It is needful that I calm you apprehensions, your fear that your daughters will become real artists only by drawing nude figures from nature.
    Have I not said, that woman should never, under any pretext, forget her womanhood; that to be a woman is her first condition in life?
    She must confine herself to those subjects which are allied to her sphere. . . .her domain is large enough, and beautiful enough. . . .with women, children, animals, fruits, flowers, etc.--one may create masterpieces for a lifetime.
    . . . But when a woman desires to paint large-sized pictures, and mounts the ladder, she is lost--lost as a woman.

                Mme M. Elizabeth Cavé, Drawing from Memory, 1877


The division between art forms into fine arts and decorative arts (or arts and crafts) began in the Renaissance. Eventually this division led to craft-based workshops vs. Academies as the means of training artists. By the 18th century, the divorce between arts and crafts was total. This division can also be interpreted along class lines--the artist vs. the artisan. It can also be read in gender terms since many of the crafts/decorative arts were done by women. In addition, by the 18th century another split developed between the amateur and professional or between working class crafts and middle-class accomplishments, although often the kinds of works done were similar; when the "artist" was paid it was a craft; when it was a leisure-time activity, it was a lady-like accomplishment. Various kinds of needlework fit in this category.

Decorative arts like needlework, tapestries, and quilts are often omitted from art historical accounts. Works like these are relegated to museum basements and rarely exhibited. They are collected by historical museums, not art museums.

Because embroidery has a long history as an activity of royal women (both Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are known to have embroidered), it had status. By the eighteenth century, to embroider was proof of gentility among the middle class, as well as proof that a husband could support a leisured wife. Embroidery suggested a refined, tasteful life-style and symbolized the virtues of industry and selflessness. Although some women had an ambivalent relationship with embroidery (it was so synonymous with femininity!), it was still one of the few art forms available to middle-class women.

In the eighteenth century distinctions were made between types of needlework: 1)plain sewing like hemming, seaming, and the making of simple garments; 2)marking--usually cross-stitch, as a way of keeping account of household items; 3)fancy needlework which included various kinds of needlework: crewel embroidery, tambour, and canvas work.

See Crewel Work and Samplers
See Needle Pictures

Return to Chapter 7.