How to See Art from Another Era

On “Vintage Beaus & Beauties”

Aug 2, 2019

Featured artists

Norman Rockwell

Édouard Manet

J.C. Leyendecker

Art needs context—both historical context (movement, era, school, etc.) and regular context (how it was presented to the public). Take Manet’s Olympia (1863). To form an intricate understanding of the masterpiece, we need to be familiar with the works it calls on, what art was currently in fashion, and what sort of criticism it elicited (not just on its first showing, at the Paris Salon, but throughout time).

OlympiaÉdouard Manet
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Different eras have found Olympia problematic but for entirely different reasons. Why it shocked the Salon audience (it was a depiction of a prostitute, looking at the viewer, no less) has little to do with why it might be disavowed today (for its racial stereotypes and binaries). In this way, Olympia is also a great example of how context can change, morphing the meaning of a given work in the process.

The Girl Next DoorRobert Meyers
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This month, we’re releasing a playlist called Vintage Beaus & Beauties, a collection of illustrations from the Saturday Evening Post, the magazine mostly known today for the likes of Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker.

These images were first published in the 1950s, a period that evokes both nostalgia (Mad Men, mid-century modern furniture, “simpler times”) and horror (gender inequality, institutional racism, the Cold War). Without context, they may come off as cringeworthy, demeaning, and even upsetting—not to mention the titles of the works themselves, such as Coed’s Delight, Beauty Is the Prize, and Custom-Made Bride. But with context, this playlist can be an elucidating window into times past, giving us a more thorough understanding of life half a century ago. To help tell that story, we enlisted two experts: Robin K. Payne, PhD, a professor of history at Fairmont State University, and Andrea Walsh, PhD, a professor of writing and women’s and gender studies at MIT.

The Husband HunterRobert Jones
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How did the images initially appear?

Many of the illustrations found in Vintage Beaus & Beauties accompanied short fiction pieces in the magazine that, Payne suspects, were “aimed at female readers (though the readership of the publication, in general, skewed male).” Though these illustrations weren’t used in ads, Walsh believes they were still used to sell something: “images,” an aspirational idea about lifestyle.

What should we know about domestic life in the 1950s?

“The domestic revivalism of the 1950s was, in part, a backlash to the expanded roles women had enjoyed due to wartime necessity during World War II,” Payne says. “While many embraced a so-called ‘return to normalcy,’ the expectation to adhere to more rigid and traditional gender roles proved stultifying for many women. This, in turn, helped to lay the groundwork for the so-called ‘second’ wave of feminism to begin to resurface by the beginning of the 1960s. Over the course of that decade, a renewed feminist activism—which had been churning all the while beneath the surface during the 1950s—began to flourish as women began to seek and demand equality.”

Stand-In GirlRobert Jones
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While Walsh sees the images as “certainly part of a gender conservatism in the postwar era, represented in film, advertising, and TV,” she’s careful to point out that “this gender conservatism is not without its contradictions. Many of the suburban family comedies, such as Father Knows Best, featured a working dad and stay-at-home mom. However, the TV mother was often wiser and more intelligent than the father.”

More practically, as Walsh points out, the ’50s saw an increase in the divorce rate, as well as the employment rate of married women, “changes that link to the emergence of feminism in the 1960s. … Oral contraception becomes popular by the early ’60s, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is published in 1963. … The National Organization for Women forms in 1966, which most historians see as marking the birth of the second wave of feminism.” This aesthetic, in other words, was one of the last flourishes of social conservatism before the rise of feminism.

Anniversary QuarrelLynn Buckham
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How well did these images represent real life?

Though the long answer is more complex, the short answer is “not well.” As Walsh points out, “Women who are larger, older, of color, or nonheterosexual are absent. We can also speculate as to how, say, a low-income older African American woman might relate to these images. We might speculate that, while this hypothetical woman might feel anger at the omission of her representation, she might also be less affected by these images and have an emotional distance from them. (It’s also important to realize that some women may have approached these images with a sense of humor or critical edge—and that some of the illustrators may have intended this.)”

Payne agrees: “The Saturday Evening Post’s target audience represented only a small and exclusive cross section of the American populace and they are therefore a rather limited representation of American cultural ideals.” But that’s not the only way the images miss real life: “Real life is, of course, always a bit messier than the perfect façade we often see in idealized media and for many whose lives might resemble that of June Cleaver (of Leave It to Beaver) outwardly, there churned beneath the surface powerful undercurrents of discontent. … In these images from the Saturday Evening Post, though, it’s worth noting that we don’t necessarily see the June Cleaver–esque ‘domestic angel of the household’ ideal. Instead we see a more stylized emphasis on feminine glamour and, in some instances, of overt sexualization.

