fralin through May 1. Image: Courtesy UVA’s Fralin Museum of Art The engraving “Maria Cosway, 1785” is on view in “Two Extraordinary Women: The Lives and Art of Maria Cosway and Mary Darby Robinson” at The Fralin through May 1. Image: Courtesy UVA’s Fralin Museum of Art

Makers. Mistresses. Proto-feminists. Those are a just a few of the titles reserved for the artists represented in The Fralin Museum of Art’s “Two Extraordinary Women: The Lives and Art of Maria Cosway and Mary Darby Robinson.” Guest curator Diane Boucher explores the work, themes and ideals that united these 18th-century artists, including the political activism that flew in the face of their own opulent lifestyles.

“The term ‘proto-feminist’ is generally used to describe women whose philosophical ideas anticipate the feminist movement of the 20th century,” Boucher told C-VILLE via e-mail.

It’s an apt description for Cosway and Robinson, who prioritized the education of girls at a time when women were “generally expected to be either modest wives confined to domestic spaces or decorative ornaments,” Boucher writes.

Cosway, best known as the woman Thomas Jefferson fell in love with while serving as American ambassador to France in 1786, “abandoned her career as an artist in 1803 to pursue her dream of educating young girls, at first in Lyons, France, and later at Lodi in Italy.”

Robinson, for her part, was an outspoken champion of women’s rights. A celebrated English actress, former royal mistress, novelist and poet, her work on themes of romantic disillusionment, transience of beauty and the follies of the fashionable world frequently appeared in the newspaper.

“In 1799, she published ‘A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination,’” Boucher writes, “in which she argued for, among other things, a woman’s right to leave an unhappy marriage, that women were unjustly excluded from parliament, a university for women and that girls ‘be liberally, classically, philosophically and usefully educated; let them speak and write their opinions freely; let them read and think like rational creatures…expand their minds.’”

Cosway and Robinson’s ideas were revolutionary at this time. Though they were not members of the aristocracy, they were welcome in high society London as talented artists. They visited theaters, pleasure gardens, art exhibitions and the homes of the wealthy.

But rather than obey cultural expectations, Boucher writes, both Cosway and Robinson embraced and promoted their beliefs in freedom, equality and democracy. And like other revolutionaries of their time, they sought to fight back against a tradition of silence by seeking alliance in each other.

In 1800, Cosway and Robinson joined artistic and political forces to create “The Wintry Day,” an illustrated poem that contrasted “the evils of poverty with the ostentatious enjoyment of opulence” in Regency England—a critique that belied their own enmeshment in patrician affairs.

“The Wintry Day” juxtaposes scenes of upper class luxury with those of abject poverty. Boucher writes that these women were intensely self-conscious in their choices. Cosway, for example, hosted musical parties (with her wealthy husband, Richard) for visitors such as the prince of Wales,  and she likely based her illustrations of beautiful interiors on her own magnificent home, Schomberg House.

What’s more, “the scene of women trying on hats at a milliner’s shop in ‘The Wintry Day’ would have been very familiar to both Cosway and Robinson who were considered among the best-dressed women in London,” Boucher writes.

In 1804, “The Wintry Day” was published by Rudolph Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, whose involvement ensured a wide readership among the bon ton of London, according to Boucher. In fact, one such reader was Jefferson, who enclosed a copy of the magazine in a letter to his daughter Martha. “You will see in the magazine an account of a new work by Mrs. Robinson, Mrs. Cosway and Mrs. Watson [the engraver],” Jefferson wrote, “which must be curious.”

Though it’s difficult to judge the popular reaction to Cosway and Robinson’s work, Boucher suggests we view it “through the contemporary thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other philosophers of the French Revolution, that both Cosway and Robinson supported, along with many British intellectuals and radical politicians, for its promise of liberty and equality.”

The exhibition includes two original drawings from “The Wintry Day,” additional works by the artists themselves and paintings, prints and engravings that illustrate London life as Cosway and Robinson experienced it.

Highlights from the show include “a contemporary print of the London theater where Mary Robinson was first seen on stage by her lover, the 17-year-old prince of Wales, and another showing the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall where Robinson and the prince can be seen enjoying themselves.” Also on display will be an engraving from a 1787 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, where Cosway exhibited five of her paintings, alongside a contemporary print of a self-portrait by Cosway.

Robinson’s books and writings, including UVA’s copy of “The Wintry Day,” will be on display, as will “cruel caricatures” of the women by Isaac Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray, “the most important satirists of the day.”

The show is a collaboration and it’s also an attempt to resuscitate the spirit and voice these women fought to express. “Many people view Maria Cosway as a footnote in the Thomas Jefferson narrative,” Boucher writes. “I hope this exhibition will illustrate her importance as a talented artist, musician, composer and educator.”

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