Visions of Virtue: The Art of Female Portraiture in the Regency Era
I love looking at portraits of women from the regency era because you can tell so much about the women represented. This month I take a deeper look at female portraiture in the Regency era and how the way they were depicted reflected women’s position in society and the cultural and social beliefs and behaviours of the time.
In the Regency era it was extremely popular to have portraits taken. It was, for a society without photography, the only way to capture likenesses. If you are lucky enough to visit a fine art museum, you will probably see lots of different types of portraits of regency era people, from portraits of men, dangling their swords and guns suggestively, well-to-do families posing together in front of their houses or gardens, and beautiful women sitting in a variety of poses meant to symbolize their beauty, rank, virtue and or their purity before marriage, among other things—or a combination of all these.
Women have for centuries been depicted in portraiture for many different reasons, but today I am going to focus on Regency era female portraiture, and look at the reasons such portraits were commissioned, and how poses, colours, symbols and backgrounds conveyed messages to the viewer. Looking at female portraiture of the Regency era offers a glimpse into the lives, aspirations, and societal roles of women. These exquisite portraits not only showcased the physical beauty of women but also reflected the values, aspirations, and social dynamics of the time.
Having one’s portrait taken was very popular in the Regency era. If you had money, you could commission a portrait from one of the renowned portrait artists of the time such as Romney, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Joshua Reynolds, or Caspar David Friedrich.
If you were not so rich as to afford a real artist, you would have your sister or cousin do an informal one. Drawing, including the taking of portraits, was a common pastime for the middleclass. For example, there is a famous portrait in pencil, of no great skill, of the likeness of Jane Austen purportedly done by her sister.
These informal portraits were very common, for the middle class were still of the leisure class and had to fill in their many afternoons and evenings with some hobby or other. Sitting for your portrait or being the ‘artist’ filled the long spaces of time if you didn’t want to read or play cards or go for long walks. But if you were wealthy enough and had a motive for getting a proper portrait done by a real artist, you would commission a portrait and pay big dollars for it, too.
I must point out here that almost never would a woman commission her own portrait. A wife would have her portrait commissioned by her husband. A female who was not a wife would have her portrait commissioned by a male in her family—her father, brother or other relative. Women in the Regency eras and before it, had almost no real agency of their own, including how they were depicted in paintings, although we could argue that she had some ability to subvert the ‘text’ of a painting of herself by the look on her face or the way she cooperated with the artist or not, the clothing she may or may not be given leave to choose, or the pose she was to assume. In most cases, all of these would also be dictated by the male who was commissioning the artwork, whether or not she was in agreement with these details. I am sure that many women were happy to have the portrait taken and were not upset with the process or the results, but there would have been many who did not agree and had to suck it up as the saying goes.
At any rate, depending on how rich your family was, your stage of life, your rank, and your intention, portraits of women were commissioned to depict various combinations of things. Have a look at some of these reasons:
Rank and Importance: Those families of the aristocracy or royal lines, or high-ranking families, would commission portraits of themselves, including of their wives or daughters, to emphasize this link, to remind the household members, servants, and all their visitors, of this link to royalty, aristocracy or important blood lines and families of high rank. Royalty and aristocracy were frequently depicted in portraits that emphasized their regal stature or high status. Women in these portraits were often adorned in luxurious attire, wearing sumptuous dresses, jewels, and elaborate hairstyles. The portraits often conveyed a sense of opulence and grandeur, symbolizing their high social standing. Having one’s portrait taken, or having your wife’s portrait taken, was a way of projecting your own social standing, and I suppose a case may be made that in some ways it allowed women in these portraits to be considered as important, by way of association usually, although sometimes for their own status, although the tropes of beauty and innocence usually pervade even the most regal of portraits.
In this full-length portrait by Fransico Lacoma y Fontanet, his subject is clearly from a family of upper middle class or higher, that she has status and is likely wealthy or from a wealthy family. How do we know this? Firstly, she is depicted full length, which means the family paid a lot for the portrait since full length and half-length portraits were always pricier than head and shoulders or head only. Secondly, do you spot the ‘royal’ colour splash? That’s right—the colour red (seen here in her strategically-draped wrap) symbolized elevated rank, and is seen in royal portraits also. Colour was always not just pretty, and used to make the portrait attractive, but it was highly symbolic. White, symbolic of purity and chastity, is the colour of the young lady’s gown, implying her purity and chastity, and you will see in other portraits of the period that white is used invariable in portraying young unmarried ladies. What else can you see? Did you notice the Greek figure in relief on the stonework she is leaning against?
Of course, the Regency era was a time where they idealized Greek civilization. Neoclassicism became all the rage, and this is when gowns became higher waisted and more flowing in order to emulate Greek styles, with their beautiful naturally flowing fabrics and draping. Finally you see she is posing in a garden, a very common place to have ones portrait taken, because it depicts the regency era fascination with the natural world. Women and children were seen as ‘closer to nature’ and to be depicted in a natural setting was saying that the sitter, in this case the young woman, was innocent, natural and to be compared with the natural beauty of the garden. Look closely at the base of the plinth and you will see the artist’s signature.
This painting of the unmarried princess Augusta by William Beechy is a lovely depiction of the much-loved princess, as she supposedly walks in the countryside. What I love about this work is the beautiful flow of lines (in the angle of the road beneath her, to the clouds slanting upwards, and the flow of her gown in the same direction) which denote easy movement from upper right to lower left which seems to urge the Princess onwards as she walks forward. Here she is depicted in white overlaid with red, again used to denote status among other things, and her dainty feet just peeking out from below her dress. Her jewellery is gold, including a cross which depicts her Christian piety, and the little umbrella is a token gesture to the sun, which is shaded from view in a rather Italian pastoral background, harking back to the earlier traditions of golden light of Italian countryside, so idealized in the previous centuries. That umbrella is a symbol of her status also—ladies walked with umbrellas as a way to say, “My skin is that of a delicate female, not a swarthy servant with brown skin from too much sun—my white skin denotes my status as a woman of leisure and rank.”
