Posted by: penne22m | December 1, 2018

Queen Victoria as Instagram Influencer, kind of.

During a discussion of advertising in the Victorian era in class, the subject of a strange new phenomenon came up: the influencer. An influencer is essentially a person, who acts as marketing. How this works is by identifying those people who have influence over potential consumers and orienting marketing actives around them. In modern day, this is typically happening through social media. Ah yes, the Instagram influencer. A person with a large enough following on Instagram who’s whole online life is a curated marketing presence. Brands will send them clothes, for example, and they will wear and tag them in a post. The same applies for bags and shoes and food and what workouts they stream and what shampoo their cat uses. Truly. While this may seem absurd, the notion that a person is a marketing tool that can change the way thousands of people (or followers) operate – I have come to consider that this may not be an entirely new phenomenon.

Instagram, and social media in general, is allowed to work in this way through photography. This idea lead me to our discussions in class, surrounding the advent of photography in the Victorian era. Specifically, it led me to think about the top influencers of Victorian society, the royals. Upon further reflection, I realized that Queen Victoria was perhaps the first Queen to use photography. In fact, countless portraits of the queen circulated into the public sphere. Was Queen Victoria among the first influencers as we know them today?

She is certainly known for her influence on fashion, having championed the popularity of the white wedding dress. We know that Queen Victoria was so fond of her husband and her gown, that she even wore her gown years after the wedding in order to pose for photographs. The widely seen images of her white wedding dress, could very well be an example of how she was one of the earliest social media influencers.


Posted by: penne22m | December 1, 2018

The Cocoa Childhood

When reading Lori Anne Loeb’s Consuming Women: Advertising and Victorian Women chapters 1 and 2 the images that struck me as most fascinating were the cocoa ads. Specifically, I was curious as to why these advertisements for cocoa seemed to be targeting and focused on children. Loeb speaks to the generational power structure and the female gendering of these advertisements but I still had the burning question: why did these advertisements paint chocolate as a “health” food of “purity” and why the focus on kids? How did these early advertisements to children effect future marketing strategies?

The first order of business I set out to explore was the “healthy chocolate” issue. These Victorian advertisements do many smart things: first as Loeb points out they feature little girls. This commercialized image of the pure and well-behaved child plays to the Victorian ideal. They even push “purity” further by claiming the cocoa is the purest thing you could give your children. Turns out, while these images were being circulated in Europe, Hershey’s was doing similar things around the same time in the US. In fact from 1912- 1926 the Hershey’s chocolate bar wrapper had the claim “more sustaining than meat” printed right on the label!

Bar wrapper for Hershey's Milk Chocolate bar. ca. 1912-1926

So why this effort to convince families that cocoa was healthy and nourishing for children? One theory is that it was a strategy of hooking the consumer, in this case children. Hooking them while they’re young (as they say), pushing the idea of consuming this product as being an integral and nourishing part of their day. This way not only does it become commonplace, like drinking a glass of milk, but also addictive. The sweetness of the chocolate in combination with the habit of consumption has just created a lifelong consumer. Now this is when we begin to see an experimental shift in marketing directly to children, instead of solely adults.


Flash forward to modern day: marketing to children is everywhere. And the chocolate industry is still at the forefront of this strategy. Take for example, the M&M. Have you seen an M&M commercial? They are literally giant talking cartoon chocolates. I did a science experiment in elementary school about the dangers of children mistaking medicine for candy. I rounded up all the neighborhood kids (with parental permission) and gave them two options, asking them to identify which was candy and which was medicine. Every single participant (in this revolutionary and well-conducted by an 11 year old me experiment) confused the chocolate laxatives for regular chocolate. When I revealed to them that the chocolate imposter was medicine, one boy said something that I thought was strange at the time, but that came rushing back to me upon viewing these Victorian advertisements. He told me, “my mom says chocolate is healthy, she eats a square every night after dinner and lets me have my own… so it if it’s healthy isn’t it medicine?” Needless to say, I didn’t know how to answer him at 11. And I am aware of the health benefits of certain chocolate. But I am also aware now of the complicated history of cocoa advertisements and children, going all the way back to the Victorian era. And, now I am craving some chocolate.


Loeb, Lori Anne, Consuming Women: Advertising and Victorian Women.

Posted by: simmo22hmtholyokeedu | November 29, 2018

Elizabeth Siddal: Muse and Martyr of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

If you have ever seen a Pre-Raphaelite painting, there’s a good chance you have encountered the face of Elizabeth Siddal. She is the model for John Everett Millais’s Ophelia and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix. She was married to Rossetti, served as his “”””muse””””,  and was a central figure in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Though she is best remembered for her striking features which adorn the aforementioned paintings, she was also a prolific poet herself. Sadly, the poetry she is most associated with was that of her husband, which was buried with her when she died.

Beata Beatrix (1864-70), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Tate Gallery

Elizabeth Siddal was born to an upper middle class family in 1829 in London. Though she had no formal education, she nonetheless became a pivotal figure in the intellectual circle of Millais, Rossetti, and John William Waterhouse.

