Saturday, February 14, 2015

“Angel in the House” - The Female Victorian Ideal?

For Valentine’s Day, let’s talk a bit about sex, or more specifically, “sensual” cemetery sculpture. I’ve written in past blogs (see link below) about how Victorian artists – painters and sculptors mainly – took liberties with the human form with regard to cemetery figure studies. So I’m used to seeing anonymous mourning art female figures clothed in diaphanous veils. The image you see at left is a life-sized bronze figure that is the door to a mausoleum.

According to the article, "Western Beauty Picture Perfect:" (

"Idealized" Victorian woman (ref.)
"Femininity and frailness were characteristics that made women beautiful in the Victorian Era, such characteristics were often categorized by the woman's hourglass frame with an extremely small waist. However, the idea of beautiful was seemingly impossible to achieve because a woman with more fat symbolized wealth which was also seen as beautiful. Therefore, women were supposed to be frail, feminine, have curvacious hips and a large bosom yet have impossibly small waist. In order to achieve this virtually impossible figure, women relied heavily upon hoop skirts and more importantly, a corset." (Ref.)

Angel Gabriel (photo by Krista Baker)
Commonly seen in cemeteries are the female cemetery angels or other female mourning figures. We also see Adonis-like male angel statues, though they are quite rare. More common are Michael the Archangel and Gabriel with his horn. Anonymous male cemetery statues are far less common than anonymous female statues - females being the "designated mourners" in Victorian mourning art. The male figure or bas-relief we see more typically bears the actual likenesses of the deceased male in that particular grave. (See my blog post "The Art of Sensual Statues in Cemeteries" for further information on this topic.)

The faces of many angels and other mourning figures often appear androgynous; however, the body tells another story. It is typically an idealized female body, such as the one you see at right. Carved from a variety of materials – granite, marble, bronze – these sensual  figures walk the tightrope between spiritual purity and earthly desire. Undeniably conflicting, yet totally human forces of nature. In Western artistic tradition, the ability to accurately depict the female figure is what most defined artistic talent. Most professional Victorian-era sculptors were male, and sensual statues provided an opportunity for them to bring their artistic fantasies to life for a noble purpose.

When in Long Beach California in 2012, I found a rather interesting angel. This human-sized marble sculpture in Sunnyside Cemetery stands before a cross, her hands crossed over her chest. But wait – is it a her? On second glance, it appeared to be male. Long hair yes, but Michael the Archangel is typically depicted with long hair. Androgynous face, yes, but what about the body? Feminine? Difficult to say! Certainly not the curvaceous Victorian ideal. Upon closer examination, there appeared to be female breasts (as you can see in my photo below). One might say "normal-sized" breasts, as opposed to the genetic mutations typically sculpted.

Sculptor Julian Abele (Mural Arts Program)
The statue is highly unusual in this respect. Why is the artist’s rendering like this? She is certainly not the idealized bosomy, shapely Victorian female angel that one normally sees (see full body photo with red flowers, below). The sculptor obviously did this intentionally, but why? Is the angel supposed to bear an actual likeness to the deceased, the "angel in the house?" Let's take a look at how women were viewed in Victorian times.

From the Wikipedia entry, "Women in the Victorian era:"

"The status of women in the Victorian era is often seen as an illustration of the striking discrepancy between the United Kingdom's national power and wealth and what many, then and now, consider its appalling social conditions. During the era symbolized by the reign of British monarch Queen Victoria, women did not have suffrage rights, the right to sue, or the right to own property.
Representations of ideal wives were abundant in Victorian culture, providing women with their role models. The Victorian ideal of the tirelessly patient, sacrificing wife is depicted in The Angel in the House, a popular poem by Coventry Patmore, published in 1854."

Sunnyside Angel
‘My memory of Heaven awakes!
   She’s not of the earth, although her light,
As lantern’d by her body, makes
   A piece of it past bearing bright.

And though her charms are a strong law
   Compelling all men to admire,
They go so clad with lovely awe
   None but the noble dares desire.'

 -Excerpts from Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House  

"Following the publication of Patmore's poem, the term “angel in the house” came to be used in reference to women who embodied the Victorian feminine ideal: a wife and mother who was selflessly devoted to her children and submissive to her husband." (Ref.)

Victorian wife "submissive" to her husband?
So perhaps the Sunnyside Cemetery angel is a more accurate representation of the Victorian "angel in the house," a woman suppressed, whose wings of stone prevent her from rising to a higher social station.

References and Further Reading:
Read the entire Coventry Patmore poem The Angel in the House  
The Art of Sensual Statues in Cemeteries - Cemetery Traveler blog posting by Ed Snyder
Sunnyside Cemetery, Long Beach, California