The Fine Arts

"Nov. 2. 1816. Tickford - Dinner waiting at a neighbour's house."

Diana Sperling's watercolour painting, "Nov. 2. 1816. Tickford - Dinner waiting at a neighbour's house." Note the three individuals walking through mud in a pastoral scene; this visual layout is characteristic of the picturesque, a common aesthetic technique seen in Regency paintings and drawings.

Drawing, Painting and Picturesque Principles

Producing artwork was a common pastime for Regency women, and yet another means of gauging their talents and accomplishments. Women often drew portraits on paper, as well as landscapes of their surrounding environment (usually on their family's estate in the countryside).

In Emma, the titular heroine draws portraits such as the one she creates of her friend Harriet Smith.

"Let me entreat you," cried Mr. Elton; "it would indeed be a delight! Let me entreat you, Miss Woodhouse, to exercise so charming a talent in favour of your friend. I know what your drawings are."

Emma Woodhouse's drawing skills endear her to Mr. Elton, though she misreads his intentions, believing him enamoured with Miss Smith. 

Elinor Dashwood is also excellent at the arts in Sense and Sensibility, painting screens that are almost universally admired. Her younger sister Marianne, who is decidedly less sensible, derides the jargon that the gentry have adopted when speaking of the picturesque aesthetic movement.

"It is very true," said Marianne, "that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was."

Through Marianne's headstrong character, Jane Austen criticizes the pretentions of Regency society in appreciating artistic works. Many of her female heroines push the boundaries of propriety, yet without crossing into the territory of the "immoral" characters who flout etiquette entirely.

Illustration and pages from <em>Pride and Prejudice</em>, 1894 ed.

This excerpt from the 1894 edition of Pride and Prejudice includes an illustration by Hugh Thomson, depicting the scene in which Mr. Bennet ponders whether Mr. Bingley (later her sister Jane's suitor) would appreciate her needlework on a hat. 

Needlework and Embroidery 

The art of needlework and embroidery are also admirable accomplishments for a woman, as they showcase her domestic skills. However, more often than not, a woman would engage in embroidery while entertaining company, to show off a proclivity for producing beautiful things with no real practical function. This dynamic mirrors the overall concept of accomplishments in Jane Austen's assessment; they place limitations on women's conduct. 

When the Bertrams and their guests put on a play (Mansfield Park), Fanny Price chooses not to engage in it due to her qualms over its morality, and instead works on a cloak for Mr. Rushworth's costume. Her uncharitable Aunt Mrs. Norris entreats her to help with the cloak by flattering her needlework skills, an accomplishment which any Regency lady would take pride in.

The Fine Arts