Ophelia (1851), John Everett Millais, Tate Gallery

I first encountered Siddal as the sitter for Millais’s Ophelia. In this painting, Siddal as Ophelia drifts along a river, captured right at the moment when her clothes are still helping her stay afloat before they become waterlogged and drag her below the surface. I was always disturbed by the depiction of Ophelia, in Shakespeare and later by Millais, as a pretty girl, even as she is about to die. In fact, Siddal was in danger of actually dying during the painting of this image. To pose as Ophelia, she lay floating in a bathtub as Millais painstakingly copied her likeness. The candles underneath the tub, which kept the water marginally warm, eventually blew out, leaving Siddal laying in rapidly cooling water in the middle of a London winter. She later caught pneumonia as a result of the ordeal. Both the painting and this anecdote lead me to the conception of this woman as a fragile, tragic figure.

While she was often painted, mostly by Rossetti, as varying folkloric and religious figures (Joan of Arc, Lady of Shalott, etc.), she ended up becoming a mythic figure in her own right. After her tragic death by suicide, her husband Rossetti was so distraught that he ordered all his poems be buried with her. Later, he realized this wasn’t such a great idea, and exhumed her coffin to retrieve his poetry. The legend goes that upon opening the coffin, her hair appeared to have grown after her death, filling the box with her distinctive red hair. Therefore, in death she takes on the kind of magical qualities associated with the women for whom she had served as a model.

What neither of these stories mention, however, is Elizabeth Siddal’s own artistic practice. By mythologizing her, and making her the victim of these two great artists, history has erased her personhood and agency. I highly recommend reading some of her poetry. They’re really lovely and brief, and help us to understand this woman as she was outside of the context of Millais and Rossetti: Alive, on dry land, and a woman who created her own works of art.



Bradley, Laurel. “Elizabeth Siddal: Drawn into the Pre-Raphaelite Circle.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 1992, pp. 137–187. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Hassett, Constance W. “Elizabeth Siddal’s Poetry: A Problem and Some Suggestions.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 35, no. 4, 1997, pp. 443–470. JSTOR, JSTOR,

“Siddal, Elizabeth Eleanor (1829–1862), Painter | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.” (1892–1973), Writer and Philologist | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 9 Nov. 2017,



Through the heavy doors and into the dark gallery. Banners bearing portraits of eight women hang from the wall. Images of the eight empresses of the Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1912. As wife of the emperor or mother of the emperor, the empress assumed a currency of influence, both with the emperor, and in her role as head of the imperial harem. These empresses, whose stories have been overlooked, occupied an elite, rarefied position in Chinese history.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Peabody Essex Museum’s formidable exhibit “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City.” The exhibit is the product of a collaboration between the PEM in Salem Massachusetts, the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler galleries in Washington, and the Palace Museum in Beijing. The lives of the Qing dynasty empresses have been a neglected history, as the text introducing one of the exhibit’s galleries illustrates: “The imperial court closely regulated the life of each empress to ensure she stood as an exemplar for all women, yet the male officials who wrote Qing court history recorded very little of her activities. They perceived family matters and women’s roles as less important than the state affairs the emperor managed.” Through an astounding collection of objects, exhibition curators endeavour to “tell the little-known stories of how these women influenced art, religion, court politics and international diplomacy” (Cardin).

Organized thematically, each gallery in the exhibit spoke to a different theme relating to aspects of the empresses’ lives and areas in which they held influence such as “Becoming an Empress,” “Ascending the Throne,” “Fulfilling Family Roles,” “Celebrating Motherhood,”  “Worshipping as an Empress,” and “A Rich and Active Life.” Each gallery housed objects associated with each theme as well as a specific profile on one of the empresses. The sheer number of objects, nearly 200 in total, were awe-striking in their variety, from orate headdresses meant to be “demure yet tantalizing,” to intricate hairdressing sets, dressers, robes, and paintings.


(“Festive headdress with phoenixes and peonies, Tongzhi or Guangxu period, probably 1872 or 1888–89, probably Imperial Workshop, Beijing, silver with gilding, kingfisher feather, pearls, coral, jadeite, ruby, sapphire, tourmaline, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and glass; frame: metal, wires with silk satin, velvet, and cardboard, Palace Museum, Gu59708. The Palace Museum. On view in Empresses of China’s Forbidden City.”)

Every gallery of the exhibit, nearly every object, was surrounded by visitors. The crowd was very engaged in the exhibit; discussing and raising questions with their partners, children, and grandchildren. This atmosphere of inquiry and engagement not only mirrored, but heightened my experience of the exhibit.

Representations of the empresses in the material objects straddled the line of maintaining and contesting gendered expectations. Some depictions of the empresses in the exhibit revealed empresses as icons of ideal womanhood. A series of paintings represented empresses exemplifying the traits of “filial devotion to elderly, good care of sons and grandsons, diligence, and frugality” all of which Qing imperial women were expected to embody. Other galleries and objects reflected the empresses exhibiting more individuality. Empresses, with their cosmopolitan preferences, became tastemakers in culture and keen art collectors. Empresses were also exempt from footbinding and enjoyed greater freedom and mobility, from horseback riding and archery to travel. One area of influence I found interesting was the empresses’ influence over religion. Empresses’ religious practices led the court to construct “magnificent religious buildings, scriptures, and sculptures,” which in turn “shaped the pluralistic religious traditions of the court including Buddhism and shamanism.”

