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Picturing Mary Wollstonecraft

Imagining a female role model.

My inspiration for this digital portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft came from two rich, thought-provoking books.

I reviewed Samantha Silva's novel Love and Fury for Publishers Weekly and loved its prose as well as its theme of mothering and daughters. In Silva's novel, Mary Wollstonecraft is giving birth to her daughter, the future Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, when the midwife suggests that to distract herself during the wait, Wollstonecraft might "sing her daughter" into life. She does so by telling the coming child her life story. The birth goes smoothly but the afterbirth does not, and Wollstonecraft dies of childbed fever shortly thereafter at the age of only 38.

Silva's fictional account made me want to know more, so I moved on to Charlotte Gordon's brilliant Romantic Outlaws, an intertwined biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Here again the connection between the two women, who overlapped only ten days in life, was a key theme. Gordon (whose scrupulous work is belied by the book's rather overdramatic title) depicts the profound ways in her motherlessness affected Mary Shelley, both practically—William Godwin's second wife was not sympathetic to her stepdaughter—and emotionally—Wollstonecraft's legacy was at once inspiring and daunting for her daughter. Celebrating Wollstonecraft's remarkable life as well as her force of character, the books inspired me to craft a digital portrait.

My image builds on John Opie's portrait of Wollstonecraft, which dates approximately to the year of her death and is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. (Opie painted another portrait of her in approximately 1791; it can be seen in the Tate.) Behind her, I layered together some brown digital papers, my cut-and-recombined image of the title page from Wollstonecraft's Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, and a my digitally recolored version of William Blake's frontispiece to Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life. The latter's image of a woman with her arms outspread over young girls as though sheltering them felt perfect for my piece. Very late in the process, I added the red splotches. It felt important, somehow, to reference the blood, death and loss that runs through the women's stories, particularly though not exclusively in relation to childbirth. I didn't want that allusion to overshadow the other elements, so I desaturated the red a bit and used it in a transparent form. —Suzanne Fox


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