“True Love and a Happy Home: Cultural Expectations and Feminine Experiences in Victorian America”

The exhibition “True Love and a Happy Home” at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum is surprisingly complex and provocative, particularly because of its modest size and the minimalism of means by which it has been created. A model of installation economy, the show nevertheless establishes a rich psychological and intellectual environment in which layers of irony are adroitly woven through history, sociology, and aesthetics.

“Cultural Expectations and Feminine Experiences in Victorian America” is the show’s subtitle, and to examine these themes, curators Catherine Tuggle and Diane Dunkley have synthesized two decades of new scholarship on middle-class American Victorian culture. Their presentation is distinguished for the clarity of its structure, the directness of its argument, and the skill with which photographs and paintings, furniture, and domestic memorabilia reconstruct the claustrophobia and isolation that characterized the 19th-century middle-class home.

A painting by Lilly Martin Spencer confronts visitors at the exhibition entrance and establishes the ironic tone of the show, underlining the 19th-century contradictions it describes. Shake Hands? (1854) depicts an attractive, mature woman in an abundantly appointed kitchen extending a dough-covered hand to the viewer. The figure’s wide smile and confrontational gesture are distinctly mocking, infusing the superficially sentimental image with ambiguity. This ambiguity is perpetuated throughout the exhibition by the interaction of contrasting narratives in the interpretative wall text, quotations from 19th-century women, and the allusive domestic tableaux around which the photographs and paintings are displayed.

The physical spaces of the home provide the exhibit’s structuring metaphor around which the pictorial images and domestic items are arranged. Beginning in the parlor, the life of 19th-century middle-class women is tracked through bedroom and nursery, dining room and kitchen to the circumscribed outdoor areas and communities in which such women were allowed to move. A final section labeled “Boundaries” presents images of a few women who transgressed ideological limitations to achieve more complete lives.

The “Boundaries” section contains the only images that seem to represent real persons (or personalities), although many of the other photographs are identified by name. Among the “outlaws” are Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, actress Charlotte Cushman, bareback rider Josephine Ashton, and Frances Paine, who established a religious order in New York City. This section also contains a variety of alternatives to constrained middle-class domesticity, scenes reporting women as workers in sewing workshops, photographic studios, textile mills, or as store clerks, nurses, cleaning women, artists’ models, and servants. Some show regimentation and exploitation, others hint at the possibility of greater autonomy; overall, they demonstrate how class identity collaborated with ideology to encourage pious domesticity.

These ideologies were ruthless in both their inconsistency and their rigidity. Although the transfixed immobility of the figures is a byproduct of 19th-centry photographic film’s need for long exposures, that immobility now effectively seems to describe a world in which women, and men as well, were imprisoned by notions of sex and the family that made a balanced life impossible. In the “Parlor” section, demure young women are shown enticing potential suitors or amusing themselves while waiting for one to come along. The parlor, devised as a refuge for men from the cruel, competitive, commercial world, served also as a backdrop against which the charms of a family’s daughters would be displayed. The exhibit’s photographs, which are copies of 19th-century originals, provide tantalizing but always partial glimpses of the parlor, which served as world arena for 19th-century urban middle-class girls and women.

A narrow, early-19th-century bed with an appliquéd album quilt serves as a fitting metaphor for the restrictive and secretive world of the 19th-century bedroom. Images surrounding the bed describe illness and waiting, age and restraint. Scenes documenting the transformation of virgin to wife and mother are, of course, absent, but the violence and confusion of the transformation are hauntingly evoked both by the curatorial commentary and by the 1865 quote from Anna Mercer La Roche Frances, whose words open the “Bedroom” section: “I have arranged all my worldly goods and now am prepared in case I die…I am waiting hourly for my baby—my blood runs cold when I think of it.”

William Hahn’s 1874 painting, The Convalescent, adds an additional narrative twist in this section. Drawing on the era’s belief in the innate sickliness and fragility of women, it depicts a young woman in mourning sitting with an invalid. Next to them is a table on which sits the framed portrait of an unidentified man.

Similar 19th-century story paintings punctuate the exhibition, providing elaborate and colorful narrative moments to balance the photographs and text. The “Nursery” section includes another Lilly Martin Spencer, This Little Pig Went to Market (1857), a fascinating popularization of several high-art motifs which were combined for sentimental and erotic effect. A mother posed like a high-Renaissance madonna holds a disheveled child whose tunic falls off his right shoulder and whose left hand reaches inside the mother’s loose robe at the breast. Behind this pair is a rumpled bed. The scene elaborately conflates the madonna and concubine archetypes in a way that makes the epidemic of child abuse in our own and the last century perhaps a little more explicable.

In the “Dining Room and Kitchen” section, metaphors of con sumption are played against conspicuous display as a signifier of status. In these rooms, women learned and executed their business as housewives (and here the term seems apt—these women really were married to their houses) and managed social networks to assure advancement of a husband’s career and suitable marriages for children. A woman’s accomplishments as wife and mother were perpetually on display in these public spaces. A photo reproduction of Spencer’s painting Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the Lasses hangs in this area, describing the teasing way inaccessible sexuality was played upon in such domestic settings.

The Spencer paintings, the Hahn, and other works by William Sidney Mount, John George Brown, and Eastman Johnson provide a brief survey of 19th-century genre painting within the larger exhibition. The context exploits genre’s strength as social documentation, and its sentimentality becomes an asset in, rather than an obstacle to, appreciation. Like Spencer’s Kiss Me…, the Johnson and Brown are photo reproductions, but they nonetheless serve to illustrate the exhibition’s themes. Their elaborate, vaguely intimated narratives mirror the implied narratives in the photographs and serve as reminders that the 19th century was the era of another bourgeois invention, the realist novel.

The installation design for “True Love and a Happy Home” provides a final ironic commentary, perhaps unconsciously, on the ideology of good taste and decorum described by the photos and texts. In a death-by-Laura-Ashley decorator extravaganza, diamond-shaped panels of many fabric patterns and colors ring the walls of the exhibition area. Photographs are affixed to or between these fabric panels, and among them are scattered cut-out paper and beribboned Victorian cupids. Viewers may find their eyes lurching from the timeless space of the photographed 19th-century interior to this postmodern kitsch. This remarkably appropriate setting by Chester Designs provides a psychic lightness that keeps the images, objects, and curatorial texts deftly suspended between didacticism and deconstruction in a deceptively effortless way.

That this exhibit is being presented at the DAR Museum is a surprise. As a model of the best revisionist history and with insights from the “new art history,” this show is the sort of analytical presentation once hoped for from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, while the DAR, with its motto “God, Home, and Country,” seems an almost inevitable outgrowth of these coercive and tedium-filled 19th-century “Happy Homes.” But as the “outlaw” women in the exhibition’s “Boundaries” section indicate, there are always distinguished exceptions to ideological generalizations. “True Love and a Happy Home” quite effectively confounds such generalizations in our own time and presents a model of creative museum work of which any institution would be proud.