Women and the Art and Science of Collecting in Eighteenth-Century Europe

By: Jessica Lovett

While the domains of collection, auction, and display have historically privileged the collections of men, the essays in Arlene Leis and Kacie L. Wills’ Women and the Art and Science of Collecting in Eighteenth-Century Europe expand this narrative to include the participation of eighteenth-century women by examining their letters, journals, and diaries, as well as archival documents like auction catalogues and financial records. This study is concerned with large-scale collections of things such as art, coins, and various curiosities and their connection to the class of educated, wealthy, and elite women. As each author expertly explores, women’s act of collecting was crucially different from that of men. As both the longer essays and shorter case studies show, the exchange, display, and description of gathered collections sometimes closely align with both a particularly feminine experience of living in the world and educating oneself. Many of the collections created by these women promoted ideas of colonial advancement, nationalism, intellectual exchange, and other highly important epistemologies. Looking closely at the eighteenth century, but also at the larger historical scope, the book depicts the way that women’s collection would often serve as reflections of themselves. In addition to revealing women’s societal position, collections could evoke erotic potentials as a space in which women were, in a sense, on display. The surveyal of women collectors during this period succeeds in revealing the more complex relations women had with their collections and with the self-expression that those collections allowed. As each author shows, women bought, studied, maintained, and enjoyed collections with little need for the presence of men.

Women and the Art and Science of Collecting is divided into four parts, the first of which maps out ideas associated with women’s collection of “artificialia” and “naturalia,” the second with collecting and its relation to social, international, an intellectual networking, the third with the act of displaying, recording, and cataloguing, and the fourth with ideas that extend beyond the scope of the eighteenth century. In the first essay, “Science, Gender and Collecting: The Dutch Eighteenth-Century Ladies’ Society for Physical Sciences of Middelburg,” Anne Harbers and Andrea Gáldy explore a society of women devoted to furthering their intellectual and collection-related pursuits. Harbers and Gáldy set this Dutch society against the Parisian salons wherein, according to them, women “ran the risk of being appreciated more for their appearances and for their associations with commerce and luxury, rather than for their intellectual abilities” (28). While perhaps an underdeveloped and broad claim to make about the entirety of Parisian salon culture, and one I do not necessarily agree with, it is nonetheless a useful contrast to highlight the strictly intellectual ambitions of the Dutch Ladies’ Society. Harbers and Gáldy go on to very effectively highlight the importance of historical context and the way that the women in the society were situated within the very “transformational involvement of women in the pursuit of scientific knowledge during the eighteenth century” (30). 

In “Anne Vallayer-Coster’s Still Life With Sea Shells and Coral,” Kelsey Brosnan examines the female artist’s still-life paintings of shells and how they were “closely linked with the practice of collecting natural history objects,” contradictorily presented as highly feminine, yet displayed alongside actual shell collections, and therefore inscribed “in the traditionally masculine space of a natural history cabinet” (45). Brosnan interestingly connects the material and sensual aspect of the paintings to the shifting eighteenth-century discourse on sensory experience, recounting philosophes like Condillac and Diderot, the latter of whom believed that women are “less in control of their senses than we [men] are” (51). Brosnan’s argument that Valleyer-Coster’s paintings were engaging with these very theories is therefore an argument for a feminist reappraisal of misogynistic preconceptions of the time period, and a successful one at that.

