Art Friday: Augustus Leopold Egg

Past and Present series by Augustus Leopold Egg 

Many Victorian paintings tell a story, but these three by Augustus Leopold Egg tell a very sad and tragic story that happened far too often to women in the 1800s. If you ever wanted to understand why women rose up and took charge of their situation and started the feminist movement, these paintings explain it perfectly. Women were treated like second-class citizens. They had no rights, they could loose everything, including their children and home on the whim of their husbands. The wife of Charles Dickson, English author, kicked his wife out of his home and forbad his children from seeing her, because he had taken on a mistress and didn't love her anymore. She was powerless to do a thing. 

These three paintings are about the discovery of the woman's infidelity and its consequences. In Victorian England a man could safely take a mistress without fear of recrimination, but for a woman to be unfaithful was an unforgivable crime. As Caroline Norton, an early feminist, wrote, 'the faults of women are visited as sins, the sins of men are not even visited as faults' (quote in Lambourne, p.374).

Painting 1
The three paintings reflected fears that public morality and family life were imperilled by the recent Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, which reformed the law of divorce by moving jurisdiction from the ecclesiastical courts to the civil court, and made divorce a realistic prospect for the middle classes.

Past and present: Misfortune—Painting 1

In the first scene the wife lies prostrate at her husband's feet, while he sits grimly at the table and their children play cards in the background. The husband is holding a letter, evidence of his wife's adultery, and simultaneously crushes a miniature of her lover under his foot. The setting is an ordinary middle-class drawing room, but closer observation reveals that the room is full of symbols. The house of cards is collapsing, signifying the breakdown of the couple's marriage. The cards are supported by a novel by Balzac - a specialist in the theme of adultery. An apple has been cut in two, the one half (representing the wife) has fallen to the floor, the other (representing the husband) has been stabbed to the core. As a parallel, the two pictures on the wall depict the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (labelled The Fall); and a shipwreck by Clarkson Stanfield (labelled Abandoned). The couple's individual portraits hang beneath the appropriate image. 

In the background of the picture the mirror reflects an open door, denoting the woman's impending departure from the home. The position of her arms and the bracelets round her wrists give the impression that she is shackled. The packed bag and umbrella by the door may underline her imminent departure, or could have been cast down by the husband when he arrived home.

Note that the one of the young girls is watching and learning about gender roles in society. 

Past and present: Prayer—Painting 2

The second scene is a dimly-lit garret, five years later. The room is sparsely furnished and the few decorations include two portraits of the absent mother and father. The father has recently died and the mother has been driven out of her home, a fallen woman. The two orphaned girls comfort each other, the elder gazing sadly over the rooftops towards the moon.

Past and present: Despair—Painting 3

The third painting is also a night scene. The details of the cloud and moon show it is the same evening as depicted in the second painting. The fallen wife is resting in the detritus-strewn shadows beneath the Adelphi Arches, by the River Thames. She clutches a bundle of rags from which protrude the emaciated legs of an infant, perhaps the fruit of her affair, either asleep or dead. Posters on the wall ironically advertise two contemporary plays, "Victims" by Tom Taylor and "The Cure for Love" by Tom Parry, both tales of unhappy marriages, and also "Pleasure excursions to Paris", perhaps a reference to the novel by Balzac in the first picture. She looks up from her place in the gutter to the moon and stars above.

Egg wasn't the only artist to painting these tragic imagines of women. The painting below "Found Drowned" by Watts also depicts a scene of a "fallen woman" who has thrown herself of the bridge in despair to escape the shame of her affair. Of course, the man who she had the affair with will not suffer any ill-repute for his behaviour.  Simply dressed, perhaps a servant, her arms and body form the shape of a cross. She holds a locket and chain in one hand, indicating her attachment to her lover, with a single star visible as a sign of hope in the sky above.

Found Drowned by George Fredric Watts (1850)


I would like to acknowledge Mimi Matthews for posting the first painting on her Facebook page and sharing the story of the this unfortunate woman.  I would also like to acknowledge Martha Ellen Ellison for the information she provided for painting one.

Other information is sourced from the Tate Britain.


  1. Wow, a lot in a "simple" painting =(

    1. I know - the Victorians love to tell mortal stories in their art works - however most were about the morals of women and not men!!

  2. You bring up some interesting points. Consider the story from John 8. “They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” (John 8:4-5). Actually, what the law said was: “the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10). If this woman was found “in the very” act, then the man was also present. Where was he? It is notable that the Lord does not excuse the woman’s sin nor offer her forgiveness. Rather, He continues to apply the law: “At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death” (Deut. 17:6). When all of the woman’s accusers had left, He says: “where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:10-11). Her behaviour was sinful and the Lord never diminishes that. The behaviour of these wicked men, however, was the greater transgression; they had tried to entrap the Son of God! The woman in Luke 7 is quite a contrast; here was one who owned her sin and wept at her position; to her, the Lord Jesus could say: “Thy sins are forgiven. … Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.” (Luke 7:48, 50). With the first woman we see no repentance; with the second, it is a different story. It is true that women and men have historically been held to a different standard when it comes to sexual immorality. We do not find that distinction in the New Testament. No doubt this difference has caused a grievance among women; it is, after all, a result of the willfulness of the heart of men. Feminism, however, has looked for the solution in the wrong quarter—they have taken the stand that what was right for men should also be right for women. NS

    1. Whilst some women went off and had affairs without a care in the world (often those rich enough that it didn't matter), many were coerced (and too innocent to understand) and found themselves in terrible situations with no way out. Others were in such sad marriages that being "loved" by another man made life a little more bearable. Whilst all these women sinned, most regretted it quite quickly but when caught there were very few options available. Sadly women in the Victorian era were see as "angels of the home" and those that broke the rules of this image suffered badly. And many of these angels were far from happy - trapped by controlling husbands and social rules that gave them little movement to rebel.

      Charles Dickens went after his wife’s sister which was even sadder as she was a single woman trapped in a her sisters home with no opportunities and perhaps saw a glimmer of hope with an affair. Of course it was even worse for Dickens wife.

      You are right - the modern feminist movement wants everything a man wants - in fact as a consequence of this we are starting to see women participate in much more risky behaviour and as a result suicide rates for women are also increasing because of this behaviour.

  3. What horrible paintings! And the stories just make it all the worse! I don't know why someone would want to spend so long depicting something so sad - it makes you wonder what had happened in the artist's life. Very depressing artwork. :( I must say, I prefer cheerful, colourful art!

    1. I think the Victorians thought these were important messages to remind the population (women more than men) and the correct way to conduct one's life. They were very keen to be seen as virtuous even if it wasn't happening away from the public eye. They are depressing but I thought it was important to share the story of these paintings.


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