“During the 1950s, women and girls were bombarded with mixed messages about their sexuality and its control. On the one hand, they were constantly implored to be the ‘good girl’ who doesn’t go ‘too far’—and the burden of maintaining virtue rested heavily upon their shoulders, with sexual double standards in full force. But, on the other hand, a nascent sexual revolution was beginning to take off as sexual mores began to loosen in anticipation of larger upheavals later on. For instance, by the 1950s, Alfred Kinsey’s dense but best-selling studies of male and female sexuality, respectively, were causing major waves via his questioning of sexual norms and whether or not they even existed. Likewise, by the middle of the decade, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy was also challenging the status quo—prompting him to later (and erroneously, in my opinion!) declare himself to be the father of the sexual revolution.”

Organization WifeCoby Whitmore
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Can these images be reconciled with feminism?

Payne answers the question with nuance (and two wonderful pop-culture references): “Feminism is and never has been monolithic, and I think that it’s fair to say that certain brands of feminism could find much to celebrate in these images. Helen Gurley Brown, for instance, of Cosmo fame, was at the vanguard of what historian Jennifer Scanlon has referred to as ‘Gurley girl feminism.’ The Cosmo Girl that she championed beginning in the 1960s was reviled by many within the women’s liberation movement for pandering to the male gaze and objectifying women within the confines of mainstream culture; however, Helen Gurley Brown insisted that she championed a ‘pro-sex’ or ‘pro-love’ version of feminism that was empowering in its own right. I could very much see someone like her or her ‘Cosmo Girl’ supporters (who likely embraced a number of feminist ideals even if they were not explicitly involved in the movement) reading a degree of sexual empowerment for women in these images. …

“Moving in the other direction chronologically, and somewhat tangentially, the women in these images also seem somewhat reminiscent to me of the Gibson Girl ideal at the turn of the 20th century. Born from the imagination of a male artist (Charles Gibson), the Gibson Girl represented an arguably traditional, hyperfeminine ideal derived from the male gaze. But she was also perceived by many of her contemporaries as being independent and jaunty in her demeanor, thus helping to pave the way for the New Woman who was being heralded during the first wave of feminism and the fight for women’s voting rights. For the sake of comparison, though, the women in these images do not seem nearly as independent as the Gibson Girl, who was frequently depicted on her own or with other women rather than exclusively in relationship to men, as seems to be the case with these illustrated women at least. …

“With that said, there are certainly other strands of feminism, particularly more radical perspectives, that would find it difficult—even impossible—to divorce these images from the male-dominated gaze of 1950s patriarchal culture within which they were created, despite how any individual viewer may interpret them then or now.”

No Woman Is Worth ItJoe de Mers
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Do you think these images can be seen as harmful?

Walsh thinks so, especially to younger viewers who “are more vulnerable to the pull of media images, often because they are trying to establish their identities as adolescents and young adult women.”

Payne agrees, and with a hitch: “What is most potentially damaging for the young women and girls encountering them would be that the portrait of womanhood they present is based upon what men would want of them rather than what they might want of themselves. One component of that is that these images present as aspirational a beauty standard (Hollywood glamour, stunning beauty, rail-thin with wasp-like waistlines, and explicit whiteness) that was next to impossible for most girls and young women to achieve, thus fostering feelings of inadequacy. …

“But, on that note, one might argue that the images could be equally damaging for young men and boys who, like girls, were being indoctrinated throughout the culture to believe that women’s purpose was to serve masculine desire—to see the women as objects for their own gratification rather than as people. Indeed, a common mantra for some feminists, like Gloria Steinem, in the 1960s and 1970s was that women’s liberation would not only free women from subordinate status, but that it would also free men from the role of oppressor and the circumspect pressures of that role. If the culture shifted, they believed everyone (including boys and men) could be freed from the stultifying bonds of patriarchy.”

No Man For NancyErnest Chiriaka
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Finally, what media that we consume today will age in the same way as these images?

Walsh thinks it will be “magazines like Cosmopolitan and Glamour, although some women read them ‘against the grain,’” meaning approaching with hesitation or resistance. “There are attempts today, such as the ‘Lean In Collection’ on Getty, that try to depict women and men who are more representable of the population and participate in a range of roles in the home and workplace.”

Payne sees the current landscape as more of a multivaried refraction, “full of mixed messages about the roles of women and girls and society. Somewhat recently, there has been some new revivalism and romanticism surrounding 1950s domesticity. But, with that said, there has also been a seismic shift toward celebrating images of female empowerment and ‘girl power’ throughout the popular culture in the last several years, especially aimed at girls and young women.

“In the modern information age, the fact of the matter is that there is such tremendous variety available (and immediately so via the internet), and I think there are exceedingly more depictions of girlhood and womanhood (increasingly from the female gaze!) available in a range of subcultures as well as within the mainstream. This is an obvious, albeit potentially overwhelming, boon for modern society in many ways, but the historians and art historians of the future will have their work cut out for them in wading through the imagery to determine what is most iconic from our time—and what it says about us and our ideas on gender!”

See the full collection of Vintage Beaus & Beauties for yourself, here.

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Vintage Beaus & Beauties

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