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Women in Art and Literature

Edith Wharton at her desk Edith Wharton at her desk at The Mount c. 1905
Courtesy of Edith Wharton Restoration at The Mount.
Wander through the Louvre, leaf through the "Great Books"--you won't find many works by women. Feminists have long sought to explain this absence, and to question the standards that guide "canon formation"--the aesthetic judgments deem some works excellent, and others minor or altogether unworthy of notice.

In her 1928 A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf explored the social constraints that limited women's literary and artistic production. Talent, even genius, counted for little, Woolf mused, without financial resources and privacy to nurture it. The houses of writers and artists in this tour eloquently demonstrate Woolf's classic thesis. The space, comfort, and privacy of many of these buildings reveal the class privilege that sustained the creative work of women such as Margaret Fuller, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edith Wharton.

Recently, other women writers and artists have come into view as cultural historians and feminist scholars have challenged the notion of universal quality in art that transcends time and place, and pointed to the arbitrary and shifting boundaries between "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture. Such reconsiderations have broadened our ideas of what counts as art and literature, bringing new attention to work such as the post office murals of Amy Jones, the public art of sculptor Theo Ruggles Kitson, the poetry of Celia Thaxter, the photography of Alice Austen, and the dazzling performances of entertainer Florence Mills.

Women also contributed to art and literary history as patrons and connoisseurs. Isabella Stewart Gardner collected European and ancient art, ensuring that her own selections and arrangements would be preserved as an enduring monument to the aesthetic judgement. The Mount, Edith Wharton's house and gardens, served not only as a retreat, but as an expression of a highly self-concious domestic and landscape aesthetic. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney exexmplifies the important role of elite women as culture-bearers whose patronage supported contemporary artists, and whose philanthopy created and sustained public museums.

Dr. Barbara Melosh
Professor of English
George Mason University

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Last Modified: Monday, 30-Mar-98 15:42:58EST