Woman’s Mission: A Series of Early Victorian Paintings
George Elgar Hick’s triptych represents the so-called three stages in a woman’s life that served to reinforce one set of Victorian stereotypes regarding woman as members of the fairer and subservient sex. Within each painting, the woman is displayed as pure, submissive, and ready to maintain the ideological purity of her home. The following images are part of a series painted in the early Victorian Era that are currently a part of the Tate Collection. I have selected these images for their wholly romanticized depictions of the role of the Victorian woman, an aura that has been the subject of debate by historians for decades.
Understanding the Triptych
The first image on the left hand side of the triptych, Woman’s Mission: Guide of Childhood depicts an angelic woman and child spending time together within bucolic woods. The woman is encouraging of play and exploration with the child, but is shown at close distance, likely indicative of her duty to serve as a close role model and guide to her child.
The middle image, Woman’s Mission: Companion of Manhood reinforces the desired image of women as steady figures capable of running the home even in the time of her husband’s grief.
Finally, the image of the right hand side, Woman’s Mission: Comfort of Old Age depicts a beautiful yet conservative woman caring to an elderly man during his last days. The woman’s eyes are entirely transfixed on the man, indicating that her purpose in life is still that of a caretaker, source of peace, and source of comfort, and that her own personal wishes are of little importance in her daily scenarios. The man is shown comfortably in a plush chair with pillows and blankets to relax on, while the woman is shown seated beside the man in a small, unadorned wood chair.
Woman’s Mission and the Separate Spheres Debate
The notion of separate spheres and Victorian women as subservient, housebound, and oppressed by public opinion and social norms has been disputed by historians well before the introduction of gender history as a field in the 1980s. Some historians, such as Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, argue that separate spheres was a real notion that came about due to economic and political pressures placed on women by their husbands and greater society. Other historians, such as Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair, argue that separate spheres, while existent in literature, art, and popular culture, did little to influence the actual lives of women.
Regardless of one’s stance within the debate, it is important to note that historians do not see the separate spheres issue as a yes or no question in terms of existence, but rather, a spectrum that varies based upon one’s stricter or looser interpretation of the influence on public life and social norms carried by art and literature. Woman’s Mission is partially in line with the characteristics of proper womanhood as outlined within conduct literature, such as the works of author Sarah Stickney Ellis. Interestingly, while Ellis may be more apt to paint a realistic, grittier portrayal of the working housewife, Hicks depicts the Victorian woman as wholly consumed in housebound activities beyond the scope of her personal interests, such as that of tireless and devoted companionship to her family members.
On the other hand, those ready to dispute the reality of Hicks’ depiction of the Victorian women would also make valid points. The Victorian Era was a time known for romanticizing of all aspects of life, including but not limited to gender ideology, occupation, art, literature, and even history and the social sciences.