Emily Mary Osborn: The Famous Genre Artist of Victorian Era

Emily Mary Osborn was a talented English female artist who explored the lives of women of the time and depicted it with great precision.

Emily Mary Osborn

As one indulges in the past of the Victorian era, it becomes apparent that women portrayed both housewives and working-class roles despite the challenges they faced. Enola Holmes, a Netflix movie that was recently released, illustrates this fact with its finest visuals. One of the things that intrigued me about the movie Enola Holmes, in addition to its creative and intelligent script, was the incredible form of women strength who fought for their rights while maintaining their positions in the workplace, sometimes better than men. The fact that there have always been a few men throughout history who respected women could hurt feminists today. And due to this fact, there are times, however, when I feel that the term feminist is highly intimidating among today’s generation, whereas the real problem women faced was only addressed by the previous generation. Hence to revisit the past through one of the foremost women artists who showcased such history through her artworks is Emily Mary Osborn.

Artist Abstract: Who Was Emily Mary Osborn?

Born in 1834, Emily Mary Osborn was the eldest child of an Essez clergyman. She moved to London from West Tilbury with her family in 1848, where she began to study art under James Matthew Leigh, and at the age of seventeen, she exhibited at the Royal Academy. Her career began at a very young age, and even before attending her mature style, Emily achieved considerable success for the next thirty years. Although throughout her lifetime, she made a substantial sum of money from portraits; occasionally, she would consider painting literary subjects. Primarily a genre painter, Emily won several medals for her best works. For instance, she received a silver medal from the Society for the Encouragement of the Fin Arts in 1862 and first prize for the best historical and figure subject at Crystal Palace Picture Gallery in 1864. Member of the Society of Lady Artists, Emily never married but lived with her friend Miss Dunn.

NameEmily Mary Osborn
GenrePortraits, Literary paintings
Famous PaintingNameless and Friendless (1857)

Life of the Artist.

Emily Mary Osborn was a Victorian genre painter who was one of the most successful women painters, specialising in the theme of victimised and distressed young women. One of the comparable artists to her is Richard Redgrave, who painted the same kind of artwork- a tragic social theme, although there remained no connection between them.

Until Emily was fourteen, she lived with her family in West Tilbury, Essex, but eventually, her father moved to London as he received a curacy. And during this time, she attended classes in Maldox Street at Mr Dickinson’s Academy. But after three months, her father had to stop the classes for a while due to financial constraints. But James Matthew Leigh, her tutor, offered her to teach together with a girl privately at his house. At first, she went to his home for classes, but eventually, she attended his Academy on Newman Street. One noted,

“To the kindness of Mr Leign, she acknowledges herself indebted for almost all the instruction she has received.”

There is a piece of minor information about her childhood, but we know her journey through her paintings. After learning from the landscape painter, James Matthew Leigh at his gallery in Newmann Street, London, Emily opened her studio in London in 1855 and then in Glasglow. She was one of the ladies who signed a petition to demand entry for women in the Royal Academy schools in 1859. Spending time in Germany from 1861, she also visited Algeria in 1881 and received many awards. Now to study her life in detail, let us move towards her artworks which tell a lot about her.

Briefly Looking At Emily Mary Osborn Paintings.

Letter and portrait of Mrs Benjamin Goode were Emily’s first exhibited works at the Royal Academy in 1851. And in the following years, she exhibited at the British Institution. Over the next three years, she submitted four poetical subjects to exhibitions: three of them were illustrations and depicted female figures; the fourth was a mood picture based on the poetry of E. Haydon Osborn. Mr. C.J Mitchell purchased Pickles and Preserves in an exhibition in 1854, as an encouragement for the artist to continue. 

One of the finest artworks widely known is Nameless and Friendless, which depicts an impoverished young female artist in a miserable expression to sell her art to a supercilious-looking art dealer, stressing the dramatic situation. The artwork also became an icon of feminist art history. If you look closer at the painting, it consists of subtle references to the plight of the single woman searching for employment, which seems to look in her nervous posture of standing, twisting her ringless fingers as the dealer casts a judgemental eye over her work. There is a presence of drama and stress when all the men scrutinise her painting, and two men standing behind her appear to compare her with the short-skirt and bar-legged dancer in the print they examine. The woman depicted in this painting is driven to exploit meagre skills acquired in girlhood, learned specifically to enhance her femininity and to pursue unfeminine activities such as earning her own living. The contemporary critics call this picture a canvas of an unfortunate girl who,

“will doubtless have to retrace her steps through the pitiless rain to try her fortune elsewhere, and, not improbably, be compelled at last to leave her work in the hands of some pawn-broker for the advance of a small sum of money to support herself and her brother.”