Despite the plethora of objects and areas of influence, I was always aware of the empresses’ confinement. Curators provided viewers a sense of scope of the empresses’ worlds by including a large map of the Forbidden City. The map denoted the living quarters and spaces the empresses would have been able to access. The space the imperial harem and empresses occupied was a relatively small cluster in such an expensive development.

The empress’ foremost job was to produce a male heir. Objects surrounding an empress made sure she never forgot that most essential job. Personal objects such as a screen, vases, a jar, and a snuff box bore images of  “boys at play” and “mother and child” or “mother and son.”

An element the exhibit made very clear was that an empresses’ influence could extend beyond producing a male heir; the relationship between emperor and his mother provided continuing influence over the court. A close relationship between emperor and mother empress dowager was “emblematic of a harmonious society that Qing rulers credited to their rule.” The objects associated with empress Chongqing (1692-1777), mother of Qianlong Emperor, revealed the closeness of her relationship with her son. Chongqing experienced good health and traveled 10 months of the year with her son into old age. On display was the travel tableware she took with her on these journeys. When Chongqing and her son were not together, she walked with a staff that symbolized his personage. Also on display was a fan Qianlong painted for Chongqing bearing the image of a daylily, a symbol of one’s love for their mother.

While the palace observed a strict patriarchal hierarchy, there was a possibility for consorts in the harem to gain some upward mobility; a mother’s birth rank was not taken into consideration when selecting which son would be chosen as the next emperor. An empress could manipulate a way to maintain power, as in the case of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) who maneuvered a way to consolidate power and maintain her influence for nearly fifty years.

Empress Dowager Cixi’s story remains, for me, one of the most intriguing of the exhibit, as it exemplifies ways empresses mobilized their influence to beget more influence. Upon the Emperor’s death Cixi and the other empress dowager Ci’an “instigated a coup to place power directly in their hands as co-regents of the child emperor” which led to her 47 year run (1861-1908)  as “de facto ruler of at the Qing court.” During her tenure Cixi “challenged the tradition that women shall not rule, and brought radical changes to the role of women in court politics, diplomacy, and art patronage.”

The exhibit ended with an object dissimilar to previous objects — an imposing portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi. The empress received a negative public reputation for supporting a the Boxer Rebellion a “violent anti-foreign uprising which besieged the American diplomatic quarter in Beijing in 1900.” In an effort recuperate her image for Western powers (‘the soul of a tiger in the body of a woman’ as one Western newspaper described her), the empress hired American painter Katherine A Carl to paint her portrait, which she would gift to Theodore Roosevelt for display in the 1904 World Fair. In the time of photographic portraits, the empress chose the more traditional, painted portrait, perhaps speaking to the comparative power of the two mediums. By hiring an American artist, Cixi’s political acumen is as much on display as her visage. I also found it intriguing that the empress chose a female artist to present this more ‘softened’ image of herself to the public.


(“Katharine Carl, The Empress Dowager Tze Hsi, of China, oil on canvas with camphor wood frame, 1903. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, S2011.16.1-2a-ap.”)

I found this to be a hearty exhibit, both in terms of the materials on display and the concepts it presented. One element I found particularly interesting was how the organizers chose to end the exhibit. At the exit, a roll of unfurled butcher paper with pens and pencils sat below two questions printed on the wall reading “What do you feel are the expectations for women in power today?” and “How do you think women in power are portrayed today?” I appreciated that the curators chose to end the exhibit with these provocative, challenging questions, bringing the empresses’ experiences to a modern context. The Qing dynasty empresses dealt in complicated and precarious power. The questions reiterated for myself the sense that this exhibit is about a representation of power, as there is no written record from the empresses’ perspectives about their roles and experiences of power. The voices of the women felt at times close and distant from the material culture in the exhibit. Private objects were often not fully their own, but were imperial property. Upon the death of an empress, the objects returned to the palace, to be passed on, or melted down and made anew.

One of the excellent effects of this exhibit is that, while it illuminated aspects of the Qing dynasty consorts and empresses’ lives, it also embraced the persistence of mystery surrounding their experiences.

Curators designed the exhibit to offer visitors a view into the empresses’ world, not just a view of a world. Before entering the exhibit text printed on the wall invites viewers to imagine themselves  empresses. The theme of imagining continued throughout the galleries. At the beginning of each gallery space curators included a brief creative vignette to bring visitors closer to the empresses. The vignettes included a future consort, as young as thirteen, being transported from her family home to the palace for marriage, and an empress anxiously waiting to hear which son of the emperor would inherit the throne following the emperor’s death. These vignettes engaged the visitors imagination, something I found suited my style of exploring.

