Salvador Dali, “Queen of Spades, Part of Playing Card Suite” (1970), lithograph printed in color on paper (all images courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art)

In her infamous speech at the British Museum last year, writer Hilary Mantel described Kate Middleton, future queen of England, as a “shop-window mannequin” whose sole purpose was to look pretty and give birth. “A royal lady is a royal vagina,” she declared.

What exactly we see when we look at a queen is now the subject of BOW DOWN: Queens in Arta historical survey at Smith College. Its prints, drawings, and photographs of women ranging from Marie Antoinette to Queen Victoria suggest that our perception of royal ladies may rely more on how they are depicted than it reflects who they actually are.

But who controls and owns that image? On the museum’s blog, curator Maggie Kurkoski explained that the show’s impetus came from Andy Warhol’s Reigning Queens series, two screenprints of which were donated to the museum by the artist’s foundation. In Warhol’s series, four monarchs — Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Queen Ntombi Twala of Szaziland, and Queen Margrethe II of Denmark — are fixated in the public eye. Like faces on a postage stamp, they are devoid of personality. As the show’s press release states, “[These women] may reign over the masses, but their image and their person become, paradoxically, public property.”

Most of the queens represented were historically relegated, as Mantel writes of Middleton, to procreational roles. However they actually looked, they were depicted as great beauties — like the aristocrat in Jean-Michel le Jeune Moreau’s 1789 engraving, La Dame du Palais de la Reine, who parades like a regal peacock through a room of admirers.

As for those who were actually powerful, well, they had to walk a trickier line. “When women such as the long-reigning British Queen Victoria and Queen Marie de Medici of France did gain power, they were careful to represent themselves as both royal and maternal, in keeping with the gender norms of their time,” Kuroski writes. In a 1900 photograph of the aging Queen Victoria, for example, the black-clad monarch could easily be the portly, British cousin of Whistler’s mother.

It can be painful — for us and for them — when powerful women don’t live up to our expectations of how they should appear. Hillary Clinton was once criticized for not being motherly enough, and we all remember how matronly Kate Middleton looked in her official oil portraitSunday Times writer Waldemar Januszczak pronounced it “old” and “dour” — a peculiar break from her flirtier paparazzi snapshots, and entirely unbecoming for a “royal vagina.”

Take a look at some images from the show.

This 1900 photograph of Queen Victoria still in her black mourning gown (her husband died in 1861) was taken by an unknown photographer. The monarch was the first to utilize photography to control her public persona as the “grandmother of Europe.” The museum explains, “In 1853, she and her husband, Prince Albert, began to collect photographs, and they soon realized the power of these life-like images. Queen Victoria released portraits of herself and her family, and the public developed a newfound, more personal connection with their queen.” Eleanor Stanley, lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, once exclaimed that “the queen could be bought and sold for a Photograph!”

“The Royal Banquet” (1782), a pen and ink drawing by the French artist Jean-Michel le Jeune Moreau. (Photo by Petegorsky/Gipe)

Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune’s 1789 engraving “La Dame du Palais de la Reine” depicts aristocratic life in Marie Antoinette’s hey-dey, when beauty was an important quality for a leading lady to possess.

In “Royal Tour of Inspection,” a lithograph printed in 1854 by the Dickinson Brothers, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert walk in the Crystal Palace, where the Great Exhibition displayed manufactured products from around the world in 1851. The monarchs are depicted small to emphasize their grand accomplishment.

“Her Excellency the Marchioness of Londonderry,” an Albumen print by a Lafayette photographer (circa London 1910) (Photo by Petegorsky/Gipe)

“Queen Ankhnes-nefer-ab-ra,” a graphite and watercolor painting by
John Ruskin (Photo by Petegorsky/Gipe)

Rene Portocarrero drew “Queen #2 “ in crayon and ink on paper in 1949. Who is this queen? The museum explains,”The woman in Queen #2 does not depict any specific person, but likely emerges from Portocarrero’s rich imagination. While she has full breasts and a tiered skirt, her femininity is not the focus here: instead, Portocarrero draws attention to her direct gaze and raised arm.”

BOW DOWN: Queens in Art is on view at Smith College Museum of Art (20 Elm Street,
Northampton, MA) through January 4.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...