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1812 Gender and the “Present State of … Public Taste”

“Portraits as usual predominate,” proclaimed The Morning Chronicle on 5 May, days after the opening of the 1812 Exhibition, “and in this branch of the art, the English School has certainly made the most rapid advancement.”1 The critic for The Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser was less enthralled, lamenting, “There is the same crowd of insipid portraits, to the exclusion of the higher departments of the art of painting, which has so long been a subject of general complaint.” Still, it conceded, “in the present state of the public taste [… this] is not likely soon to be removed.”2

It has long been clear that portraiture numerically dominated the Royal Academy’s show in its first several decades. Portraiture was both the most commercially rewarding genre, and that by which British painters and their public came to believe that their art outranked work by artists on the Continent—as seen in the above critic’s pointed celebration of the “English School”. This feeling of superiority particularly heightened the perceived, or at least touted, importance of portraiture over the course of nearly two decades of warfare with France (1793–1802 and 1803–1815), when London’s artists and public were largely cut off from Continental art. Many male Academicians attracted particular fame in the genre, often deepening their portrayals with narrative elements and thus, in turn, raising their art within the traditional hierarchy of genres.3 In 1812, as an end to this international unrest was inching into sight, the volume and visual complexity of the portraits at the Summer Exhibition illuminated the degree to which such concepts had gained force.

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Hailed as the staple of the English School, of the 940 works of art on display in 1812, portraits did, as usual, predominate. Fittingly, the single canvas to garner the most attention was a large oil painting of the actor John Philip Kemble as Addison’s Cato, commissioned from Sir Thomas Lawrence by the Earl of Blessington and hung in the Great Room (Fig. 1).4 Lawrence used this commission as an opportunity to expand his concept of the “half-history picture”, elevating the portrait genre by imbuing his canvas with narrative elements. Contemporary reviews indicate that the experiment was a success, one critic describing the canvas as “an incomparable work”, and another writing that it “belonged to the highest school of history”.5 Printed reproductions further attested to the painting’s popularity—and, in turn, reinforced the reputations of artist and sitter.

Yet beyond such celebrated works, given portraiture’s unquestionable prominence, it is revealing to consider the gender dimensions of portrait painting. Overall, artists of both sexes exhibited 384 works of portraiture in the 1812 Exhibition, comprising 40 per cent of all entries—eighty-five of which earned placement in the Great Room, and about 144 of which were miniatures.6 These figures reflected larger trends: from 1788–1829, according to one recent estimate, portraits comprised about 45 per cent of all exhibits.7 In 1812, forty-four women exhibited a total of sixty-two works, thirty of which (48 per cent) were portraits.8 This was the genre in which women, too, exhibited in the greatest volume throughout the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1802, 1803–1815), echoing the practices of their male peers.9

Only one such example of an exhibited work by a woman survives from 1812: a stipple engraving by Anthony Cardon after Clara Maria Pope’s Portrait of Madame Catalani (Fig. 2), which was hung in the Council Room with her other exhibited piece, Portrait of Lord Monson. Less well known than Lawrence, her near-exact contemporary, Pope showed fifty-five works at the Academy from 1796 to 1838, exhibiting a wide range of genre, portrait, and floral compositions. In 1812, she knew to care about the placement of her works, and called on the Academician Joseph Farington in April “to request [him] to place to advantage 2 drawings which she had sent to the exhibition.”10 Pope supported her family through her art, and she knew from experience that her works’ acceptance and placement mattered for gaining future commissions—particularly portraits.

Rather than depicting Catalani, a celebrated Italian soprano, in the act of singing, Pope placed her subject on an outdoor terrace, flanked by a lyre and a large vase with a classical scene. Perhaps Pope chose to fashion a compositional setting in which other viewers—potential clients—could imagine themselves as well. The print was jointly published by Martin Colnaghi and Pope herself later in 1812; its quick reproduction testifies to the commercial appeal of her chosen subject, and the popularity of her artistry more generally. Eight years later, Catalani’s head from Pope’s portrait was again replicated, in a French etching.11 Pope is the only woman I have found mentioned in an 1812 review, listed with ten male artists “In Miniatures and Drawings”, who were all commended for having “exerted themselves with success.”12

Indeed, in 1812, miniature work was subdivided from other categories of art—as it often was over the Academy’s first several decades.13 With its own set of dynamics and restrictions, miniature painting has often been more strongly associated with female than male practitioners, even though, as Katherine Coombs has written, in the nineteenth century, “[m]ost professional miniaturists … were men”.14 In 1812, 114 of the 384 exhibited portraits were miniatures (38 per cent). Strikingly, this proportion nearly doubles among works by women; twenty of their thirty-one exhibited portraits were listed as miniature works (65 per cent). Even as a minority of “professional miniaturists”, women achieved marked pre-eminence in this genre. In 1812, Charlotte Jones, who exhibited over thirty portraits from 1801 to 1823, showed a miniature portrait of the Princess of Wales; Jones had been listed in the Academy’s catalogue as “Miniature Painter to Her R.H. the Princess of Wales” since 1808, and continued exhibiting images of her patron after the Princess’s early death. Emma Eleanora Kendrick exhibited dozens of portraits from 1811 through 1840, including four miniatures in 1812. Kendrick achieved similar prestige in the genre; she wrote a treatise on miniature painting, which she published in 1830, and from 1819, she exhibited as “Miniature Painter to Her R.H. the Hereditary Princess of Hesse-Hombourg”.15

