Dispelling the Victorian Myth of the Fallen Woman

George Cruikshank, A destitute girl throws herself from a bridge, her life ruined by alcoholism" (1848) (© Wellcome Library, London)
George Cruikshank, A destitute girl throws herself from a bridge, her life ruined by alcoholism” (1848) (© Wellcome Library, London)

At the same time that they cast her to the margins of society, Victorian England was obsessed with the “fallen woman,” who had lost her virtue to sex, alcohol, or some other vice. This September, the Foundling Museum in London, an institution originally established for children given up by these women, opens The Fallen Woman to both explore and confront popular myths with real stories. Currently, the museum is raising support for the exhibition on Art Happens, a British crowdfunding platform from Art Fund for museums.

“We have been increasingly aware of the way in which the foundlings’ mothers — whose actions, circumstances, and decisions are so key to the Foundling Hospital story — are sometimes frustratingly absent from that story: there are very few images of the women who left their children with the hospital for example,” Stephanie Chapman, in-house curator at the museum, told Hyperallergic. “We often feel their ‘absent presence’ within the museum, but wanted to bring together an exhibition that seeks to address them and their story, placing it within the social and art historical frameworks of the time.”

G. F. Watts, "Found Drowned" (1848-1850) (© Watts Gallery)
G. F. Watts, “Found Drowned” (1848-1850) (© Watts Gallery)
Henry Nelson ONeil, "A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris" (1855) (© The Foundling Museum)
Henry Nelson ONeil, “A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris” (1855) (© The Foundling Museum) (click to enlarge)

Professor Lynda Nead is curating The Fallen Woman in collaboration with the Foundling Museum’s curatorial team, showing in public for the first time some of these women’s petitions to the hospital alongside art and other artifacts. The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 as “a hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children” by generous sea captain Thomas Coram. Support from William Hogarth in rallying art donations made it London’s first public art gallery, and George Frideric Handel lent a hand with benefit concerts of the Messiah. However by the 19th century rules got stricter, and women who were unable to keep their babies due to the stigma of childbirth out of wedlock or being abandoned by their families had to petition for approval, and were only permitted if it was their first illegitimate child. Even if accepted their names were on the whole not recorded, so they left tokens like small medallions or twists of silk ribbon to identify their children in the hopes of a future reunion.

“Many women tell harrowing stories of seduction, rape, and violence, but others reveal that the relationships they entered into were wholly consensual, although some worked hard to disguise the truth from the Governors, sometimes creating their own myths to try and manipulate the stringent entry requirements for the Foundling Hospital,” Chapman explained.

Similar to Homes of the Homeless, recently at the Geffrye Museum of the Home in London, which unearthed the voices of Victorian homeless to contrast with our perceived history of the time, The Fallen Woman addresses the depiction of these women in art and literature directly with their voices, evoked in the gallery with a sound installation by Steve Lewinson. Both authors and artists (mostly men) used these women’s stories as a moral warning — from Mary Endell in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, whose fall from chastity acts as a foil to the graceful lady Emily, to painter Augustus Egg’s triptych “Past and Present” (1858), where the consequences of a woman’s adultery ravage her middle class family. The Fallen Woman illustrates this side with paintings by Pre-Raphaelites like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and symbolists like George Frederic Watts, along with drawings from newspapers and other artifacts. Sensationalized for their supposed loss of virtue, The Fallen Woman aims to raise up these women’s real voices against this historic victimization for the first time.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "The Gate of Memory" (1864) (© The Makins Collection)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “The Gate of Memory” (1864) (© The Makins Collection)
Emma Brownlow, "The Foundling Restored to its Mother" (1858) (© Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum)
Emma Brownlow, “The Foundling Restored to its Mother” (1858) (© Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum)
Frederick Walker, "The Lost Path" (1863) (© The Makins Collection)
Frederick Walker, “The Lost Path” (1863) (© The Makins Collection)
Richard Redgrave, R.A. "The Outcast" (1851) (© Royal Academy of Arts, London, photo by John Hammond)
Richard Redgrave, R.A. “The Outcast” (1851) (© Royal Academy of Arts, London, photo by John Hammond)

The Fallen Woman is September 25, 2015 to January 2, 2016 at the Foundling Museum (40 Brunswick Square, London). The exhibition is crowdfunding on Art Happens through July 30. 

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