Re-examining a Radical: The Subtle Feminism of Vanessa Bell

Written by Emma Carr
Edited by Tara Flanagan

Vanessa Bell’s oil portraits of women in domestic spaces were seldom recognized as innovative during the second half of the twentieth century. Art critics trivialized her work and dismissed it as milquetoast rather than progressive. In 1964, three years after Bell’s death, art critic Keith Roberts remarked that her works were dull and failed to inspire viewers:  “Mrs. Bell is as silent as the grave. Her pictures do not betray her. Their reticence is inviolable…[it is] as if frightened of her mounting expenditure, she hastily draws a line under her account and settles for a ‘nice’ picture.”[1] Roberts claims that because Bell’s work did not challenge the boundaries of the genre, it does not deserve a place in the art historical canon. Despite Roberts’ and other criticisms of Bell’s work, in the late twentieth century, feminist art historians began to revise Bell’s legacy. Many of these scholars assert that, rather than being forgettable artworks that maintain the status quo, her paintings in fact engage with and challenge the limits  of abstraction and mark an important transition away from traditional representations of Victorian femininity.[2]  Art historian Grace Brockington, in response to Roberts’s dismissal of Bell’s oeuvre, argues that Bell’s social criticism often goes unrecognized or is misunderstood when analyzed from an academic perspective.[3] Brockington’s analysis illuminates the need for greater scholarly attention to how the artist’s oeuvre both engaged with and challenged the gender discourses of her time.

Without taking into account historical and social contexts, Bell’s oil portraits of women fulfilling domestic roles and interior scenes may appear to some art historians, such as Roberts, as a symbol of feminist regression. In the years following World War I,  after women over thirty were enfranchised in Britain and the nation was recovering from the mass societal disruption caused by the war, the feminist cause abated. However, interpretations such as Roberts’ are informed by modern biases and hindsight knowledge on the extent to which discourses over the rights of women would advance throughout late twentieth century Britain. It is perhaps more productive to analyze Bell’s paintings within the context of the “new feminism” that emerged in the years following World War I, which she would have been exposed to as an artist. New Feminism was a political strategy employed by a coalition of upper and middle-class women who sought to solidify the independence of women in British society by reintroducing the doctrine of separate spheres. Within this context, this essay will explore how Vanessa Bell can be understood as an artist who not only produced the bulk of her artwork during the emergence of New Feminism, but also helped contribute to the progress of British feminist theory. Through her work, the artist monumentalized female domestic life through her portrayal of confident, autonomous women who dominate their space while performing mundane activities.

The feminism of Bell and her interwar contemporaries in Britain does not subscribe to  contemporary scholarly definitions of the subject. Art historian Sarah Milroy explains Bell’s feminism as focusing more on the strength in traditional femininity rather than rejecting it: “Was Bell a feminist? Not in the conventional sense […] Yet Bell’s pride in matriarchy was strong, manifesting itself in many ways, in both her art and life.”[4] To the contemporary viewer, Bell’s focus on motherhood and domesticity may appear anachronistic in comparison to the work of her female contemporaries. The work of artist, Elfriede Lohse-Wachtler in Weimar Germany, for example, explores themes related to sexual liberation and the increased presence of women in public life.[5] Paintings such as Lohse-Wachtler’s Lissy (1931) (fig. 1) removed women from the domestic realm and instead showcased their bodies in bustling public areas. While their interactions with feminism differed, both Bell and Lohse-Wachtler represented in their works the brand of feminism that was pervasive in their own respective countries. While the German Lohse-Wachtler’s work focused on women entering male dominated spaces, Bell’s work represented the feminism that she encountered in Britain. Bell uses a subtle visual language that reflects local thoughts regarding the evolving role of women in British society.

Figure 1. Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, Lissy (1931), painting, Städel Museum, Frankfurt, Germany.

Unlike in France or the Weimar Republic, there was not a wide-reaching public discourse on sexual liberation in Great Britain in the years following World War I. In the interwar years, Britain experienced a more conservative feminist movement which aligned more closely with ideas surrounding gender in the late-Victorian era. Traditionally, historians have represented the post-1918 period as a retreat from feminism in the British Isles.[6] However more recently, there has been an effort to reassess the prevailing discourses about women’s place within society during this period. Many historians have argued that British women’s desire to reinforce the doctrine of separate spheres and their maternal role within society was a response to men returning home from war, seeking to encroach on their newly-acquired power.[7] Following the internal upheaval caused by World War I, there was a desire to return to peace and stability. What followed was an increased male anxiety about the advancement of women in society, who by the end of the war were granted the right to vote[8] and made up a significant portion of the workforce.[9] In response, British women across the classes were forced into an insecure position within society.

