Evidence of the high value Americans placed on the notion of True Womanhood abounded in every cultural form. As Ann Douglas has said, "The cult of motherhood was nearly as sacred in mid-nineteenth-century America as the belief in some version of democracy." 1

Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in 1869, "the best end for a woman to seek is the training of God's children in their eternal home, by guiding them to intelligence, virtue, and true happiness." 2 Beecher and Stowe were talking about women's place within the domestic sphere, but they also implied that it was woman's job to improve the whole of society through benevolent influence and guidance. At home, they wrote, "The family state … is the aptest earthly illustration of the heavenly kingdom, and in it woman is its chief minister. Her great mission is self-denial, in training its members…." 3

The Mother's Pride. Sir Thomas Lawrence, c. 1831–1833

Nineteenth-century British and American fine arts had much in common in terms of style and subject matter. Both nations glorified and romanticized mothers and children in popular art. This lithograph is based on a painting by prominent British artist Sir Thomas Lawrence, who painted many members of the English aristocracy and upper classes. These works included a number of portraits of mothers with their children. This particular composition combines the sentimentality of nineteenth-century depictions of motherhood with the glamour of the pin-up.

Detail from The Mother's Pride
c. 1831-1833. 42 x 31 cm


Home Education. Kimmel & Forster, c. 1865–1871

This romantic scene represents an idealized division of parental labor. The mother instructs her daughter at the piano; this musical skill will improve her daughter's attractiveness once she's old enough to enter the marriage market. The father, dressed in the romantic clothing of a poet or a Renaissance artist, sits with his son, instructing him in the art of drawing. The military scene on the wall behind father and son reminds the viewer of men's obligations in times of war.  The skills that these children are learning, along with the luxuriousness of the setting and the clothing, suggest prosperity, good taste, and the physical comforts afforded by economic wealth. This image is designed to instruct Americans about proper behavior and aesthetic taste, but it is also a fantasy of a lifestyle that many viewers could not have achieved.

Detail from Home Education
c. 1865-1871. 23 x 29 cm


"The Letter for Home" from Campaign Sketches. Winslow Homer (lithographed & published by Louis Prang). c. 1863

This sentimental scene represents some of the changes in women’s roles during the Civil War. Women participated actively in the war effort, providing clothing, bandages, and food for soldiers, as well as nursing the sick and injured. Here, the painter Winslow Homer has created a sentimental scene in which a beautiful and virtuous volunteer writes a letter for a wounded soldier. This was part of a portfolio of six lithographs printed and distributed by Boston lithographer Louis Prang. 4

Detail from The Letter for Home
c. 1863. 36 x 28 cm


Recollections of Infancy. Benjamin W. Thayer, c. 1840–1853

This romantic image belongs to the class of very popular American and European genre paintings that depicted sentimental and nostalgic scenes of European peasant life. This one is notable for the way it bridges the divide between familiar images of loving mothers and children and racier images that defined women by glorifying their physical beauty and sensual attributes.

Detail from Recollections of Infancy
c. 1840-1853. 31 x 24 cm



1. Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1977), pp. 74. See also <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA97/riedy/welcome.html>.

2. Beecher, Catherine E. & Harriet Beecher Stowe, American Woman's Home. Hartford, Conn.: Stowe-Day Foundation (1994, 1975), pp. 21.

3. Beecher & Stowe, American Woman's Home, pp. 19.

4. For more information about this portfolio, see Mark E. Neely and Harold Holzer, The Union Image: Popular Prints of the Civil War North. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press (2000), pp. 69–72.


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