Picturing Mary Wollstonecraft

Who was Mary Wollstonecraft? One of the best ways to find out is to look at the portraits artists have painted of her. Perhaps the most influential portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft was painted by John Opie in 1797, the last year of her life, when she was pregnant with her daughter, Mary Shelley. Opie has depicted her half turned away from him, as if engaged with her own thoughts rather than with the artist. He has not idealised her. She wears a plain black cap and a rather shapeless, loose-fitting gown as if dressed to please herself, rather than the public. The informality of her dress and her unguarded expression evoke the impression of an independent woman who did not set out to please others.

NPG 1237; Mary Wollstonecraft - Portrait - National Portrait Gallery

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie. oil on canvas, (circa 1797) National Portrait Gallery

Four years earlier, had John Keenan painted a more formal portrait of her, in which a more smartly dressed Wollstonecraft holds up a book that she is clearly not reading. It does not have a title, so it probably stands more for her erudition than her interest in literature. It may even have been a notebook. This painting has the title: “Quite Contrary”, a quote from the nursery rhyme that starts “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”. The viewer would recognise this as a reference to a person who goes against common opinion.  Her gaze is fixed on the distance as if looking into a future yet to be determined. Mary Wollstonecraft is depicted as a sharply intelligent woman, well educated and conscious of her place in history.

History Ireland

Quite contrary: a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft (circa 1787) by John Keenan. Photo: Private Collection/Bridgeman Images 

This posthumous representation is titled “Mrs Godwin”, the married name Mary Wollstonecraft took from March 1797, when she married William Godwin, to her death in childbirth in September of the same year. The ‘John Bull’ top hat perched on her head gives her a theatrical appearance and suggests that she is “strong, and stubborn, like a bull”(1) The portrait is completely different from Opie’s painting; in fact, the face bears no resemblance to Opie’s depiction. Chapman has represented her as a young woman, with flowing hair and a pugnacious expression; an idealised portrait of a radical with a touch of the revolutionary about her.

Defending the Character and Conduct of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797-1803 | Australian Women's History NetworkAustralian Women's History Network

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Chapman, after Unknown artist. Stipple engraving, published 1798National Portrait Gallery

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bull

Mary Wollstonecraft would have been thirty two when this portrait was painted by John Williamson. The dramatic contrast between dark and light give this picture a ‘spotlit’ composition, in which the face stands out pale against a dark background. The hands seem almost to have been added to the bottom right hand corner as an afterthought. They add a touch of anxiety to this otherwise calm portrait. This artist has represented Mary as a dignified figure, perhaps even as a legislator, in her wig and scarf.  She stares out of the painting, meeting the gaze of the viewer on equal terms. This is a Mary Wollstonecraft as a stern intellectual.

Mary Wollstonecraft" John Williamson - Artwork on USEUM

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Williamson (1791)

This portrait, also by John Opie, stands in contrast to Williamson’s more dramatic composition. Here, the light shines on Wollstonecraft’s striped jacket, face, hair and book, making each element of the portrait legible. Even the ink well and quill that stand on the far edge of the desk are clearly visible. Opie has caught the enquiring gaze of his sitter, who looks towards us with intense concentration. In her hand she holds what appears to be a notebook in which she records her thoughts. Her pen stands ready to add new thoughts to the open page. 

Mary Wollstonecraft (Mrs William Godwin)', John Opie, c.1790–1 | Tate

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (1791)

Stewy’s spray-can image of Wollstonecraft depicts her as a full-length figure but the debt to Opie’s portrait is evident in the expression on her face. His dramatically simplified graphic representation presents Mary Wollstonecraft in the form of a column; firm and upright. The softness of drapery in Opie’s painting has solidified into hard ridges reminiscent of a Greek sculpture. In her vertical strength, Stewy’s Wollstonecraft has the solidity and compressed resilience of the stone Caryatids that support the porch of St Pancras Old Church, nearby which she was buried. It is perhaps no co-incidence that this stencil painting was located on the wall of Newington Green Meeting House, symbolising Mary Wollstonecraft’s support for the non-conformist tradition it upholds. 

A Vindication of the Rights of Mary: More on Mary's manifestation and  Stewy's streetart

Graffiti painted on the wall of Newington Green Meeting House in North London by Stewy 2013

This engraving of Mary Wollstonecraft was taken from Opie’s portrait of 1797, by James Heath but the artist has lost the expressive naturalism of the original. Heath has ‘tidied up’ Mary’s face. Her features are more regular and her expression blander and less thoughtful. Opie’s psychological study has become a superficial illustration.

print | British Museum

Mary Wollstonecraft by James Heath, published by Daniel Isaac Eaton, after John Opie. Stipple engraving, (circa 1797). National Portrait Gallery

This symbolic image of Mary Wollstonecraft passing a copy of ‘the Rights of Women’ to the figure of ‘Liberty’ appeared in an illustration in the ‘Lady’s Magazine in 1792, one year after Williamson’s stern portrait. Wollstonecraft was firmly associated with the idea of women’s rights and her image had begun to take on a symbolic value of its own. Although Liberty is dressed in Classical costume, Wollstonecraft arrives in the Temple wearing her 18th century dress and wig.