Nameless and Friendless by Emily Mary Osborn

Emily proved herself to be a successful artist, winning wealthy commissions from patrons, and even selling her pictures to the Queen Victoria (My Cottage Door, 1855 and The Governess, 1860). Her artwork, The Governess, notes to have appreciation in words, 

“rare power, the production of a comprehensive mind manifesting a thorough knowledge of the capabilities of the Art.”

Emily Mary Osborn Paintings The Governess

The artworks of Emily reflect a predilection for female subjects depicted in sadness, misery, and suffering, as in the works of other British women artists. In the painting, For the Last Time, two girls are mourning and trying to gather the courage to enter a room where a parent or guardian lies dead. There is a kind of distress through the black mourning dress and tense facial expressions, but a symbol of courage through the clutching of one hand. The colours chosen by the artist showcase the luxury and royalty of the palace where these two girls live. 

Emily Mary Osborn Paintings For the Last Time

In God’s Acre painting, two young girls struggle across a snow-covered graveyard to place an ivy wreath on their parents’ graves in God’s Acre, exhibited in Mr Wallis’s Winter exhibition in Pall Mall, London, in 1886. These two young girls sheltering beneath a large red umbrella have trouble walking in the coldness of death and snow. 

God's Acre Emily Mary Osborn

Another painting, Half the World Knows Not How the Other Half Lives, 1864, deals with the depressing subject of the death of a child in a shoemaker’s attic room. It was the painting for which Emily won first prize for historical painting in oils at the Crystal Palace. 

The artwork, Home Thoughts, 1851, is a gentle-themed work of Mary with a whimsical title, where she showcased a scene of a young girl collected by her mother from the boarding school. Each of the expressions of the faces varies as per their tasks. For instance, the teacher kneeling the place around her shoulders has a gentle and kind emotion with a flow of love; behind the child stands her mother, who seems happy to take her child with herself and a little girl at the corner who may be waiting for her parents to take her away. Perhaps the leftmost child can also be an orphan whose wait for her parents is never-ending.

Home Thoughts Emily Mary Osborn

Other crucial works of the artist are Tough and Tender, Private and Confidential and Slow and Sure.

During the period 1860 to 70, when Emily had an exhibition at the Royal Academy and the Society of British Artists, and she enjoyed extraordinary success. The first painting from this triumph was The Governess, brought by the Queen. The following lines accompany with the title of the artwork, 

“Fair was she and young, but alas! Before her extended

Dreary, vast, and silent, the desert of life, with its pathway

Marked by the graves of those who had sorrowed and suffered before her. 

Sorrow and silence are strong, and patient endurance is godlike.”

The painting tells a true story. There is a claim that those who, in their own experience, may not have glanced at this page of a woman’s life have learned it from the daily journals. In the first terms of these lines, this governess is presented in a sad light, and her path seems to follow the same path, indicated in the continuation. As she stands before her mother’s parents, she portrays all of her vulgarities in an impersonation intended for reprimanding. Ill-bred brats triumph here, sanctioned by their worst-bred parents, who utter their insulting taunts with assured impunity.

The second was The Escape of Lord Nithisdale from Tower in 1716, where she displayed a subject inspired by an extract from the Countess of Nithsdale’s letter to her sister, Lady Mary Herbert, describing how her husband was smuggled out of prison wearing women’s clothing. It reveals the courage and heroism of the Countess, to whom the be gowned Nithsdale clings, afraid and weak. The Art Journal describes, 

“The subject of this picture is a bold one for a lady, and she has treated it with more strength and historical power than usually ascribed to her sex.”

The Escape of Lord Nithisdale from Tower Emily Mary Osborn

Final Words.

Emily Mary Osborn was one of the finest painters who showcased literary subjects, suffered domestic scenes of children and women, and portraits through realism. Few paintings showcase her one-woman show of landscape paintings and unusual pictures of women workers. Throughout her career, she conforms to Victorian notions of womanhood and showed women in a vulnerable position with despair and anxiety.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What was the art style of Emily Mary Osborn?

The art style of the Victorian woman artist, Emily Mary shows realist paintings, falling under the category of genre paintings. The artist portrayed the deep distress and sentimental emotions of the female through her artworks.

What are the famous paintings of Emily Mary Osborn?

Emily enjoyed grand success as an artist, but the two most famous paintings from her gallery are Nameless and Friendless (1857) and For The Last Time.

What kind of art does Emily Osborn paint?

She painted female subjects depicted in sadness, misery, and suffering, as did other British women artists. With a naturalistic approach, she portrayed sentimental emotions very well.

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