Upon leaving the exhibit I was ready to venture out and do my own research. I think this a strength of the exhibit, that it raises more questions than it answers, inspires more inquiry, invites visitors to delve deeper.


Work Cited and Credits for Images (along with their captions)

Cardin, Dinah. “Stories of Opulence and Influence.” Peabody Essex Museum, 8 Aug. 2018,

Gordon, Lydia. “2018 Exhibitions Examine Women and Power.” Peabody Essex Museum, 14 Feb. 2018,

*All other quoted material from plaques in the exhibit

Posted by: helenabeliveau | November 18, 2018

William Mumler and the Spirit Photography Phenomenon

In aligning with last week’s discussion on Julia Margaret Cameron’s aestheticization of portrait photography, which marked a major departure from many portrait photographer ’s initial intents to solely capture the ‘real’, I decided to look at another form of photographic manipulation.  However this manipulation, in contrast to Cameron’s explicit manipulation, was prominently marketed to clients as capturing the ‘real.’ The advent of spirit photography allowed families to have a tangible representation of a deceased loved one who may have passed away before they had a chance to sit a portrait.  Spirit photography, in turn, played on many Victorian peoples strong spiritual beliefs and saturated a society where many people had lost loved ones unexpectedly.

Because the camera was a relatively new and explosive invention, its particularities were shrouded in mystery, and the fact that one object could capture a specific ‘real’ moment in time was so technologically unfathomable to ordinary people that it could be considered a work of magic.  The ‘ghost photograph’, however, was fairly simple to create, and was initially created by accident. These photographs were, “a result of the long exposures required by the earliest photographic processes. If the subject moved during the exposure, they appeared in the finished photograph as a blurred, transparent, ghost-like figure” (Harding). Through this discovery, many enterprising photographers began to advertise the production of portraits, that would, as advertised, have a deceased loved one in the frame alongside the living sitter.  The rise of spirit photography arrived during a particularly crowded photography studio market and allowed photographers to prey on even more consumers.  More specifically, in vulnerable family members who were still in mourning.

In addition, spirit photography arose during a particular moment in American society, in the decades shortly following the Civil War.  Within the ‘spirit photography’ market in the United States, the most notorious is William Mumler. Mumler is perhaps most known for producing one of the most popular spirit photographs; a portrait of Mary Todd Lincon.  Transposed over Mary Todd Lincoln, who is clothed in a mourning veil, is the ghostly image of her late husband, Abraham Lincoln.

Mumler’s career as a spirit photographer began accidentally, as he noticed a spectral figure in one of his traditional portraits, most likely caused by a double exposure.  Nevertheless, this carte de visite became extremely popular, and he soon began charging exorbitant fees for ‘spirit photographs’, albeit under certain conditions. In attempting to convey a sense of how ‘finicky’ these spirits were, “Mumler charged $10 for a dozen photographs, or five times the going rate, with no guarantee that any spirit “extras” would appear. Often they did not, and clients had to make repeated trips to Mumler’s studio before they were blessed with a ‘presence’.”   His enterprise even expanded to a mail order service, in which clients could mail in a description of a loved one they wanted to see in a photograph, plus seven dollars and fifty cents.

Several photographers soon became extremely sceptical of Mumler’s photographs, and launched a citywide sting operation in an effort to stop Mumler’s fraudulent business practices.  Upon taking a portrait for an undercover police officer, and failing to produce the promised spirit in the photograph, he was taken into custody.  His subsequent criminal trial produced several impassioned ommissions of innocence by several clients, and he was soon set free, as the judge was unable to find any conclusive evidence that Mumler was ‘duping’ his clients.  He soon relaunched his business in Boston and found himself photographing one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s final portraits.

In looking at this image alongside our previous discussions about the amount of power held by a photographer, I am struck by how such an unethical practice appeared during such a vulnerable time in American history.  Not only did these photographers have the power to portray their clients in a certain light, but they also had the power to enforce and manipulate the beliefs of clients whose lives were impacted by intense pain and sorrow.

 mary todd lincoln

Image 1: Mary Todd Lincoln with Abraham Lincoln. Photographed by William Mumler in 1872

Works Cited:

Image 1:

Harding, Colin. “G Is for… Ghosts: The Birth and Rise of Spirit Photography.” National Science and Media Museum Blog, 17 Aug. 2018,

Piepenbring, Dan. “The Photographer Who Claimed to Capture Abraham Lincoln’s Ghost.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 27 Oct. 2017,

“The Ghost and Mr. Mumler.” HistoryNet, 24 Jan. 2018,

Posted by: Casey L | November 18, 2018

Jonas and Vroman: Art Museum Visit Review

Having just finished reading Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, the concept of reflection was at the forefront of my mind during the class visit to the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. The two works I studied and both Alice stories were inextricably linked, so that as I took notes, the connections spilled out more quickly than I could write.

The first more structured part of the museum visit was spent watching Joan Jonas’ work Mirror Improvisations and doing a close reading in the context of our class. After thinking through our initial impressions, we were asked to consider connections to the course and Jonas’ use of the mirror. I had briefly visited this same piece with another English class and admittedly had not had much of a reaction, lacking the context to interpret it.