The ongoing relevance of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter - The TLS

Frontispiece from the first volume of the Lady’s magazine, 1792, depicting a figure of Liberty receiving a copy of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman© Alpha Stock/Alamy

Amy’s homage to John Opie’s portrait demonstrates how much of the meaning in a portrait is conveyed by the formal elements of portraiture; the lighting, composition, costume, pose and expression of the sitter. The dark background focuses all our attention on the sitter. Photographic portraits are highly selective in what they include in the frame, but what is included is represented in minute detail. The camera reveals Amy’s expression in all its subtlety, suggesting the inner life of the sitter posing as Mary Wollstonecraft. Amy has included key elements of Opie’s portrait: the hat, loose white top and thoughtful expression.

Amy Todd 2020 (image by the artist)

In this recent portrait bust, Mary Wollstonecraft is represented as a benign woman with a smile on her lips. Littlewood’s Wollstonecraft wears the same loose dress and hair-cover that she wore in John Opie’s late portrait. She not portrayed as a stern and critical intellectual, as in Williamson’s stark portrait, but as a kind and loving person valued today for the contributions she made to the struggle for social justice for women.

jenny littlewood on Twitter: "visit the quiet revolutionary Mary Wollstonecraft at The Meeting House, Newington Green, based on John Opie's portrait of her in the year of her death… https://t.co/V50vz7U8S9"

  1. J. A. Littlewood (FRSA) 2019

Louisa Albani again takes the image of Mary Wollstonecraft from Opie’s final portrait but adds both text and an image of the gateway to St Pancras Old Church. The black hat and white gown remain the symbolic identifiers of Wollstonecraft, but in this representation they are joined by a halo that encircles her head, on which the words “Mary Wollstonecraft at St Pancras” are written. The Wollstonecraft image, produced originally by John Opie in 1797, has become a Madonna-like icon. The text reads; “I am the first of a New genus” (2), a reference to the anxiety she felt about earning her living as a woman writer, although it might seem from its position under this saint-like image of Wollstonecraft that it refers to her personal standing as the founder of the feminist movement. 

Louisa Albani artist on Twitter: "Tomorrow marks the anniversary month of Mary #Wollstonecraft's death. The art projects I've created inspired by her are all about honouring, recognising, remembering & celebrating her brilliant

Louisa Albani. Mary Wollstonecraft at St Pancras. 2019

  1. Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Ralph M. Wardle (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979), 164.

A nude Mary Wollstonecraft departs from all previous portraits that have depicted her clothed, usually in loose fitting drapes with a her head covered as befitted a respectable woman in the 18th century. These two items of clothing have played an important role in images representing Mary Wollstonecraft since the 18th century and their absence is striking. The strong upright posture of the figure echoes the statuesque posture of Wollstonecraft in Stewy’s stencil portrait; both figures are architectural rather than naturalistic. Hambling draws on the Classical tradition by representing Wollstonecraft as an idealised nude figure in order to make a general point about her, rather than sculpt her likeness. In this representation, her heroism is on show rather than her appearance.

‘A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft’ in Newington Green, by Maggi Hambling 2020. (author’s photograph)

Thoughts from Amy Todd – Programme Manager of the Newington Green Meeting House: Revolutionary Ideas project (although this is written in my personal capacity!)

Mary’s depiction in art has always been contentious. My favourite portrait of Mary is the John Williamson one – strong, stern and androgynous, although as Richard pointed out in reference to her hands- anxious and full of movement. It’s a very different image to the famous Opie – and I wondered, is this because the Opie is more palatable? To see a feminised version of Mary? Eileen Botting in a brilliant piece on just this refers to this idea in response to the covering up of the nude on the statue to Mary on the Green as ‘Victorian prudery that had once labelled Wollstonecraft’s life and ideas too revolutionary for public consumption in mid-nineteenth-century London’. Has her image been sanitised too? Although Mary was picked up again by Suffragette’s in their cause, she was until second wave feminism in the 1970’s, lost to history a little. This, like most cases of these marginalised histories – was intentional. Mary did not fit into the box of what a ‘woman’ should be, she was a revolutionary, ‘unpatriotic’, a fearless critic of the state. Having an unconventional personal life to boot, proved to be the nail in the coffin and instead of remembering her writings and philosophy – entombed in her woman’s body, where most historians wanted to keep her, because she was more palatable that way. 

It has been great to hear the debate about the statue for Mary, I for one am very glad as it makes my job (sharing Mary’s legacy) a lot easier now everyone knows who she is! There have been many valid critiques and views expressed which it has been so interesting and educational to read – but I for one, am very glad that the statue gives us a hint of Mary’s revolutionary spirit.

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