Theses Doctoral

Rope, Linen, Thread: Gender, Labor, and the Textile Industry in Eighteenth-Century British Art

Dostal, Alexandra Zoë

This dissertation reframes the history eighteenth-century British art as a history of textiles. Women across England, Ireland, and Scotland grew, dressed, spun, and wove the hemp, flax, and wool textiles that were the basis for both the cultural implements and practical tools of empire: oil paintings on linen canvas and needlework of worsted thread hung in metropolitan exhibition spaces, while hemp rope, sail cloth, and coarse linen facilitated Britain’s global reach and transportation of commodities.

Over the course of three chapters, “Rope,” “Linen,” and “Thread,” I demonstrate how ordinary textiles made and used by women were key tools for the funding, making, and aesthetics of art. In the first chapter, “Rope,” I trace the labor of female models in British drawing academies through their poses supported by rope, and consider historical encounters between rope and the female working body in carceral contexts. Following the entwined forms of life models and rope demonstrates just how entangled the spaces of punishment and the life studio were.

The second chapter, “Linen,” is about the structure, materiality and hidden histories embedded in linen painting canvas. First, by comparing linen weaves, thread counts, stamps, and fiber content, I demonstrate the material connections between the world of coarse linen goods and the textile supports of oil paintings. I then argue that the texture of canvas was crucial to the “unfinished” aesthetic of portraiture that became fashionable in the late eighteenth century and attend to the racialized and gendered discourses intrinsic to this painting style.

The last chapter, “Thread,” examines spinning and needlework as elite performances of female industry against the backdrop of mechanization, nascent labor movements, and imperial expansion. I contend that these conflicts played out in romanticized depictions of women spinning and the celebration of public exhibitions of worsted embroidery, namely Mary Linwood’s Gallery. While scholars from the fields of economic history, material culture, and art history have considered the topics of industrialization, labor, textiles, and art separately, this is the first study to bring them together as an intervention in eighteenth-century British art history. By rendering textile labor visible in eighteenth-century British art, I argue that manufacturing, imperialism and the visual arts were financially, materially, and ideologically enmeshed processes.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Gamer, Meredith
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 5, 2024