After examining some paintings by the artist Angelica Kauffman (an eighteenth century artist often associated with "conservatism" and "prudery") I was struck by the interesting mix of sexuality and modesty in many of her female studies.
Far from appearing contradictory, the paintings suggested that Kauffman, like many of her female contemporaries, was attempting to reconcile female sexuality with female virtue. In the eighteenth century, the subject of female sexuality was highly fraught. Following a series of medical discoveries, the notion of the female body was rapidly and dramatically altering- prompting renewed anxiety towards female sexuality, consequently alienating it from female virtue. The "crisis" was almost certainly germinated by the pornographic representation of Marie Antoinette in The Libelles, which fuelled feelings of animosity, not only towards openly sexual women, but even publicly active women. Arguably, the crisis was to last for over a century.
My current research explores the problem of female sexuality in the eighteenth century and the ways in which female writers attempted to confront and challenge it. Most particularly, it compares the novels of the domesticated, mother-of-twelve, Charlotte Smith, with the highly-sexualized actress and mistress to the future King of England, Mary Robinson.
Above: Angelica Kauffman, Zeuxis Selecting a Model for His Painting of Helen of Troy)
Below: Drawing of Marie Antoinette on her way to scaffold. Anon.