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Nineteenth Century Female Autonomy: An Artistic Oxymoron

If one had to define the traditional and stereotypical role of women in society, the answer would most likely be “marriage and children.” During the nineteenth century, this generic answer was the norm across the world, transcending culture, language, and geography. There are many forms of art that capture this role of mother and wife, usually in a celebratory fashion. However, it was rare for it to be captured in a negative manner, critiquing and questioning the very fabric of society. It was even more rare for these critics to be men, bringing awareness to plights that do not burden their sex. Yet, this is exactly what Russian liberal artist Vasili Pukirev and his German contemporary Berthold Woltze did through their artistic portrayals of the unjust gender roles to which women must conform. Their paintings capture the essence of the inequality of the stifling narrative of women, with marriage and men literally breathing down their necks.

An Unequal Marriage

During the nineteenth century in Russia, it was common for both writers and artists alike to create works of satire on topics like politics and culture. The point was not to mock or debase, but to foster awareness and hopefully facilitate change (Grigorjeva , 2008). Pukirev, among renowned authors such as Gogol and Pushkin, honed his craft to spark cognizance, as they were aware that if done correctly, it could result in reflection, revolution, and historical events (Lunacharsky, 2018). Mid-nineteenth century Russia was brewing with change, from the 1861 emancipation of serfs (35% of the population), to the hotly debated topic of a woman’s role in society. At this time, the female role was the same single-faceted position that it was in most countries in the world: they were only deemed fit for marriage and child-bearing. Arranged marriages, especially unions between a young girl and a much older man, were common and questioned in the works of these liberal authors and artists. Arranged marriages and female restrictions enforced by society were recurring themes in many of Leo Tolstoy’s novels. Although Tolstoy was considered against the emancipation of women, he often wrote about the “sympathetic female character,” whose trials and tribulations stemmed not from themselves, but the world they lived in. Perhaps Tolstoy was writing merely about what he witnessed, but nevertheless this idea unwittingly stimulated compassion and planted seeds of change (Whiting, 2006).

One of Pukirev’s social commentaries was on this issue of unequal arranged marriages. Aptly named, The Unequal Marriage (1862), he captured the act of matrimony of an old man and a girl who looks to be at least thirty years his junior. The girl is wearing a grandiose wedding dress, adorned with endless lace and beading, but her downcast face and red-rimmed eyes reveal a sleepless night of tears and anguish. The room of the Orthodox church is crammed with people, but she is the only subject bathed in light, underscoring her innocence. Her betrothed stands next to her, his posture erect and stiff, alluding to the rigid, mirthless life she is being forced to partake in. The old man is decorated with the Cross of the Second Order of St. Vladimir, telling the viewer he is a military veteran who is not only highly respected, but wealthy. Pukirev himself was said to have been in love with a young woman, but she was married off to an older prince when his meager artist’s salary was deemed unfit. There is a man who stands behind the bride who seems to be the only other younger person in the room and serves a resemblance to the artist himself. His facial expression is one of disdain as he all but glares at the groom. There are two old women on the groom’s side of the church that wear similar garlands as the bride, perhaps referencing his deceased elderly wives or that the only escape to this union is death. The painting is the embodiment of injustice and inequality, and Pukirev’s objective of social reformation was not in vain, as allegedly older men refused to marry younger women after the waves caused by The Unequal Marriage.

Figure 1: "The Unequal Marriage" by Vasili Pukirev (1862).

An Unequal Ending

Starkly juxtaposing the young girl’s “happiest day of her life,” is the Tsarina Alexandra of Hesse in her wedding portrait The Wedding of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. This painting by Laurtis Tuxen depicts the 1894 wedding of the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia. There are several direct parallels of these two wedding ceremonies. During a Russian wedding, it is traditional for the bride and groom to each hold a lit candle throughout the ceremony. In The Unequal Marriage, the young bride’s candle droops on an angle below her waist as she is resigned to a loveless life of drudgery and duty. Tsarina Alexandra holds hers confidently and firmly upright, her gaze respectfully downcast but her composure poised and calm. She is the picture of a woman who has been groomed for this very role, a role which she is ready to fulfill.

The room in the last tsars' ceremony is well-lit, illuminated by the robes of gold worn by the clergy and Alexandra, as opposed to the dark, gloomy church room in The Unequal Marriage. There are no shadows of lives that were or could have been in the form of ghostly wives or potential lovers. Perhaps the most significant difference is the circumstance surrounding the tsars’ union: they were in love. Even more significant, it was an inconvenient love. Alexandra was Lutheran, and refused Nicholas’ emphatic proposals because she refused to convert to Russian Orthodox. Politically, Russia was not in want of German connections and Nicholas’ mother begged him to move on from Alexandra (McKee, 2015). Regardless of the obstacles, their love persisted and the two married, sealing their fate. Alexandra's Germanic solemn nature, reticence, and lack of charm put her at odds with Russian society, resulting in a deep distaste for the empress by her Russian citizens (Newman, 2010). Alexandra preferred family over duty. Ironically, these two words were synonymous in the role of Russian women, but she was not just a woman, she was a tsarina. Her awkward shyness mixed with Nicholas’ chronic people-pleasing tendencies were certain contributing factors to their dynasty’s demise and their subsequent title “the last tsars” (Rounding, 2012). Unfortunately, whether pauper or princess, the female role in Tsarist Russia was doomed.

