1 of 6 portraits of Mary Wollstonecraft
- Extended Catalogue Entry
by John Opie
oil on canvas, circa 1797
30 1/4 in. x 25 1/4 in. (768 mm x 641 mm)
Bequeathed by Jane, Lady Shelley, 1899
Artistback to top
- John Opie (1761-1807), Portrait and history painter. Artist associated with 148 portraits, Sitter in 13 portraits.
This portraitback to top
The writer Mary Wollstonecraft is portrayed in this painting with the utmost simplicity. She wears a high-waisted white cotton gown while her plainly-styled hair is partially covered by a soft hat. She made her views on dress clear in her published work, stating that it should neither distort nor hide the human form but rather 'adorn the person and not rival it'. This reflected the French Revolutionary emphasis on man's natural rights and honesty; rejecting disguise and ostentation to reveal the 'real' person. Even for women without Wollstonecraft's high principles, under the prevailing influence of Neo-classicism, the emphasis in fashion of the mid-1790s was on restraint and elegance. When painted by Opie, Wollstonecraft was pregnant with her daughter Mary, whose birth in 1797 was to cost her mother her life. After Wollstonecraft's death this portrait hung above Godwin's fireplace.
Linked publicationsback to top
- 100 Portraits, p. 53
- Audio Guide
- 100 Pioneering Women, p. 42 Read entry
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) was a journalist, radical thinker, feminist and author, whom Horace Walpole described as a ‘hyena in petticoats’. Her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) proposed an enlightened feminism and equality between the sexes. She wrote: ‘I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.’ Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) revealed her as an educational pioneer, too, believing (controversially) in women’s capacity to reason. During the French Revolution she was in Paris, where she had her first child, Fanny, out of wedlock. After returning to England, she met and married in 1797 the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, with whom she had a second daughter, Mary – later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein (1818) – dying days after her birth. After their marriage, the couple had been the toast of radical circles – but she was vilified, for her moral compass, her politics and her ideas, by contemporary critics and an increasingly conservative public. Speaking in favour of a Wollstonecraft memorial in Stoke Newington, the London area where she lived and worked, Classics professor Mary Beard said: ‘Every woman who wants to make an impact on the way this country is run … has Mary Wollstonecraft to thank.’
- Smartify image discovery app
- 100 Writers, p. 47
- Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 62
- Holmes, Richard, The Romantic Poets and Their Circle, 2013, p. 43
- Holmes, Richard, Insights: The Romantic Poets and Their Circle, 2005, p. 32
- Holmes, Richard; Crane, David; Woof, Robert; Hebron, Stephen, Romantics and Revolutionaries: Regency portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, 2002, p. 51
- John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 62
- Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 148
- Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 151
- Ross, Josephine, Jane Austen and her World, 2017, p. 66
- Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 674
- Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 116 Read entry
A political radical, Mary Wollstonecraft is one of the founders of modern feminism. Her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), made a powerful case for the liberation and education of women. Wollstonecraft ran a small school and worked as a governess before settling in London in 1787. There she joined a radical circle around the publisher Joseph Johnson and regularly published literary criticism and educational works. She welcomed the French Revolution and travelled to Paris, where she fell in love with the American Gilbert Imlay and defied convention by having her first child outside wedlock. However, the relationship did not last. Distraught, Wollstonecraft returned to England. She later fell in love with the philosopher William Godwin and lived with him, marrying only when she became pregnant with her daughter, the author Mary Shelley.
This portrait by John Opie (1761–1807) was probably painted around this time. The simplicity of her gown and cap reflects her belief, as expressed in her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), that clothes should ‘adorn the person and not rival it’. Wollstonecraft died in childbirth. Grief-stricken, Godwin wrote the startlingly frank Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft (1798), dominating public perception of her for decades.
- Walker, Richard, Regency Portraits, 1985, p. 218
- Woof, Robert; Hebron, Stephen, Romantic Icons, 1999, p. 49
Subjects & Themesback to top
Events of 1797back to top
Current affairsThe Anti-Jacobin periodical makes its debut followed by The Anti-Jacobin Review the year after. Edited by William Gifford, it acted as a Tory mouthpiece against the 'New Morality' associated with republicanism.
Bank crisis results in the temporary suspension of payments by the Bank of England leading to a nationwide currency shortage.
Art and scienceRobert Southey, later Poet Laureate, publishes his collected Poems, exploring contemporary interest in mythology and non-European cultures.
Ann Radcliffe publishes her popular gothic novel The Italian. One of the most imaginative novelists of the period, she helped introduce readers to the romantic sense of the supernatural.
InternationalBattle of Cape St Vincent. Admiral John Jervis leads the fleet which defeat the Spanish.
Failure of a small French invasion in Pembrokeshire.
Naval mutinies at Spithead and Nore.
Attack on the Canary Islands in which Rear-Admiral Nelson loses an arm.
Listen to a series of podcasts exploring the lives of pioneering women, past and present.
William Eggleston was closely associated with the alternative music scene in Memphis. Revisit our 2016 exhibition and listen to a special playlist.
Links to audio and transcripts of interviews with artists, sitters and historic recordings.
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