The Art of Being a Lady
“Chelsea, sit up straight. Ladies don’t slouch!” “What are you wearing? Change out of that ridiculous outfit and put on a practical dress.” “Mind your manners, ladies hold their tongues!” To this very day, memories of my childhood are haunted by an omnipresent adult figure looming over my adolescent-self, correcting my behavior with the proper etiquette tips, most of which I scoffed at for being completely outdated and outrageous. Usually these pearls of feminine wisdom fell from the pursed, red lips of my grandmother, who, after fixing me with a disapproving stare, would turn on her heels and waltz out of the room, leaving me in the wake of her perfume, which smelled like a mixture of roses and disappointment.
Fast forward to 2012, and the rules of female etiquette could be considered a dwindling craft of the past, which have been replaced with the confidence and go-getter attitude of today’s corporate woman. However, the past is not yet forgotten, as seen in an upcoming exhibit at the Newark Museum, entitled Angels and Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th Century American Art. Opening on September 12, 2012, this exhibit consists of approximately eighty works by an impressive roster of American artists. Paintings by John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer reflect the impact that artists had on establishing social expectations for young American girls during the nineteenth century. Through the portraits of demure, young females by William Merritt Chase and Frank W. Benson, visitors will see how societal expectations dictated that girls be angelic in their nature, and how a passive and domestic existence was to be their intended path in life.
Towards the end of the exhibition, a visible shift from images of delicate females falls away to works focused on tomboys and androgynous children. Audiences will be able to see how child-rearing and adolescent life changed as a result of evolving opinions on gender in America. Nevertheless, a return to a fleeting, if not already passed, era of feminine tradition will be a refreshing interaction for adults and children alike. It will be interesting to see how many men leave Angels and Tomboys with a newfound sense of chivalry, as well as the amount of women who walk out the exhibit with their shoulders squared and heads held high.
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