Exhibition | Two Extraordinary Women

Posted in exhibitions by Caitlin Smits on December 11, 2015

Opening next month at UVA:

Two Extraordinary Women: The Lives and Art of Maria Cosway and Mary Darby Robinson
The Fralin Museum of Art, The University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 29 January — 1 May 2016

Curated by Diane Boucher


Francesco Bartolozzi, Maria Cosway (after Richard Cosway), 1786; stipple and engraving, 9 1/2 x 6 in (Langhorne Collection, 2014.EL.1.5)

Two Extraordinary Women: The Lives and Art of Maria Cosway and Mary Darby Robinson examines the intersecting careers of two remarkable women who rose to prominence during the late eighteenth century. One of them, the artist, musician, and educator, Maria Cosway, is now best known as the woman with whom Thomas Jefferson fell in love while serving as American ambassador to France in 1786. The other, Mary Darby Robinson, was a celebrated English actress, former royal mistress, fashion icon, and one of the leading literary figures of her day. Both women were politically active Whig supporters and part of a proto-feminist movement that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century. Their ideas were stimulated by the same beliefs in freedom, equality, and democracy that informed the French and American revolutions.

In 1800, Cosway and Robinson collaborated on The Wintry Day, an illustrated poem that contrasted “the evils of poverty with the ostentatious enjoyment of opulence” in Regency England. The publisher, Rudolph Ackermann, described the subject of the poem and its illustrations: “The intention of the designs is to contrast the evils of poverty with the ostentatious enjoyment of opulence.” The exhibition will show how the lives of these two talented women closely resembled the idealized scenes of opulence and luxury in The Wintry Day. However, by juxtaposing these scenes with ones of abject poverty, Cosway and Robinson create a harsh critique of their times, which is in tune with their support of French and American revolutionary ideas on liberty and equality and their proto-feminist ideas on women’s education and the equality of the sexes.


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