With the course in mind, I had the necessary interpretive tools to read the film. As in the two Alice stories, the film begins outside of its own Wonderland. Jonas, the other subject, and the dog are first shown outside of the mirror from the direct perspective of the camera. Once thrust into the mirror world, time jolts and slows, and actions become absurd. By the end, there is no resolution or falling action, rather a few seemingly random conflicts (sword-fighting vs. creature encounters) and construction to no end in itself (compare with the courtroom nonsense in Alice).

Joan Jonas plays on age and perspective in her piece. She and the other woman dress up as children may dress up as princesses, with tulle and paper hats thrown on top of everyday clothing. At the same time that they imitate the play of children, they are projected as larger than life from the low perspective of the mirror. Like in Alice, size and age are in flux in this mirror world. The film’s music is random, existing in a tension between childlike smashing on piano keys and adult, sophisticated jazz. Another connection to Alice in Wonderland is Jonas’ dog, as the non-human becomes incorporated into play. In multiple shots in the film, the dog is larger than the human figure, reminiscent of the terrier that Alice encounters.

Jonas and the woman are able to watch how they will appear on film in the mirror. They look at the mirror as though making eye contact with the viewer but really looking at themselves and the camera lens at the same time. Jonas subverts the truth-claim of film, its supposed ability to reveal more than photography. How do worlds change when seen through a mirror? How can the camera be a part of reimagining the world? There is something larger—stories and ideas—that cannot be captured by the camera. The subjects understand what they represent, but viewers cannot access their reality.

After discussing the film—I found a lot of what I was writing were thoughts in common with classmates—we were sent off for the second part of the trip. With two quotes from Joan Jonas in mind, we were to read an object of our choosing that related to Jonas’ thoughts about mirrors. I was drawn from afar by a piece that initially resembled Victorian photocollage. Upon closer inspection, I saw the work was composed of four cards arranged in a fan reminiscent of photocollage, with faces and bodies pasted on ordinary items. However, the subjects represented were Native peoples from New Mexico rather than members of the Victorian aristocracy. I turned to the first quote by Joan Jonas in 2001: “In addition to creating space, a mirror also disturbs space, suggesting another reality through the looking glass. To see the reflection of Narcissus, to be a voyeur. To see one’s self as the other … to see one’s self also among, as one with, the others.”


Made circa 1900, what would be the end of the Victorian period in the UK, the cards feature photographs taken by Adam Clark Vroman and produced by Lazarus & Melzer. My discomfort with the cards was framed by Jonas’ quote, which connects to anthropological projects of the late-19th and early-20th century surprisingly well. The specific kind of fascination that must have been felt when viewing these cards is within the context of colonialism, an erasure of the genocide of Native peoples in favor of presenting a depoliticized “mirror world.”

Seeing scenes and people that parallel one’s own fits into this idea of voyeurism of self and the other. As the object label notes, the images did not name those featured and were meant to be “iconic representatives of an entire people, rather than … individuals.” The card placed on top is of a Native woman, labeled “An Isleta Belle,” presumably referring to the Isleta tribe in New Mexico. By framing the photograph as one featuring a beautiful woman, the (non-Native) viewers are asked to make an immediate comparison to women in “their world.”

Unlike in Jonas’ piece, the connection to her quote and our course is not via the mirror, but is still via visual representation of the other/self. Each card’s photograph has an edge that is slightly fuzzed out, emphasizing them as near-fantasy insights into a realm that the viewer contemporaneous with the photographs would recognize as other and yet part of a shared humanity: apart in culture and land, but (however wrongly) sharing a country. The arrangement of the four cards disrupts this voyeuristic ability to peer through the scenes and fully imagine oneself in them, or compared to them; with the exception of the top card, the others are tucked behind.

In the end, the museum visit was a reminder of how our current studies and thoughts shape our interpretation of art. We wove through the museum, threaded by our shared experience in the course, what we wanted to find in connection to our ideas. We sought images that we were able to read, and when we looked at works of art, our internal selves were reflected back at us.



Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition. Edited by Martin Gardner, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Jonas, Joan. Mirror Improvisation. 2005.

Vroman, Adam Clark. The American Indian Souvenir Playing Cards. Lazarus & Melzer, 1900.

Posted by: acheever19 | November 16, 2018

Victorian Burlesque: Photography & Entertainment

While doing some research on stage photography in Victorian England, I came across striking photographs from a specific genre of female entertainment: burlesque. Of course I’m familiar with modern burlesque shows but I hadn’t realized that burlesque was popularized in London from the 1830s to 1890s before reaching stages in New York and Chicago by the 1840s and 1850s. Was burlesque considered socially acceptable by Victorians? I wondered. Yet, Victorian era burlesque created a space for female performativity (and often seductive) entertainment. The archived photographs of these women suggest further discourse on the visuality of (gendered) entertainment and photography’s link to the theatrical– their costumes, movement, and the staged documentation by photographers create a niche that appealed to audiences throughout England and America.

