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The Politics and Poetics of Sisterhood: Anna Mary Howitt's The Sisters in  Art | Semantic ScholarAnna Mary Howitt (married name Anna Mary Watts, 15 January 1824 – 23 July 1884) was an English Pre-Raphaelite painter, writer, feminist and spiritualist. Following a health crisis in 1856, she ceased exhibiting professionally and became a pioneering drawing medium. It is likely the term "automatic drawing" originated with her.[1]

Writing of the friendships of these years, Howitt used the terms ‘sister’ and ‘sisterhood’. An Art Student in Munich (a volume of recollections from her visit to Munich) cast Leigh Smith (Barbara Bodichon) as Justina, ‘my beloved friend out of England, the sister of my heart’. The book narrates an intense relationship between two women painters, whose proximity is conveyed in the descriptions of their rooms, dedicated to painting and to living, neither exclusively workspace nor domestic interior: ‘there stood two sister easels, and a sister painting-blouse hung on each: the casts, the books, the green jug with flowers’. An earlier novella, Sisters in Art, tells the story of three women artists, Alice, Esther and Lizzie, who starts life as a tailor’s daughter. The three live together, ‘beloved sisters in friendship and art’, and eventually open an art academy for women. When Alice is engaged to be married, Esther and Lizzie ‘remain together teaching and working – sisters in love and unity – as Sisters in Art’.

Anna Mary Howitt was born in Nottingham as the eldest surviving child of the Quaker writers and publishers William Howitt (1792–1879) and Mary Botham (1799–1888), but spent much of her childhood in Esher. The family moved to Heidelberg when Howitt was a teenager, as they felt Germany offered better educational options.[2] Howitt showed early talent and entered Henry Sass's Art Academy in London in 1846, where her contemporaries included William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Eliza 'Tottie' Fox and Thomas Woolner.[3] In 1847 she illustrated her mother's book The Children's Year.[4] In 1850 Howitt accompanied her fellow artist Jane Benham to Munich, where she studied under Wilhelm von Kaulbach. She began to publish articles about the city that were later collected into An Art-Student in Munich (1853), and appeared as serialised stories with her own illustrations in the Illustrated Magazine of Art (1853–1854).[3] On An Art-Student in Munich, The New York Times (11 May 1854) wrote, "All that is peculiar to Munich, – its museums, galleries, festivals, and works of art, – or to German life, whether in high or low degree, and still more to the cultivation of the artist, is told in these pages with a beautiful earnestness and a naive simplicity, that have a talismanic effect upon the reader. It is one of those sunny works which leave a luminous trail behind them in the reader's memory."[5] Howitt was under twin influences at this stage in life, being "connected on the one hand with the social and publishing circles of her parents, the hard-working pillars of the London literary establishment, and on the other hand with a group of forward-looking, feminist women of her own age."[6] The younger group of her associates consisted of the Langham Place feminists, notably her close friend the artist Barbara Leigh Smith: they joined Rossetti's Folio Club. Howitt made her exhibition debut at the National Institution of Fine Arts in 1854 with a painting inspired by Goethe's Faust. Her painting The Castaway (Royal Academy, 1855) was unusual in showing a woman who has sunk into prostitution. In 1856 she helped Leigh Smith to collect signatures for a petition that would lead to the Married Women's Property Act 1870.[7] Family accounts record her distress over criticism from John Ruskin of her ambitious painting of Boadicea, which was also rejected by the Royal Academy. This may have contributed to her retreat from the professional art world, but her own account, published under a pseudonym in Camilla Dufour Crosland's Light in the Valley: My Experiences of Spiritualism(1857), suggests a neurological event, perhaps the onset of frontal lobe epilepsy.

In 1859, Howitt married a childhood friend and fellow spiritualist, Alaric Alfred Watts. The couple later moved to Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, a few doors from Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Howitt continued to publish regularly, most often in the spiritualist press. With her husband she co-authored Aurora: a Volume of Verse (1884). Her Pioneers of the Spiritual Reformation (1883) consisted of biographical sketches of the German poet Justinus Kerner and of her father William Howitt. She remained close to her brother, Alfred William Howitt, who had emigrated to Australia, where he became an explorer and pioneering anthropologist. Acting as his de facto agent in England, she secured equipment, vetted texts, and maintained academic ties on his behalf.[8] Though the whereabouts of her surviving oil paintings were still not known in 2019, a large number of Howitt's "spirit drawings" — images originated without her conscious control — remain in the archives of the Society for Psychical Research at Cambridge University Library and the College of Psychic Studies in London. Howitt was an inspiration to the artist medium Georgiana Houghton. With the expanding public interest in spirit-driven artists such as Emma Kunz and Hilma af Klint, Howitt's drawings are receiving greater academic attention. Howitt's family was acquainted with the novelist Charles Dickens, who offered critical commentary on her writing.[9] Anna Mary Watts died of diphtheria in 1884 at Mair am Hof in Teodone (Brunico), during a visit to her mother in Tyrol (since 1919 part of Italy).[3]


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