Being a lady may have gone out of style with white gloves and virginity, but once there was an art to it, and Art was then a ladylike accomplishment. As early as the 16th century, Baldassare Castiglione's "Courtier" recommended that women learn to draw and paint. High-born ladies, even royal ones, did.

By the 19th century, when drawing had become such an accepted part of a gentlewoman's education that instruction could be obtained from a drawing manual, George Eliot thought feminine piano playing and painting were just too, too ladylike; she referred to them in "Middlemarch" as "small tinkling and smearing."Royalty never went professional, but other women did. A tidy little show called "Ladies of the Brush," which includes some 40 Victorian paintings and sketches from the Forbes Magazine Collection and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, showcases a number of professional painters alongside the Royal Family.

At this exhibition (at the Forbes Magazine Galleries in New York City, through April 29), there are no real inspirations, no undiscovered geniuses demurely hiding behind English hedgerows, but a few pleasant enough works of art, a heap of history and, for a change, some sweet and not very titillating news about British royalty.

Queen Victoria had some talent, though fortunately for England she was better equipped to rule. She had been brought up on language and voice and art lessons and when young often sketched people from memory.

She remained an eager artist when Queen and Empress, and the Prince Consort was not to be left behind. Both took drawing lessons from the eminent British painter Sir Edwin Landseer, and this show has the royal couple's joint copy of a sentimental religious painting.

Their four daughters dutifully learned art, too, and the Princess Royal had a knack for it; her small study of "An Eastern Lady" is nicely done. Americans saw some of her work at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

According to Naomi Rosenblum's new book, "A History of Women Photographers," the number of women who considered themselves artists increased fourfold between 1840 and 1870, and from 1870 to 1900 the number of female artists and art teachers in the United States alone rose from 418 to 11,031.

The ladies on view at the Forbes Magazine Galleries presented a pretty, agreeably domestic facade in their paintings. Jessica Hayllar's "Coming Event," about an impending wedding, presents a rich still life of wedding dress, shoes and paraphernalia right up front in the spectator's space, removes the bride-to-be to a far doorway, nearly obscures her fiance, and dimly reveals another figure way down the hall. The rich, formal trappings of the wedding quite outshine and overcome the mere participants.

Emma Sandys and Henrietta Rae produced creditable, if not riveting, Pre-Raphaelite portraits of women with luxurious hair or heads surrounded by vines that make literally creepy halos. Lilly Martin Spencer, an American, dashed off a charming still life of ripe watermelon and assorted fruit.

Sometimes literature was the spur: Elizabeth Adela Armstrong Stanhope Forbes, a Canadian who must have been excessively fond of names, painted a triptypch of a woman in white by a woodland stream and added a carved arts-and-crafts frame inscribed with a poem about fairy folk. Julia Margaret Cameron, not a painter but a photographer, dressed her models as Lancelot and Guinevere to illustrate Tennyson's "Idylls of the King."

View Comments

Most of them were the daughters or wives of painters who gave them instruction and support. (In 1971, the art historian Linda Nochlin, in an article called "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?," pointed out that until modern times (italics)all(end italics) women artists were the daughters of painters and taught by them, for girls could not leave home at an early age to apprentice with important male painters, nor were they allowed full access to the academies.)

An 1844 domestic guide for women, widely read in England and America, declared painting, and especially drawing, a valuable skill because it is so quiet it never disturbs anyone and, since it keeps the mind from brooding, also helps a woman "maintain that general cheerfulness which is a part of social and domestic duty." (Just in case you wondered why Gauguin and van Gogh in particular had no female counterparts.)

A Frenchman in 1860 specifically advised against ambitious painting: "Let men busy themselves with all that has to do with great art. Let women occupy themselves with those types of art they have always preferred, such as pastels, portraits and miniatures. Or the painting of flowers."

And still they painted, and some achieved success. If the ladies of the brush were not great painters - and they were not - yet they were full of vim and courage in the face of obstacles. Great ladies, then. The weaker sex may be the braver after all.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.