The term burlesque was first used in 17th century Italian theater, representative of an extravagant comic interlude deriving from the Italian word “burla,” meaning ridicule or joke. Eventually, burlesque also became a literary device applied to literature, music, or theater: “It’s often a form of humorous parodies or pastiches of serious dramatic or classical works. It was related and partly derived from the English tradition of pantomime, in which a musical theatre parodied a serious work such as a Shakespeare play, with the addition of music and songs and humorous verse” (Uren). The theatrical nature of a burlesque often included comic skits, and striptease acts, leading to burlesque as its own entertainment genre. However, burlesque was not considered to be scandalous, pitiable, or low-brow in nature–it was a visual and performance art form that enabled women to create characters and skits that interacted with and responded to popular culture in Victorian society, literary references, and theater.

Ruy Blas and the Blas Roue

Figure 1. Advertisement and program for Ruy Blas and the Blase Roue which made fun of Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas. It opened in London on September 21, 1889 at the Gaiety Theatre and ran for 289 performances. This type of theatrical burlesque was known for its overt literary re-imaginings, musical scores, and playful female characters (New York Public Library Digital Collections).

In England, burlesque became the specialty of London theaters such as the Gaiety and Royal Strand Theatre. I will note that in America, burlesque took hold in large cities (especially New York) and devolved more into a strip tease. Performances also took some elements from minstrel shows, such as the three-part format and its often mocking qualities (“Forms of Variety Theater”). American burlesque moved slightly away from stage theater and became like a “sketch performance” with “quick-witted, sexually suggestive dialogue and skimpy costumes for female performers” (Uren). Whether burlesque became more or less socially acceptable after its transformation and proliferation to the widespread social classes of American cities is something I don’t yet know. However, reading the images below can help to imagine the artistic context in which burlesque formed and what it produced for its actors and audiences alike.

The photographs I have mostly include images from America during the Victorian era, taken from the Charles H. McCaghy Collection of Exotic Dance from Burlesque to Clubs, a personal collection of Charles H. McCaghy at Bowling Green State University. In England, burlesque was later replaced by Edwardian musical comedy. Although I found several London newspaper ads for burlesque shows, I found very few British photographs due to the theatrical nature of English burlesque which became more stated and obvious in American entertainment and photography.

Eliza Blasina

Figure 2. This photograph was taken on 107th & Broadway in N.Y. during the musical debut of “The Devil’s Auction” at Banvard’s Opera House. Her costume both fantasizes and fetishizes the female form and showcases how burlesque manipulated its costuming as a visual apparatus, in addition to the set of this photograph (Charles H. McCaghy Collection).

Falk & Warren

Figure 3. Left image: Vernona Jabeau, in high boots, hat, holding a candle in a long holder. Right image: Viola Clifton facing front in a sleeveless, short, fringed top and short, fringed trunks (Charles H. McCaghy Collection).

I was particularly struck by the way these burlesque photographs encompassed a wide range of female body types and gender expression through costuming. Burlesque as a parody did not seem to require specific Victorian ideals of feminine beauty or dress, which is why burlesque emerged as a theatrical site of invention, especially in America. These burlesque photographs reinforce the idea that photography is a form of theater, with characters, backdrops, and a set of conventions that can be subverted. In “Caught in the Act: Photography on the Victorian Stage,” Daniel A. Novak asserts that many have tried to separate photography and drama but the history of photography linked itself to the stage from its invention:

“As many critics have pointed out, photography had its origins in theatrical spectacle and spectacular technologies of illusion: Louis Daguerre ran a panorama theater at the same time that he popularized photography. Laurence Senelick argues that from the beginning, the photographic studio was patterned on the theater: ‘a reduced model of the proscenium stage. . . . Backed by a painted canvas as in the theatre, the studio’s confined space was akin to that of neoclassical drama.’ The use of elaborate props and costumes in the studio—-a practice so common that it was routinely mocked in print and on stage—only reinforced this association” (37). 

Novak captures the common link between photography and the stage, especially in its history and propensity for absurdity and invention. Famous Victorian photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron played into this association. Through her role as photographer, she became the stage director of her home productions, enacting the theatrical with her visitors, many of whom were actors themselves. Burlesque, in particular, opened up a new medium for these connections where posing for a still photograph captured part of the lively parody intended for the stage, in which females could play new parts.

Works Cited:

“Charles H. McCaghy Collection of Exotic Dance from Burlesque to Clubs.” Knowledge Bank, The Ohio State University,

Daniel A. Novak. “Caught in the Act: Photography on the Victorian Stage.” Victorian Studies, vol. 59, no. 1, 2016, pp. 35–64. JSTOR, JSTOR,

“Forms of Variety Theater.” American Memory: Remaining Collections, Library of Congress,

“Ruy Blas at the Gaiety Theatre, 1889.” The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs, New York Public Library Digital Collections,

Uren, Amanda. “1890: Victorian Burlesque Dancers and Their Elaborate Costumes.” Mashable, Mashable, 11 Nov. 2014,

Posted by: lederniermot7 | November 14, 2018

Seeking Perspective

Something I am always struck by is the affect of art to depict subjects other than the obvious subject at hand. In considering Joan Jonas’ work, for one, her direct use of mirrors helps display this sense of othering, presenting skewed versions of reality which make us as her audience consider the veracity of that reality and our experiences within it. In a similar way, painted portraiture evokes that disruption of space and of truth-comprehension through its representations of individuals, of fantasy-lands, landscapes, and even stories taken as myth and fiction, given shape and a reality all their own through their rendering.

