mages of beautiful women became a common feature of nineteenth-century American print culture. Such images appeared in art prints, books and magazines, sheet music covers, and advertising. This proliferation of images encouraged Americans to prefer certain types of female beauty over others and helped accustom them to the idea of finding pleasure in looking at images of idealized women.

The American artists who depicted feminine beauty based their ideas on European artistic standards, resulting in a proliferation of what we can see were generic representations of ideal womanhood.  Myriad popular representations of beautiful women associated this model of feminine appearance with other highly valued womanly traits advocated in textual media. As George Washington Burnap commented in 1848, “[t]he mission of women is … a mission of humanity, gentleness, tenderness, generosity, love.” 1 Another writer explained that it was part of women’s “destiny” that “kindness and gentleness are or ought to be her province” and the home “her especial refuge.” 2  Artists often depicted young women as objects of beauty who exhibited exactly these kinds of traits.

Artists also frequently depicted women in domestic or parlor settings, reinforcing the ways in which authors and lecturers exhorted women to restrict their activities to the domestic sphere. According to Margaret Fuller, these authors were usually men. Fuller wrote that women’s training began when they were “little girls,” a time when they learned what would be expected of them when they grew up to be wives and mothers. Girls were taught to carry out “the lighter family duties” and were educated by only “limited acquaintance with the realm of literature and science,” just enough so that they might some day “superintend the instruction of children in their earliest years.” 3

In the training of a young, middle-class woman, Fuller continued:


It is not generally proposed that she should be sufficiently instructed and developed to understand the pursuits or aims of her husband; she is not to be a help-meet to him in the way of companionship and counsel, except in the care of his house and children. Her youth is to be passed partly in learning to keep house and the use of the needle, partly in the social circle, where her manners may be formed, ornamental accomplishments perfected and displayed, and the husband found who shall give her the domestic sphere for which she is to be exclusively prepared.4

American prints of women often reflected these kinds of widely held beliefs about women’s nature and helped illustrate, in pictorial form, the limitations that should define their role in American society. Such images reinforced prevailing ideas about women’s inferiority and limited usefulness in the world.  


The images on this page, taken from sheet music covers, are all good examples of how artists constructed a visual image of ideal womanhood. Click any image to enlarge:

The Fair of Our Own Native Land. Endicott, 1841. 36 x 25.5 cm
Pride Scottisch.
Sarony & Major,1867. 32 x 23 cm
La Gracieuse.
Napoleon Sarony, 1850. 34 x 26 cm
The Sweet Girls of Erin. c. 1840-1850. 33 x 25 cm



1. Burnap, George Washington. The Sphere and Duties of Woman: A Course of Lectures. Baltimore, Md.: John Murphy (1848), pp. 53.

2. Dickinson, Eve. “Woman,” in The Ladies’ Repository: A Monthly Periodical Devoted to Literature and Religion 23:4 (April 1866), pp. 234–235.

3. Ossoli, Margaret Fuller. “Wrongs and Duties of American Women,” in Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Kindred Papers Relating to the Condition and Duties, of Women. Boston: John P. Jewett and Company (1855), pp. 217–227, 218.

4. Ossoli, “Wrongs and Duties of American Women,” pp. 218.


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