Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

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    Mary Wollstonecraft,    by John Opie,    circa 1797,    NPG 1237,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the founders of the feminist movement.
Mary Wollstonecraft
by John Opie
oil on canvas, circa 1797
30 1/4 in. x 25 1/4 in. (768 mm x 641 mm)
NPG 1237
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 12 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97) was a writer, political activist and Feminist Having or based on the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men. long before the term was invented. She argued passionately for equality between the sexes in her 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It was the first book of its kind, calling for women to be educated and have equality in society. 

Wollstonecraft is thought of as one of the founders of the feminist movement.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Mary Wollstonecraft,    by John Opie,    circa 1797,    NPG 1237,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, circa 1797

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a minute. What can you see?

What does the portrait reveal about Mary Wollstonecraft?

    • She is wearing a plain, high-waisted white cotton gown. Her hair is simply styled and is partially covered by a soft black hat. She doesn’t appear to be wearing any jewellery or make-up. Wollstonecraft believed people should dress simply, and that clothes should neither ‘distort nor hide’ the human form.
    • There are no props or obvious details in the background.
    • Although it is not very visible, Wollstonecraft is pregnant in this portrait, with her daughter Mary.
    • John Opie was a friend. This is a personal portrait painted by someone who knew her well. 
    • This portrait does not obviously show Wollstonecraft’s Radical In favour of extreme and complete political or social change. views about women. We cannot tell what her beliefs were just by looking at it as there was no visual language for radical women in portraits at this time. 
    • Opie also painted an earlier portrait of Wollstonecraft showing her looking up from her desk where she has been studying or writing, directly towards us. This pose would more typically be used for a portrait of a man.
I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.
Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792

Who was Mary Wollstonecraft?

  • Mary Wollstonecraft was a Radical In favour of extreme and complete political or social change. thinker and writer who made a powerful case for equality between men and women.  
  • In 1792, she published her most famous work: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The work presented a vision of equality for men and women – both in the home and in the wider world.
  • She claimed that women were not naturally inferior to men but may appear to be because they had been denied educational opportunities. 
  • She also argued that women should be allowed to have a career outside of the home, an argument that was well ahead of its time. 
  • Wollstonecraft achieved her goal of becoming a self-supporting, female writer. This was highly unusual for the time.
  • She challenged many of the conventions of the time. This included helping her sister, Eliza, to escape from an unhappy marriage, and co-establishing a school for girls.  
  • She was a supporter of the French Revolution A period of massive social and political change taking place in France between 1789–99. and its ideals of liberty and equality. These views were radical at the time.
  • She died shortly after giving birth to her daughter Mary, who went on to become a writer and the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas still resonate today. Feminist Having or based on the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men. that came afterward were inspired by her trail-blazing approach.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • We don’t know why the portrait was painted but we know it stayed in the family, perhaps to remember her by after she died. 
  • Wollstonecraft was happy in her relationship with fellow Radical In favour of extreme and complete political or social change. , William Godwin. She died days after the birth of their daughter, Mary. Godwin was deeply saddened by her loss and hung this portrait over their fireplace.

Questions

  1. Why do you think Mary Wollstonecraft believed access to education was such an important factor in gaining equality between men and women?
  1. In what ways do you think there is equality and inequality between men and women today?