Desire and Voluptuousness: The Representation of Women in the Victorian Era

By Béa Aaronson

Alma-Tadema heliogabolus 1888 detail

I had the joy and privilege to be in Paris, my native city, while the Jacquemart André Museum on Boulevard Haussmann was offering a different kind of art exhibition. In a world harassed by noise, violence, angular visions, suicidal installations, and stress, here was a collection of Victorian paintings depicting amorously languishing women all dressed up in Greek, Roman, medieval, and other exotic apparel. The title of the exhibition was Désir et Volupté à l’époque victorienne, which I almost kept intact for this lecture. How refreshingly ravishing, I thought, all these hairless slick whitish-pink skins in flowing pastel silks flirting with the surface of life. How restful for the gaze, these bouquets and skies unfolding a dreamy landscape of escapism.

“Desire and Voluptuousness: The
Representation of Women
in the Victorian Era”
Wed, Nov 19, 4:30 and 6:30pm
La Ostra Roja
A Casa Verde Annex
San Jorge 45
Colonia San Antonio (off Refugio Sur)
130 pesos
Reservations: 121 1026 or

I truly enjoyed the exquisite Alma-Tademas, Leightons, Goddards, Millais, and Rossettis, to name but a few. But for whom was this desire and voluptuousness intended? After savoring this self-indulgent superficial tour of delicate Victorian erotica, I then looked more closely at all these women and noticed an insidious melancholic, depressive mood, which made me feel ill at ease and startled my curiosity. I could not stop thinking of their state of mind in an era during which women were objectified, used, and abused for the pleasure, comfort, and security of a deeply anchored patriarchal society.

The exhibition was either poorly researched, or worse, willfully ignored the social and political contexts. I decided to give you the true story behind these portraits of longing, despondent, estranged, love-stricken women.

I have divided this presentation into two parts. First, I shall disclose the inner workings of Victorian ideology and social infrastructure, the “upstairs-downstairs” syndrome, through visits to aristocratic estates and their “slaves,” the staff. I shall also guide you through the stifling world of the rising Bourgeoisie, high and middle, the plutocratic, often uneducated emulators of the aristocracy. Women belonging to these three “privileged” social classes were fashion addicts, trophy wives suffering from suffocation, physical and mental—the corset and the home bound domesticity—but also from a restricted sexuality, which drove them to near insanity. A “good marriage,” motherhood, playing the piano, needle point, potpourri, flower arranging, and dinner parties were the only future they could aspire to, as serious studying was considered dangerous!

Then I shall take you to the other side, the poor side: the lower middle class and working class—whose women had the choice between entering domestic service, becoming nurses or governesses, selling food at the market, or slave labor in factories and sweat shops. No time for melancholic moods here; it was sheer survival. I shall not forget the poorest of the poor and the homeless, for whom there was only one way out: the work house—a facet of Victorian society which will sting you with horror. I shall also take you to the infamous asylum, where women of all classes were locked up for reasons ranging from postnatal depression and melancholy, from a simply flirtatious personality to hysteria and insanity, or for even more sordid reasons involving inheritance money and property. I shall open the world of high and low prostitution, child labor, both revealing the immorality of the industrial revolution (the Victorian Age with its flaunting incarcerating morality was a most immoral society). Women belonging to these underprivileged classes suffered from hunger, domestic violence, rape, and disease. They had to resort to awful and dangerous activities in order to survive, if they had not been already sent to the asylum.

In the second part, I will contrast the representation of women in Victorian paintings against this ominous historical backdrop, focusing on Victorian sexuality, the Madonna-Whore complex, the virgin mother, and  the femme fatale to show you how art, by choosing what to represent, not only allows for monumental misunderstandings, but also creates a collective amnesia from which we still suffer today. Victorian artists will delight you with their delicious palette of colors, with their exquisite draftsmanship, their iconic portrayal of submissive, feminine beauty. But do not be deceived. I will show you how to scratch the surface, and you will discover the other side of women’s reality. I invite you to meet these women, through numerous archival photographs and artworks, and realize that, rich or poor, they all suffered, one way or another, from a total lack of self. One startling painful revelation will be to acknowledge that independent prostitution was one of their ways out to freedom, the beginning of women’s free enterprise.


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