As a painterly practice, portraiture held the most commercial promise for artists of both sexes; its predominance among women exhibitors arguably evidences widespread commercial, if not professional, engagement with the art world.16 After 1812, and particularly once a lasting peace with France had been established in 1815, portraiture became even more patently the principal path to exhibition for London’s female—and male—painters. Like Pope’s, their images were increasingly reproduced in print, either issued individually, bound in volumes, or published in journals; painters thus established relationships with print artists, garnered additional profits, and spread their own names. As Lawrence’s Cato and Pope’s Catalani illuminate, artists could infuse historical nuances, and put forth cultural narrative, with these works. Through such decisions, London’s artists, especially those without Academic membership, judiciously navigated institutional barriers and, when successful, sought commercial credence by advertising their artistry, already vetted by its acceptance into the Annual Exhibition, to the Academy’s painterly and public audiences.

  1. The Morning Chronicle, 5 May 1812.↩︎

  2. The Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 5 May 1812.↩︎

  3. These trends are also confirmed by statistics calculated for the author’s dissertation.↩︎

  4. Joseph Addison’s Cato, a Tragedy (1712) had been revived for London’s stage in 1811.↩︎

  5. The Globe, 2 May 1812,↩︎

  6. Artists exhibited: 225 landscapes or views, fifty-one in the Great Room; 126 narrative pieces—genre scenes included—forty-two in the Great Room; seventy entries of architectural drawings or designs; fifty-three works of sculpture; twenty-eight animal paintings, twenty-three flowers or still lives, eight interior scenes, eight reproductive enamels, and twenty-six pieces with unidentifiable genres. Proportionally, landscapes, views, and interiors comprised 24 per cent of all entries, narrative works 13.4 per cent, architecture and designs 7.4 per cent, sculpture 5.6 per cent, animals 3 per cent, flowers and still lives 2.4 per cent, enamels 0.9 per cent, and other works 2.8 per cent. These are the author’s calculations, based on the 1812 Exhibition catalogue held by the Royal Academy, London. Statistics for all genres exhibited by artists of both sexes have yet to be calculated for early Academy shows.↩︎

  7. From 1824–1830, according to a contemporary chart, portraits comprised 41.7–50 per cent of all works displayed, while “historical and poetical works” vacillated between 9.9–15 per cent, “landscapes, views, animals &c” between 20.1–30.9 per cent, “Sculpture, Statues, Relievos, Gems” and “Busts” between 8.3–11.3 per cent, and “Architecture” between 6.44–11.9 per cent. Marcia Pointon, “Portrait! Portrait!! Portrait!!!”, in David H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 106, Fig. 62.↩︎

  8. In 1812, women’s entries comprised 6.6 per cent of all works. This was actually a nadir for female artists, who had contributed 8.2 per cent of entries in 1811 and would author 7.4 per cent in 1813. The average proportion of entries by women was 7 per cent for 1807–1817.↩︎

  9. In 1812, women exhibited thirty portraits, seventeen landscapes or views, nine flower pieces, three narrative scenes, one animal piece, one work of sculpture, one work of an unknown subject, and no still lives. Landscapes comprised 27.4 per cent of their 1812 entries, flower pieces 14.5 per cent, narrative works 4.8 per cent, and sculpture and animals each 1.6 per cent. After 1800, portraits formed over 50 per cent of women’s works on average, and remained well over 60 per cent from 1818–1830.↩︎

  10. Joseph Farington, “Tuesday 7 April 1812”, in Kathleen Cave (ed.), The Diary of Joseph Farington, 16 vols (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–84), Vol. 11, 4105.↩︎

  11. See “Peint d’après Nature à Londres par Clara Maria Pope”, Bibliothèque nationale de France,↩︎

  12. The Morning Chronicle, 5 May 1812.↩︎

  13. However, the ways of naming this categorisation—and even the decision to include it all—fluctuated a great deal.↩︎

  14. Katherine Coombs, The Portrait Miniature in England (London: V&A Publications, 1998), 105.↩︎

  15. Emma E. Kendrick, Conversations on the Art of Miniature Painting (London: W. Clowes, 1830).↩︎

  16. Landscapes, too, the genre in which women exhibited in the second-highest proportions, could advertise a woman’s skill to a growing middle-class audience seeking art instruction and household decor. In fact, the three works by women hung in the Great Room in 1812 were landscapes—all untraced. In 1812, Amelia Long, Lady Farnborough (1772–1837), exhibited one of four views she would submit of Bromley-Hill, Kent, over her fifteen years as a widely praised Honorary exhibitor. It is next to impossible to determine if this work could be her recently sold, undated landscape of Bromley, but this highly skilled view may be able to suggest how her entry appeared.↩︎

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