In the decade following World War I, many feminists “pursued a program that championed rather than challenged the prevailing ideas about masculinity and femininity appearing in the literature of psychoanalysis and sexology […] many feminists […] accepted theories of sexual difference that helped to advance notions of separate spheres for men and women.”[10] By the end of the 1920’s, this ideology which segregate the activities of men and women was widely accepted by British women across the social classes.[11] To the modern commentator, and to the pre-War feminist who sought to abolish distinctions between the genders, this shift in perspective could be interpreted as backward and problematic, particularly in the aftermath of the colossal achievement that was universal suffrage. However, it was a political agenda that many British women embraced as liberating. Post-World War I feminism was a brand of feminist thought that embraced the identity of a woman, and while it assumed certain gender stereotypes, separation gave women a certain level of autonomy. In separate spheres, women were permitted to think, socialize, and act without the direction of men and they were able to transcend male judgment by laying claim to female nature through first-hand knowledge.

Bell’s portrayal of women is not revolutionary in comparison to the work of her contemporaries in continental Europe. It is valid to argue that, given Bell’s privileged upbringing and position as an artist, she could have more fiercely challenged societal norms. Bell was raised  by a wealthy English family, the daughter of the influential scholar Sir Leslie Stephen, and a member of the prestigious Bloomsbury creative group.[12] However, in order to fully appreciate her work as radical, it is essential to understand the restrictions placed on women artists working in early twentieth century Britain. Bell and her contemporaries were not granted the same freedoms or opportunities as their peers. As explained by Nunn, female artists remained constrained by societal norms regarding women in creative roles: “As female artists, Bell, John, and Knight were not yet free of generalized prejudices about women’s artistic capacities and her claim to a completely human vision.”[13] Nunn’s criticism, when combined with the historical context and analyses of Bell’s work provided in this essay, reveals that, in many ways, domestic portraits such as The Other Room and Interior with the Artist’s Daughter were the only viable avenue for artists like Bell to express their ideas surrounding gender and feminism. Though her work resembles Victorian painting in subject matter, Bell’s work deserves to be acknowledged for its deviant representation of women, which challenges old-order representations of the subservient, domicile woman.

Figure 2. Vanessa Bell, The Other Room, late 1930s. Oil on Canvas, 161×174 cm. Collection of Bryan Ferry.

In Bell’s painting The Other Room (late 1930’s) (fig. 2), Bell explores the evolving nature of women in the home through a depiction of upper-class women at leisure, subject matter  which was frequently explored by male artists in the Victorian period. In the room, three women are seen at leisure: one lies across a couch, another bends over a book, and the last, who is hard to spot, stands at the window where her body is  almost engulfed in the curtains that hang beside her. The women which Bell depicts in this work have a rich interiority about them; each is absorbed in their respective task. Through the depiction of these women as engaged in their own personal activities, Bell represents the women with honesty and authenticity. She does not force social interaction or hyperbolic expression on the women to create a narrative. Rather, she is content with representing women as solitary and autonomous figures with unique personalities outside of maternal or romantic roles.

In this work, as in her other portraits of women,[14] Bell pays little attention to the surface beauty of the women she presents. The women’s faces and clothing are painted in loose sketch-like brushstrokes. In both her rendering of the woman in the foreground and the woman near the window, Bell has chosen not to add color to their faces. Instead, she vaguely gestures at the women’s facial features through hurried, black brushstrokes. Additionally, the artist adds little detail to the women’s clothing and instead represents individual dresses using flat planes of muted colors. Bell thus erases any indications of the women’s physical appearance, and the viewer is forced to shift their attention towards the actions of the women.

The imposing red chair in the lower right of the painting gives the woman in the foreground a sense of social stature. She is sprawled out across a long grey couch, her arms hugging the furniture’s curves. Her elbow sticks out towards the viewer at the edge of the canvas and encroaches into their space. This act of taking up physical space evokes this sense of ownership and belonging. Rosemary Betterton describes this posturing as characteristic of the post-suffrage woman, and argues that it is symbolic of how women were occupying space in the public and political spheres.[15] This type of body language communicates self-empowerment and dominance within a space.  The female subject of Bell’s painting is nonchalantly slumped into the couch, looking out from the corner of her eye, and embodies this power through her position. She appears almost self-aware of what she is communicating to the viewer.

Within the established context of British feminism during Bell’s career, the woman taking up space can also be read as demarcating the room as belonging only to women, who hold power in the private and domestic space of the home. The homosocial environment of the painting is suggested in the title, “The Other Room,” which alludes to how the women have separated themselves into a segregated space. The depiction of homosocial relationships are often read as regressive, recalling common subjects of painting in the Victorian era. Bell’s rendering, however, is a modern one when interpreted in the context of post-World War I feminism. As art historian Pamela Gerrish Nunn notes, for the British “new woman,” the separation of spheres allowed women to see themselves as “participating equally in formulating the modern world.”[16] In other words, the revitalized doctrine of separate spheres allowed women to create their own spaces within the home wherein they were not subject to the influence of men. To carve out a “room of one’s own” within the domestic realm, as in Bell’s painting, was empowering for the early twentieth century British woman because it allowed her to think and act independent of the influence of man and male-dominated society. Through an analysis of British feminism’s interpretation of separate spheres, The Other Room can be understood as functioning in dialogue with contemporary theories on feminism and the role of women in society.