The 1600’s “Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of Pharoah’s Butler and Baker” held in the Mount Holyoke College art museum is one example of story turned truth.


Through Volmarijn’s work, the well-known bible story is given a new form, one in which we can easily imagine the three figures interacting as they are supposed to have done. The realism of the oil and the recognizability of the scene to general audiences makes it out to be something more than a fictional imagining – we believe it, and at some fundamental level, we are expected to believe it. The closeness of the figures and the light from the candle working to illuminate them together urge us to find some truth in their depiction, much as the story of Joseph itself asks the Butler and the Baker to believe his explanations of their dreams. In this we find a kind of two-way interpretive street, one side relying on our perception of the work as a rendering of truth, the other conveying the perception of truth by the subjects therein – their belief in Joseph’s tellings influential on our own belief in their situation as here captured. This strikes us as a sort of mirroring as our opinion of the story told by Volmarijn becomes tainted by the knowledge of the painting itself; we are able to see both our own comprehension and that of the subjects while imposing our distanced selves from the scene at hand. We are a part of it in that we are invited to sit at the table beside them, to take a place within the action of the image, however we are simultaneously excluded from the scene at large in our limited view by the candlelight. While we can see the chains hidden behind them, we are blind to the room on the whole, that in itself allowing us to imagine what that space must be; we are directed then to invent the reality of the image just as the image itself has been inventing reality for us.

Jonas’ work, then, and its use of literal mirroring to create (and displace) reality functions in the repetition and alteration of images to transform them out of their familiarity into the realm of fiction. Mirror Improvisation (2005) for one presents us with an actual backward-view of the world and forcing us to figure not only our understanding of her art but quite literally where we stand in relation to it. At the same time, however, Jonas allows us to see the purveyor of her images: the camera tripod, in view though known to be located behind us. The misconstruction of perspective in the film forces us to grapple not only with any sense of grounding we expect (of course while the camera angle shifts and the mirrors are adjusted), but with a self-awareness the lack thereof demands; we become self-conscious while watching as we become aware of our position, separated from the action of the work not only as audience, but physically turned away from it, witness only through the mediation of the camera and its image in the glass.







Mount Holyoke Art Museum. Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of Pharoah’s Butler and Baker. 1631-37. Web. Date Accessed: 14 Nov. 2018.

Posted by: helenabeliveau | November 13, 2018

Review: Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor


This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to attend the final performance of American Moor and an intimate post-show talk, reserved for Mount Holyoke students.  This performance capped off a two-week residency at Mount Holyoke for writer and actor Keith Hamilton Cobb and director Kim Weild. American Moor is a play that tells the story of an actor auditioning to play the titular role of Othello.  This audition, in turn, takes an unflinching look at race relations in contemporary America, as told through the lens of an African American actor struggling to have his voice heard and his experience recognized.  Although not explicitly autobiographical, Cobb told the audience in the post-show discussion that many of his experiences as an African American actor are injected into writing this play.  He wrote this work in the fall of 2012, and it was initially performed in March 2013.  

Cobb has had an accomplished career in theater and TV following his graduation from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1987.  Most notably, he has garnered a Daytime Emmy nomination for his role in tv series All My Children, in addition to playing multiple Shakespearean characters ranging from Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, Octavius in Julius Caesar, and none other than the title role in Othello. The play’s director, Kim Weild, received her BFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and her MFA from Columbia University.  She is currently an associate professor at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. Her directing work has spanned to several theaters.  In addition, she has been the associate director to multiple Tony-winning director Michael Blakemore on Broadway. This dynamic proved to be especially compelling in the post-show talks, in which Weild and Cobb discussed the fairly parallel experience of having a white woman direct an African American actor.  

 Cobb was present on stage consulting a book as the audience filtered into the theater.  The play begins with a monologue chronicling this ‘actor’s’ beginnings as a young aspiring actor.  Working his way up to his time in acting school, he humorously critiques the institutions that trained him.  In these anecdotes, he expresses disdain towards the elitism of contemporary theater, especially in the realm of Shakespeare, as many scholars seem to believe they are Shakespeare’s ‘personal therapist.’

The actor’s musings push the audience to become involved in the performance.  This involvement is cemented once the actor declares that he is “breaking the fourth wall”,  and jumps from the stage and speaks directly to the people in the first row. The audience then feels as if they are confidantes to the actor’s comments on his early life as an actor.  In relaying a memory of his time in acting school, the actor recalls a moment where a teacher asked his students to come prepared with any monologue from a Shakespeare work. When the actor tells him that he would like to do a monologue of Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he is immediately shot down.  What follows is an exchange in which the actor is consistently told that he cannot portray any of the characters that he chooses, and is ultimately told by the teacher that he, unsurprisingly, should do a monologue as Othello.  The actor and the audience is soon roused out of this memory by a voice in the audience yelling “Keith!”, followed by, “So… the Big O huh?”.

