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Sleep, Sickness, and Spirituality

Kimberly Hereford. "Sleep, Sickness, and Spirituality: Altered States and Victorian Visions of Femininity in British and American Art, 1850-1915." Dissertation, University of Washington, 2015.
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This dissertation examines representations in art of the Victorian woman in “altered states.” Though characterized in Victorian art in a number of ways, women are most commonly stereotyped as physically listless and mentally vacuous. The images examined show the Victorian female in a languid and at times reclining or supine pose in these representations. In addition, her demeanor implies both emotional and physical depletion, and there is both a pronounced abandonment of the physical and a collapsing effect, as if all mental faculties are withdrawing inward. Each chapter is dedicated to examining one of these distinct but interrelated types of femininity that flourished throughout British and American art from c. 1850 to c. 1910. The chapters for this dissertation are organized sequentially to demonstrate a selected progression of various states of consciousness, from the most obvious (the sleeping woman) to the more nuanced (the female Aesthete and the female medium). In each chapter, there is the visual perception of the Victorian woman as having access to otherworldly conditions of one form or another. In this compelling strand of imagery, the Victorian woman is depicted in a variety of altered states of consciousness. For the first time, this pervasive representation of Victorian femininity is linked to the period’s medical and cultural discourse. New analysis reveals that these depictions were part of a much greater cultural and artistic fixation that emerged in several forms and originated, in many ways, from within the scientific and medical communities at large. Accordingly, focus is given to the complex interplay between medical “fact” and pictorial interpretation or outright fiction. In addition, a portion of this dissertation delves into the representation of the female Aesthete both in fine art and popular culture. The final chapter contextualizes the female medium within the Spiritualist movement.

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