BRILLIANT WOMEN: 18th-Century Bluestockings

by Jacquelyn Lewis

A feminist history lesson coupled with beautiful artwork.

Brilliant Women chronicles 18th-century women who were involved in the Bluestocking Circle, a literary salon in England where prominent social, political and cultural figures gathered informally at the homes of amicable hostesses for lively conversation and intellectual stimulation. The term “Bluestocking” referenced the salons’ casualness, as members were encouraged to shed the formalities of high society (including “appropriate” stocking color). Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey, and Frances Boscawen, as some of the first Bluestocking hostesses, initiated a social and literary movement in which friendship, charity, and female education were encouraged as the foundations of a civilized society.

This book supplements the recent Brilliant Women exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Its authors, a museum curator and an academic, use the exhibit’s portraits, prints, and caricatures to tell the story of these remarkable women. Early on, Bluestockings were painted in the likeness of classical muses, each embodying one of the arts or sciences. Britain did celebrate these women for a limited time, and women thrived in their new roles, writing literature, painting masterpieces and speaking out for women’s rights. Yet, by the end of the century, women were again idealized as domestic angels, and the Bluestocking society began to break down. A caricature from 1815 presents the Bluestockings as grotesque, overly made-up wenches who grab at each other’s dresses and hair. Openly intelligent women were again ridiculed, and the label “Bluestocking” soon became an insult rather than a nickname. Eger and Peltz couple the exhibit’s beautiful artwork with a history lesson, revealing the struggle, character, and feminist history behind every painted gaze.

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