Figure 2: "The Wedding of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna" by Laurits Tuxen (1895).

An Unequal Train Ride

During the same time period only a few countries away, Berthold Woltz captures the same dearth of female autonomy in his 1874 painting The Irritating Gentleman. Regardless of the self-explanatory title, the happenings of this piece are not shrouded in mystery. A young girl is traveling alone on a train through the German countryside while an older man grotesquely leers at her from the seat behind. Another point that requires little elaboration is the man’s thoughts and intentions. He has draped his jacket over the back of her seat, physically marking his territory. His encroaching body language that invades her personal space and his lewd facial expression proves that he lacks the couth that his dapper clothing suggests his station should provide. Judging from his stylish suit and his “mutton chop” facial hair, he is of well-bred birth, but apparently not nature. The “mutton chop” style of long side-burns and mustache was popular among the upper class during the Victorian Era, its influence spanning across all European nations. The resurgence of beards created “a heroic image of the independent, sturdy, and resourceful pioneer, ready and willing to do manly things” (Forte, 2016). An ideal that has been considered a hallmark of masculinity is regardless of race or culture, is men’s dominance over “the fairer sex,” an ideal Woltz’s irritating gentleman clearly shares.

Despite her youth, the girl is not naive about his objectives, and growing fear and weariness is etched into her face as she stares at the viewer pleadingly. One of the tragedies of this painting is her imploring eyes, as the viewer reflects her powerlessness –as she is a mere painting– forever frozen in this distressing situation. Even without the man’s unwanted advances, the girl is dealing with other emotional hardships. From her red-rimmed eyes, black dress and hat, and the crumpled handkerchief in her lap, it can be deduced that she is in mourning, perhaps returning from a funeral. Her youth suggests the death of a family member instead of a deceased husband. Apparent not only from the girl’s fresh face, one that has not yet lost its cherubic chub and soft lines that maturity has not yet ironed out, this youth is underscored by the girl’s juvenile floral pattern on the carpet bag that lays next to her on the seat. A floral carpet back that the leering man’s cigar uses as an ashtray for his carelessly fallen ash. Her soft blonde hair is held back by a headband, an accessory a grown woman would not wear. However, it is the fact that the rest of her hair flows down her back and shoulders, unencumbered by pins or elastics, that proves her innocence. Similar to how facial hair nonverbally displayed men’s masculinity, the same could be said for hairstyles of women. Only young girls wore their hair down and loose, while older women or married women wore their hair pinned back and styled (de Dobay Rifelj, 2010). This bolsters a notion that has already been divulged. The aggressive interloper, who is old enough to be her father, is fully aware of her age and either does not care, or finds this fact even more enticing. The point of the scene could simply be to demonstrate a daily nuisance that is an indelible mark of the female experience, or to allude to this young lady’s future. Perhaps one day her fate will change from an unequal train ride to an Unequal Marriage.

Figure 3: "The Irritating Gentleman" by Berthold Woltze (1874)


Whether it was the dour union seen in The Unequal Marriage, the joyful union shown in The Wedding of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, or the mere foreshadowing of unfortunate events to come in The Irritating Gentleman, the role of women in nineteenth century society was confined within the constricting four walls of marriage and childbearing. It was not about what society could do for them, but what they could do for society. The idea of “female autonomy” was as foreign of a concept as “stay-at-home fathers.” Through this artistic documentation which is a testament of the restrictions that women had to suffer at the time, one can witness not only history, but one can also perceive the begining of a spark that later would ignite the flames of change.

Bibliographical References

De Dobay Rifelj, C. (2010). Coiffures: Hair in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Culture. University of Delaware Press. 1(1) 1-2. URL:

Ferro, M. (1995). Nicholas II: Last of the Tsars. Oxford University Press, USA, 17-29. URL:

Forte, M. C. (2016). The New Victorianism. 1-7. RL:

Grigorjeva, J. (2008). Visual post-folklore in post-soviet space-time. In Studies in environmental aesthetics and semiotics, 6(1), 331-349. Estonian Semiotics Association Tallinn. URL:

Guérin, A. (2018). Devastation and Laughter: Satire, Power, and Culture in the Early Soviet State (1920s–1930s), "1. Anatoly Lunacharsky and the Power of Laughter", 19. URL:

McKee, C. T. (2014). British Perceptions of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Fedorovna 1894-1918 (Doctoral dissertation, UCL (University College London)). URL:

Newman, S. (2010). Alexandra and Rasputin [Feature]. Has the role of Alexandra and Rasputin in the downfall of the Romanovs been exaggerated out of all proportion? The Historian, 108, 11-13. URL:

Rounding, V. (2012). Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina. Macmillan.

Whiting, J. M. (2006). Tolstoy and the woman question. USF Tampa Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 1-12. URL:

Visual Sources

1 comentario

Carol Lawrence
Carol Lawrence
27 dic 2023

Preserving memories for all time! You capture the enchantment and romanticism of each wedding you shoot in photographs that are just breathtaking. Your photographs are astounding in their emotional impact, composition, and meticulous attention to detail. Los Angeles couples are lucky to have photographers like that are so committed to capturing the magic of their wedding day. The memories are not only preserved, but they are also given an air of classic beauty by your artistic skill. Please don't stop working your photography magic; you've made a beautiful contribution to the Los Angeles love scene.

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