Figure 3. Vanessa Bell, Interior with the Artist’s Daughter, 1935-6. Oil on Canvas, 73.7×61 cm. The Charleston Trust, East Sussex, United Kingdom.

In Interior with the Artist’s Daughter (1935-6) (fig. 3), Bell’s engagement with early twentieth century feminist ideas is further demonstrated through the depiction of a woman engaging in intellectual work. In this painting, the subject’s absorption in her novel alludes to her intellect and rich interior life. Bell represents her own daughter, Angelica, engulfed in a book in the family library. Angelica’s entire body leans over the book and she rests her hand on her head as if deep in thought. The room is cluttered with books that line the background and are scattered on tables throughout the painting. Throughout the composition, Bell repeats brown-toned greens, reds, and purples, which give the painting a homogenous look. She uses uniform diagonal brushstrokes to depict the furniture and her daughter’s figure, making the two subjects almost indistinguishable from each other. Her inventive painting techniques push the boundaries of abstraction; her sketchy brushstrokes and experimental use of color recall the work of her Bloomsbury contemporaries Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, situating her work within the context of modern painting.

Bell’s representation of her daughter as self-possessed and thoughtful represents a significant break from the past. As noted by Nunn, these were characteristics of the “new woman,” who possessed a rich interior life and was “unfettered by the Victorian chains of family, respectability and femininity.”[17] Bell’s female subject is modern and independent. She is unconcerned with beauty and surface value, but instead values her own thoughts and her autonomy within the home. Bell frees her subjects from the restrictions of traditional, Victorian femininity and renders them as sovereign individuals.

The painting is similarly modern in subject matter. As in The Other Room, Bell evokes the doctrine of separate spheres in this work. Angelica is physically distanced from the viewer in the painting and is backed up into a corner in the foreground. Furthermore, the still life set up on the table in the foreground acts as a barrier blocking the viewer’s access to her. In this way, Bell underscores the separation between the space that Angelica occupies and the exterior world. We as the viewer are not allowed access to the female realm that Angelica exists in; Angelica has ownership of her own isolated sphere. Bell represents Angelica as autonomous, in control of her surroundings, and ultimately undisturbed by the influence of men.

In recent years, Vanessa Bell has risen to the prominence of her Bloomsbury peers; a retrospective of her work held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2017 recognized her participation in inter-war Modernism.[18] Nevertheless, Bell’s contributions to modern art are seldom examined as radical, revolutionary, or feminist. On the contrary, interiority is read as silent, domesticity is read as submission, and homosocial interaction is read as apolitical. The dichotomy employed by Bell’s contemporary critics was to categorize female painters as either extremely radical or as conservative and acquiescent. As discussed in the present essay, this binary does not capture the work of Vanessa Bell, whose opus is far more nuanced than either of these paradigms suggest.


[1] Keith Roberts, “London,” The Burlington Magazine 106: vol. 733 (April 1964): 197.

[2] Grace Brockington, “A ‘Lavender Talent’ or ‘The Most Important Woman Painter in Europe’? Reassessing Vanessa Bell,” Association of Art Historians 36, vol. 1 (2013): 138.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sarah Milroy, “Some Rough Eloquence” in Vanessa Bell (London: Philip Wilson Publisher, 2017) ed. Sarah Milroy and Ian A.C. Dejardin, 30.

[5] Marsha Meskimmon, We Weren’t Modern Enough (Los Angeles: University of California Press Berkeley, 1999), 57.

[6] Julie V. Gottlieb and Richard Toye, “Introduction,” in The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women Gender and Politics in Britain, ed. Julie V. Gottlieb and Richard Toye, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013),  5.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Given that they were over the age of 30 and the wife of a property holder.

[9] Susan Kingsley Kent, Making peace: the reconstruction of gender in interwar Britain (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1993), 5.

[10] Kent, Making Peace, 7.

[11] Ibid.

[12]  Pamela Gerrish Nunn, From Victorian to Modern, 57.

[13]  Pamela Gerrish Nunn, From Victorian to Modern, 60.

[14] Milroy, “Some Rough Eloquence,” 29.

[15] Rosemary Betterton, An Intimate Distance: Women, Artists, and the Body (New York: Routledge, 1996), 65.

[16] Pamela Gerrish Nunn, From Victorian to Modern: Innovation and Tradition in the Work of Vanessa Bell, Gwen John and Laura Knight (Nottingham: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2006), 88.

[17]  Pamela Gerrish Nunn, From Victorian to Modern, 75.

[18] Milroy, “Director’s Foreword” in Vanessa Bell ed. Sarah Milroy and Ian A.C. Dejardin (London: Philip Wilson Publisher, 2017), 16.

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