Osborn, Emily Mary (1834–c. 1885)

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Osborn, Emily Mary (1834–c. 1885)

British artist who specialized in portraits as well as genre and narrative paintings. Born in Essex, England, in 1834; died around 1885; attended art classes at Mr. Dickinson's Academy, London; never married; no children.

Although she earned the bulk of her living from her genre paintings and portraits, British artist Emily Mary Osborn is best known for her narrative paintings, particularly those dealing with the plight of women. She was born in Essex in 1834, the eldest child of a cleric. In 1848, her father was transferred to a church in London, where Osborn began art classes at Mr. Dickinson's Academy. She continued her studies with John Mogford, a minor landscape painter, and with James Matthew Leigh, a portrait and history painter who exercised great influence over her developing style. In 1851, at age 17, Osborn had some of her genre and landscape paintings accepted at the Royal Academy. She continue to exhibit there through 1884, and later also had exhibitions at the British Institution and the Society of British Artists, as well as in such commercial establishments as Grosvenor Gallery and the New Gallery, in London. Early in her career, Osborn was honored by the eminent patronage of Queen Victoria who purchased two of her paintings: My Cottage Door (1855) and The Governess, the latter of which won acclaim at the Royal Academy show of 1860.

The narrative mode, in which Osborn painted some of her best-known works, was originally made popular by William Hogarth (1697–1764) in the 18th century and was still in vogue well into the 19th century. (Modern-day art historians tend to dismiss the narrative and domestic paintings of this period as trivial and sentimental when compared to other art of its day.) A narrative painting was intended to be "read," rather than simply viewed, and to be appreciated for its message as well as its visual appeal. Many of Osborn's paintings of this type deal with themes of victimized women, often those who are social outcasts or the target of prejudice. A work called Nameless and Friendless (1857) is particularly rare in that it depicts the plight of a woman artist attempting to sell her work. In the center foreground of the painting, a poorly dressed young woman just in from the rain is displaying her artwork to an elderly dealer. In the background several gentlemen in top hats ogle the young woman, as they look up from a print of a dancing girl. Also in the background stands an anonymous woman who is obviously better dressed than the main figure. Every detail of the painting, notes Ms. magazine, from composition to the costume of the central figure, serves the drama which it relates. "That she is an unmarried orphan is indicated by her black dress and ringless left hand; that she is poor, by her worn clothes, unfashionable shawl, and shabby, dripping umbrella; that her social status is low is emphasized by the eloquent emptiness of the chair against which the umbrella is propped. Had she been a wealthy 'lady' client … she would naturally have been sitting down rather than standing up."

Osborn's other narrative works include For the Last Time (1864), God's Acre (1868), and the prize-winning Half the World Knows Not How the Other Half Lives (1864), and all deal with the dark themes of poverty and death in the lives of young women. More cheerful were Osborn's portraits, among them Philip Gosse, Jr., Madame Bodichon, and a more ambitious work, Mrs Sturgis and Children, a life-sized portrait which appeared in the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1855. Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin explain that a portrait of this type, of an upper-class woman and her children in an outdoor setting, is reminiscent of the works of Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), and Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830). Osborn's work is unique in that the background setting is a beach rather than a landscape. They attribute this to the possible influence of William Powell Frith's work Life at the Seaside.


"Emily Mary Osborn (1834–c. 1885)," in Ms. July 1974.

Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Osborn, Emily Mary (1834–c. 1885)

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