Good art is … not for women. Discuss.

Woolf and Emerson and the Ordinary – (my effort for the Modern and Postmodern this week)

Both Woolf (‘To the Lighthouse’) and Emerson (‘Self Reliance’) propose the possibilities inherent in the ordinary person to reject the expected and the conventional. Their perspectives on youth and women indicate particular similarities and differences in how gender might attain aspirations of the unconventional in their lifetime against how society might be willing to accept non-conformity.

Emerson’s work marks out a particularly masculine possibility for self-reliance from childhood to manhood. When Emerson writes ‘The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature’ he evokes the confidence of the young male of the middle class or the eliteHe later upholds the action of man to ‘utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear’ as a virtuous aspiration.


The young man here might be Tansley saying, ‘Can’t Write, Can’t Paint’

Emerson describes the constraint that society places on youth and calls ‘Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you and me.’ For parents of late adolescent boys everywhere, Emerson’s words seem completely contemporary – by all means embrace self reliance as soon as possible young man! However, there is usually a hope that (our youth) undertake their development of self-reliance at some distance from home and impose their early opinions on another community. (Study abroad! as Professor Roth so knowingly put it in his lecture on Beaudelaire!)

The sense of how insufferable the opinion of a young (uninformed) man can be, is well expounded by Woolf. In Charles Tansley she depicts a young man of great intellectual ambition who takes his time away with the Ramsays. For Emerson, Charles Tansley represents a celebration of the ordinary man wherein he asserts his self-made nature, ie to embody the ‘state of man, who is in the world a sort of sot, but now and then wakes up, exercises his reason, and finds himself a true prince.’
However, while Tansley has a high view of his own intellect (no doubt nurtured by his teachers), his youthful cynicism earns him derision from the children and Mrs Ramsay (‘she twitted (Mr Ramsay) for having dispatched that ‘poor young man’, Charles Tansley.’) and to whom he submits he writes to his mother.

Woolf sets Lily Briscoe as an antidote to the generations of men in ‘To the Lighthouse.’ 
The endless opinions of Tansley are well observed by Lily. ‘He felt extremely, even physically uncomfortable, He wanted somebody to give him the chance to assert himself…Why did no-one ask his opinion?’. Here Lily literally sees through him, ‘..could she not see the as in an X-ray photograph, the…young man’s desire to impress’ and decides not to rescue him, recalling his carelessly formed opinions on women, ‘Can’t write, can’t paint.’

downton-abbey-the-crawley-sisters-400 (1)

Downtown Abby gives a modern take on the class intersections of the time

While Emerson extols men to attain self-reliance, to ‘Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto’ – it is clear there is no room in society for the married woman to take such a stance. ‘O husband,’ is not part of the call to non-conformity.

Lily has the range of ‘ordinary’ possibilities open to her which society expects – and which Mrs Ramsay is prepared to engineer through a suitably arranged marriage, but Lily is not prepared to fall onto such an obvious path. With this self-knowledge Lily remains observant, and, unlike Tansley, witholds her thoughts and cultivates (perhaps without realizing) the necessary insecurity of an artist.

For Lily then, non-conformity through rejection of marriage and a persistence with her art, despite the masculine mantra around her of ‘Can’t write, can’t paint‘, establishes her as a heroine of Emerson’s ideal.

Harold Harvey, In the Whiting Ground, Penzance

Harold Harvey, The Whiting Ground. Emerson and Woolf refer to the worker, the fisherman – a livelihood apart – outside their understanding

While Emerson imparts the need for (a) man to shun philanthropy (as a feminine trait) which leaves him beholden to and dependent on a false obligation, Woolf shows that for Lily self-reliance must come from not giving into the masculine demand for attention and sympathy. In her later life she rejects Mr Ramsay’s demand for sympathy. ..‘in her agitation at Mr Ramsay’s presence  … now she put that right.

Emerson’s words could readily be ascribed to Lily in later life as to any young man, as she defiantly relinquishes her wish to imitate ‘Paucefort’ and makes the final brush stroke through the centre of her painting: ‘Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.’

So has the position of women as artist changed in the mind of society? – Jonathon Jones writes ‘Not much’ in the Guardian and admits it’s his fault

Bridget Riley at the press preview of her Flashback exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpoo

Bridget Riley is Britain Greatest Living Artist writes Jonathon Jones, but if a male critic didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t know it


In fact, the best artists of modern Britain – the most serious, original and likely to be the most enduring – are chiefly women, including Rachel WhitereadSarah Lucas and Tacita Dean.

All these women get recognition, but not enough, and not the right kind. The sense of greatness is still deeply patriarchal. The bad guys are us, the critics. For art criticism is still a very male profession with very male values.

The Fisherman’s Wife 

The Fisherman's Wife

The Fisherman’s Wife, Arthur Hacker (1858-1919)

The story of the Fisherman’s Wife, told in fragments to James by Mrs Ramsay, is a moral tale for all of us who forever want more, or is it a lesson against a woman’s desire for more from her husband….

The painting of the Fisherman’s Wife below is from the blog by  – a lover of all things pre-raphaelite
Kirsty writes:  Arthur Hacker (1858-1919) was a well-known painter of moderate success, a classicist with a strong vein in genre and fantasy.  His scenes of everyday life remind me of the Cornish fishing scenes of Holl but without the utter doom…
For Kirsty’s interpretation of the scene go to
Kirsty points out the allegorical elements or symbols within the painting so beloved by the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
The Fisherman’s Wife
Mary Cassatt, Five O'Clock Tea

Mary Cassatt, Five O’Clock Tea

Mary Cassatt, an American Artist, was a Lily Briscoe of her time. Painting and exhibiting with the other independent (male) Impressionists.
Her interest in tea can only be described as the sign of a sound mind.
She too remained unmarried.

For more on Mary Cassatt visit the Teatropolitan Times

Although I could write all day about Lily, far more erudite outlines  on Lily Brisco can be found here:

and on the Modern and Postmodern Course blog by Louise Taylor here:

and the Reader’s Digest skip through Woolf’s novel (or ‘psychological poem‘ as her husband described it)  is here
(of course)


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