While the painting is not overt in its depiction of royalty, it is a less formal portrait and is more subtle in its messaging. (I do wonder though, what on earth is going on with that uncomfortable looking left arm!)
This portrait of Henriette Scherrer, the Comtesse Legrand, completed in 1813, is the opposite of the last one above, with its opulent treatment of the subject: the lush velvet of the dress, the elaborate headdress and hairstyle of the lady, and the framing of her face with the high ruff on the neckline, along with the elegant pose pointing to the face, and the sitter’s fingers as long and elegant as the entire portrait. The observer is left in no doubt that this is woman of status and wealth!
The Maternal Figure: For women of the Regency era and prior, motherhood and familial duties were paramount. Portraits often depicted women in their roles as mothers, surrounded by their children, or nursing a child. Portraits of women nursing or holding a child on their knee were a common trope used by artists. They were meant to be ‘read’ by the observer as emulating those paintings of ‘Mary and Child’, sometimes called Maestas (pronounced My-a-star) In this way, they were subtly implying the piety of the woman, her role as mother (the Christian Mary, supposed mother of God/Christ is considered the universal mother figure) and her purity and Christianity. The trope of ‘mother with child’ used in this domestic setting also highlighted the nurturing and maternal aspects of women, reinforcing the idea of the domestic sphere as the primary realm for women's activities.
Below is a real Maesta from the 15th century to compare with a regency portrait of a woman suckling a child. You will see the similarities, and how the mother is represented in both depictions as the embodiment of nurturing. These ideals are perpetuated by art work of women as mothers, as we see below right and centre.
Of course, mother and son portraits were favourite commissions to commemorate the birth of an heir. In these portraits, mother and son were commemorated, although the star of the show was well and truly the baby, and his birth was immortalized on the walls of his ancestral home for future generations.
As Creatures of Leisure and Therefore of Class: As seemingly informal as these scenes were, and no matter how happy the participants sometimes seem, these types of art works which depict their womenfolk at leisure was a way to confer status on the family—an observer reads the message as “Here you see our daughter/wife/sister engaged in reading, playing a musical instrument or walking, by which activity you will see that we are middle to upper class and don’t need to work” is what they are saying.
I really enjoy these portraits because the woman is a little active rather passively sitting—a huge change from the previous century’s depiction of women just sitting passively with no agency of her own, but still, even though they are now a little more active in these portraits, they are not given too much agency—they can read, they can sew, they can play the pianoforte, but still they are confined to a drawing room, a house, or a garden
The lower left artwork depicts the young woman, maidenly in her white dress, opulently decorated with flounces and frills—she has the leisure to sit and read—she does not participate in the scene outside her window, she is rich enough to merely observe the world go by.
The Idealized Beauty: Regency era female portraits frequently showcased women as embodiments of idealized beauty. Artists used techniques to enhance their subjects' features, emphasizing flawless skin, delicate features, and graceful poses. These portraits idealized femininity, reinforcing and contributing to the creation of contemporary cultural standards of beauty. Beauty was important, for the more good-looking a girl was, the more she was to find a husband. Likewise, beauty was prized, and therefore, if you daughters or wife or sister was had good looks, you would want to show your pride by having a portrait taken.
It is interesting to note the changes to cultural ideals around what constituted beauty by looking at different portraits over the centuries, but in the regency era, beauty was idealized as pure, and so a woman who had her portrait taken would have certain features played up or painted in, and those which were considered less pretty, painted out or downplayed. White skin, rosy cheeks and lips, plumpness (which again indicated wealth) and fine clothing were all common features attributed to the sitter, allowing of course for personality and strong features to also shine through where permitted, as per the instructions of the commission.
Note the above portraits; upper left has an almost heavy-lidded, wonton look about her, and her clothing is deliberately twisted and flowing, as if in a controlled chaos—did the artist try to represent the personality of his subject as closely as he could without giving the game away? The middle portrait by Arthur Williams circa 1810, is called ‘A Saucy Regency Lady’. Here the playfulness of her look and pose is echoed in the playful look of the dog beneath her arm—she is pure, chaste—the white of the dress tells us she is a lady—but her personality has been captured here despite the trope of the white dress as pure symbolism. Note too, the hint of wild natural work in the background, meant also to give us a hint into the personality of the sitter. The lovely portrait of Selina Meade, Countess Clam-Martinics, by Sir Thomas Lawrence on the right is one of my favorites—in fact I used it as a book cover for my novel Beauty and Beast of Thornleigh. In this painting, she has the appearance of sedate, calm loveliness, but there is a look in her eyes which is eloquent—‘I am not all that I appear, there is more to me than meets the eye in this portrait,’ she seems to be saying to the viewer. Her painter, Sir Thomas Lawrence, purportedly said of her, “in beauty and interesting character, one of the most distinguished persons in Vienna.” She looks full of supressed fun—I’d love to have known her as a friend!
The tradition of portrait sitting during the Regency era was used for various different purposes. While there were many differing types of representation, and we can allow for the personal requirements of the commissions to dictate certain aspects of them, we can learn a lot from the women by looking at how they were represented. These portraits captured the essence of women’s lives in a complex society where women lived primarily a domestic life. Through these portraits, women’s beauty, roles, and family status were documented and immortalized. While many portraits reflected the prevailing gender norms and societal expectations, they also contained nuances that hinted at women's spirit and desire for agency.
Next time you come across a portrait from the regency era, take a moment to reflect on this lovely and interesting tradition of portraiture and the very real women behind the oil paint!