What follows is a searing look at not only racism within the theater scene, but racism in contemporary America, as contained in an audition for Othello.  This is demonstrated as the white director proceeds to subtly belittle ‘Keith’s’ interpretation of the character of Othello, essentially denying Keith’s own experiences as an African American man, and how he applies them to a character, who has also felt like the ‘large black man’ in the room.  During this exchange, what was once a moment of closeness between actor and audience, quickly transforms to feelings of complicity. This transition is almost instantaneous as the audience witnesses the uncomfortable nature of a white man telling a black man how he should act, or how he thinks a black man should act.  

The second half of the play is Keith’s deft oscillation between a conversation with the director, and a conversation with himself, as he contemplates his frustration in having to play this black character, as filtered through a white man’s eyes.  Keith’s anger and despair are palpable as he slowly becomes unable to keep up the veneer of conviviality with the director. In a moment that can only be described as uncomfortable and farcical, the director compares Othello’s ‘irrational jealousy’ to a news headline involving a former astronaut, jilted lover, and an adult diaper.  Finally, Keith can be silent no more, and unleashes on the director for acting as authority to a character so far removed to his experience as a white man.

There is a certain catharsis reached at the end of the play, albeit it is quickly undercut by the director’s curt and dismissive “thanks” and “we’ll keep in touch.” The audience realizes that the director has failed to recognize this actor and his experience, yet again.  Although it was difficult to watch the end of the play, as it proved to be devoid of reconciliation or understanding, I found it to be extremely effective and necessary in conveying the frustration of the experience of feeling othered and silenced. The nature of the one-man show, in addition to the decision to embed the director within the audience, pushed the viewers to become actively involved with the production and these ideas.  Through this interactive approach, I felt that the audience was then pushed to recognize their own complicity in certain situations, or their own feelings of ‘otherness’ in certain experiences. I left the production feeling contemplative, yet slightly unsatisfied with the unresolved nature of the play.  However, I feel like the addition of a post-show discussion reinforced the importance of facilitating discussion, something that never comes to fruition in the play.  This play is relevant to our contemporary social and political climate, and I believe that the play and post-show talk invokes an urgent and necessary message: to listen.

Works Cited

American Moor.  By Keith Hamilton Cobb, Directed by Kim Weild.  Performances by Keith Hamilton Cobb and Josh Tyson.  November 11, 2018. Rooke Theater.

Posted by: Lily DeBenedictis | November 13, 2018

Invisibility in “Passing”


The relationship that Cullwick and Munby had is quite the enigma. There are so many facets to speak to and discus. However, one of the most fascinating is about the identity of Hannah Cullwick, or rather I should say the non-identity of Hannah.

Munby and Cullwick’s relationship hid Hannah from society due to her lower status and her instance on always being a servant. Her invisibility relies on this relationship as well. Munby’s fascination with the working-class female body was provided a platform through Cullwick’s form. At his request, she masqueraded her own identity behind the labels of male, female, servant, clean and dirty.


Today, there is a term that the trans community uses which is called “passing. It means that the person is able to “pass” as the gender that they wish to be. This term is problematic in it of itself as it promotes acceptance of a particular standard of beauty and normalizes trans people and the trans experience. Sometimes, people who identify as trans do not want to pass because they do not want to buy into this perception of what is male and what is female.


In these images, Hannah seems to “pass” as male or female in accordance with what society at large understands as such. According to her diaries, Hannah frequently dressed as a male and walked through the streets with Munby with no one the wiser that she costumed. Able to pass as easily as a lady of the house, as a male of status or as a dirty servant cleaning the floors, Hannah slid the scale of social mobility at a time when social. This ability to pass social boundaries is a unique one and addresses this idea of normalizing what the male figure or the female figure is supposed to look like.


While dressing in these different personas, we as the consumers of these images, begin to lose Hannah as an individual. Who was she really? Who is the woman under the costume? To this effect, we can’t really begin to explore the woman under the disguises to more of an extent to what her diaries say. However, what we can explore is this lack of identity. In this course, we have been fascinated by the idea of identity and how a portrait, photograph or advertisement can come to identify an individual, an archetype or a particular market of people interested in a product. This idea has been flipped on its head. Instead of giving the consumer a clearer vision of “who is Hannah” it confuses the viewer and causes us to ask more questions of the subject.


What is important to remember here is that we were never meant to consume these photos in the way that they are being on display now. These were private images were intended only for the visual pleasure of Cullwick and Munby. The interpretation that I have offered here is only one in hundreds who have speculated over these images. Thinking about these images today, there is something so contradictory, confusing yet wonderful and speculative about them which makes them frustrating and fascinating to study.


Works Cited:
Mavor, Carol. Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. I.B. Tauris, 1995.

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