Part two begins with a presentation of German artist and copper-plate engraver Maria Sibylla Merian, wherein Katharina Schmidt-Loske is particularly interested in Merian’s “desires to promote both her culture and her gender” (65). While her singularity as a single women with a strong hold over her collection is certainly interesting, it is disheartening but expected to see just how closely linked collecting and colonial expansion were, which Schmidt-Loske illustrates through Merian’s engagement with “exotic collections that were garnered in foreign lands” and that “were testament to the spread of Dutch global power though colonization and to the removal of specimens and objects from their native lands for the purpose of bolstering European scientific and cultural prestige” (68). Similarly, in “Sarah Sophia Banks’s Coin Collection: Female Networks of Exchange,” Erica Y. Hayes and Kacie L. Wills demonstrate how the exchange of coins among women in eighteenth-century England “illustrates the connection between currency and the expansion of the colonial empire of Britain” (84). By examining the records left by Sarah Sophia Banks, which detail which coins she gave and to whom, Hayes and Wills reveal that “these women’s coin collections served as reminders of historical change and the shifting nature of authority” (86). Lizzie Rogers, in “Conversing With Collecting the World: Elite Female Sociability and Learning Through Objects in the Age of Enlightenment,” makes a strong argument for the connection between female friendship, intimacy, and the act of co-collecting through letter writing. According to Rogers, collecting was a way to learn about the world, and women doing so outside of the patriarchal system “could experience a different kind of enlightenment and collecting tradition, adding further to their knowledge in understanding their own relationship to and uses of the material world” (102). The argument is thoroughly researched and continues to further expand on the global impact of women’s collecting.

Part three begins with Madeleine Pelling’s interesting account of English collectors, specifically Horace Walpole, and how courtier and diarist Mary Hamilton’s letter and diary accounts of his collections serve as “textual evidence of a performative and sociable antiquarianism that . . . allowed the writer to . . . legitimize her place within the group” (132). Pelling takes an almost literary approach to analyzing Hamilton’s letters and diary entries, finding that the act of describing the collections was a way of confirming her own status within a male-dominated circle; well-concluded with a speculation on the complex relationship between collector and visitor, as well as wider…ideas about historiography, literary and artistic creativity” (140). 

The fourth and final part of the book leads us to first encounter printmaking and print collection in Ireland, and later how “[print] rooms were a place for social and intellectual exchange” (157). Anna Frances O’Regan describes the print room at Castletown House of Lady Louisa, and adequately emphasizes the collection of prints as an almost radical act of intellectual curiosity. The book ends strongly with a detailed and interesting discussion on “Olivia Lanza di Mazzarino’s Collection of Eighteenth-Century Folding Fans” by Arlene Leis. Leis offers biographical information about the Duchess of Sagro’s (nicknamed Vivia) life and position within a rapidly changing Italy, detailing how “the old ruling class, to which Vivia belonged . . . began losing their monopoly on political power and the legal rights of their patrimonies” (173). Both importantly and impressively, Leis examines the social and cultural implications of folding fans and their complex femininity. Leis argues that collecting fans from the eighteenth century demonstrated Vivia’s nostalgia for a period when power lied in the aristocracy. Furthermore, since these fans were nothing more than collectibles for her, the fans “no longer served as props to an intricate game of love,” but were “[encased] and kept safe in her home,” therefore protecting her (179). This final article is an in-depth examination of the way that collected objects change in meaning over time, but also sustain certain notions from the past, leading us to understand material culture’s ability to transcend time and space.Women and the Art and Science of Collecting primarily addresses the experiences of women in the upper echelons of society because they are clearly affluent enough to be able to amass large collections of expensive items. While it is necessary to enhance scholarship on women, as they are often ignored or overlooked by scholars, none of these essays gesture toward women in the lower and middle classes, nor toward women belonging to other minority groups. While the book makes no secret that collection was an activity strictly available for the elite, and particularly one that often intended to advance a colonial project, readers may wish for a final conclusion that discusses the complexities and harmfulness of these colonialist and imperialist ideals, and specifically white women’s relationships to them. Such a conclusion could place the work’s insights into elite women’s collecting practices within the context of the larger cultural and political concerns and changes of the period. Nevertheless, Women and the Art and Science of Collecting offers an insightful, important, and intriguing account of eighteenth-century women’s collecting experiences, making it clear that those experiences were often extremely varied and relevant to the surrounding world. Through its engagement with ideas of collecting, networking, describing, and display, as well as its in-depth archival research and figures, this book will appeal to a wide audience of scholars while bringing a greater understanding of eighteenth-century women’s influence in shaping the histories of material culture and collecting.

Leis, Arlene and Kacie L. Wills. Women and the Art and Science of Collecting in Eighteenth-Century Europe. New York: Routledge, 2020.


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