Cultural changes experienced throughout the Industrial Revolution in Europe had a tremendous impact on the portrayal of women in art. Before this revolution, women were often defined by their household roles, allowed to claim no legal rights or identity apart from their husbands. Women typically remained at home to bear and nurture children, while the men provided for the family monetarily. During the late 19th century, this dependency and inferiority transitioned into “a gradual emergence of women into more fulfilling lives that allowed them to play larger roles in society” (Eskilson, 72).
Art Nouveau was a new artistic style that emerged synchronistically with this new culture throughout the Industrial Revolution. Heavily influenced by the Japanese, where eroticism and the rise of popular theater were promoted, European graphic designers strayed away from traditional depictions of women. One example of this shifting divergence from more conservative artworks is Privat Livemont’s Absinth Robette. Completed in 1896, Livefont masterfully blends the old and new styles of fine art and graphic design to create a captivating ad for Absinthe. He uses fine art modalities with an emblematic womanly figure, draped in a sheer cloth standing against a backdrop of dreamy, soft, warm tones. Livemont then pairs this illustration with organic and striking graphic design characters to conjure a “powerful sexual fantasy” (Eskilson, 65). The sexual overtones that this image embodies deviates from the reserved and constrained women of the past and invites the viewer to witness a new reality of the independent woman.
Similarly, designers like Alphonse Mucha began to illustrate the “lives and leisure time of young women” (Eskilson, 72) with more sexual and provocative qualities. Alphonse’s ‘Waverley Cycles’ poster (1898) of a woman on a bicycle is a quintessential example of empowered women as “the modern bicycle became emblematic of women’s newfound freedom and ability to assert themselves as active members in American society” (Eskilson, 72). The woman, whose pale skin glows against a vibrant red background confidently leans over her bicycle and rests her arm next to a hand tool. Pairing these feminine features with these more ‘industrial-linked’ items, Mucha captures a moment in the everyday life of a sensual and self-determined woman.
The illustrations of women, throughout the Industrial Revolution, like the ones created by Livefont and Mucha, not only captured the essence of their new lifestyles, but assisted and encouraged the culture of equality that changed the history of gender roles.