Mirroring Expectations

Lacking expectations may quite simply mean not fulfilling someone’s desires, whether that be ones’ partner or society as a whole. While this inadequacy may include notions of sexuality, appearance, or personality in contemporary times, in the Victorian era, all of these components when put together, define womanhood.

“Expectation” from the Trout Gallery

The piece displayed above, provided by the Trout Gallery, exemplifies the two-fold of fulfillment and lacking, as well as expectation versus reality. In the artwork, one notices the typical woman showing redundant ‘tuberculosis-chic’ characteristics. The doe-eyed creature looking into the distance further characterizes her as lacking impurity and upholding a sense of virtue. With her flowing, dark hair contrasted to the whiteness of her gown, the viewer sees the way in which a Victorian woman is supposed to appear as, thus showing the expectation of women during the time. ¬†However, reality soon plays a part in the piece, as we can see that the women is framed both literally and metaphorically. By having the focal point of the artwork, the woman, reside within a mirror, it allows for a greater message to unfold throughout the piece itself. The viewer and the woman within the piece are contrasted, because as the woman looks out of the mirror, us as the viewer, look in. Thus, while the woman is looking beyond, because she already upholds Victorian characteristics of womanhood, the viewer is looking inward, as they may not.

Alike to “Expectation”, where the viewer and woman in the artwork are on opposing ends, in Christina Rossetti’s poem, In An Artist’s Studio,¬†the ‘self-same’ figure and the male painter also contrast one another, when Rossetti states,

“One face looks out from all his canvases,

That mirror gave back all her loveliness.

A queen in opal or in ruby dress,

A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,

The same one meaning, neither more or less.

He feeds upon her face by day and night,

Not as she is, but as she fills his dream” (1).

In the excerpt, the reader can see that the woman within the paintings all relate to one another, not necessarily because they are women, but because they all appear similar. Despite the role that they play in society, whether that be a ‘queen’ or a ‘nameless girl’, Rossetti makes it clear that these women are redundant, almost shape-shifters of one another. By having the male mold these women, and ‘feed’ upon them, it further shows the distinction between expectation and reality. In the piece “Expectation”, similarly, the woman stuck within the mirror is on display for those to gaze at her. Although she holds a higher ‘standing’ than the woman in “In An Artist’s Studio”, as she upholds Victorian beauty standards, regardless, altogether represents the desires of society. In Christina Rosetti’s poem, these women may be queens and saints, but to the painter, to him, they are only pieces to fulfill his desires as well as society’s.

4 thoughts on “Mirroring Expectations”

  1. I never thought to see “Expectation” as the viewer looking back in on themselves because they don’t embody the characteristics of Victorian womanhood, but I really like that reading of the image. The viewer is forced to examine themselves in comparison with the woman in the image and establish the differences in conduct and dress. The viewer must think, “what characteristics does she have that make her represent Victorian womanhood, and how can I change to match that?” The woman in the image, as the title of the piece states, represents the expectation of true Victorian womanhood.

  2. We talked in class on day, when we were outside, about how all the women looked the same in paintings as if they themselves were blank canvases for a man’s imagination to cover. I think that speaks to Christina Rossetti’s poem and the etching from the Trout Gallery. These women as depicted and described in these pieces have an incredible sameness or lack of defining characteristics. If these pieces are meant to depict the “ideal Victorian woman,” the conclusion could be drawn that the ideal woman was an empty shell of a woman that looked and acted the same as every woman, lacking any defining characteristics as long as the was pretty, stupid, and fair.

  3. After reading this, I can’t help but think about what other effects “Expectation” may have. For instance, you mentioned how, “we can see that the women is framed both literally and metaphorically,” and that this makes the viewer compare themself with the subject. However, this dynamic also raises questions over representations and reflections. Since “Expectation” seems to hold a mirror up to the viewer, what does it mean if there’s a mismatch between the viewer and audience. It seems as though the work may give us a reflection unlike our own. What might be said from that juxtaposition? And what are the implications of that this artist alters the viewers’ reflections?

  4. I love your connection between the Trout gallery piece and the poem by Rossetti. The topic of expectations is so relevant to our discussions of women during the Victorian Era. I agree that the woman in the work is an example of the expectations set for women during the period and how she should aim to represent herself. The poem, meanwhile, shows how the men also expect these qualities from women. I think the aspect of desire that you touch upon is important to consider. Everyone is desiring this ideal but does it actually exist or is simply created from the imagination?

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