A Picture of Shyness?


The Shy Sitter, William Henry Hunt (1790-1864)

As this is my first post, I thought I’d start off by introducing readers to the image I’ve chosen as the cover or logo for the blog: The Shy Sitter, by the British pre-Raphaelite artist William Henry Hunt (1790-1864). Unsurprisingly, it was the title of this watercolour, currently held at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston, which first caught my eye: here was a pictorial representation of the very emotion my research project was seeking to explore. But things became more complicated when, on doing some preliminary research into the painting, I realised that the work hasn’t always been called The Shy Sitter, in fact, and has, on at least one occasion, gone under the name The Country Girl (a not uninteresting re-emphasis I’ll discuss further on). Is this a picture of shyness, then, or isn’t it? In fact, would it even occur to us that this young girl was particularly shy if we hadn’t been told so by the title?

Signs of Shyness

There are some visual clues, I think, that a viewer might pick up on: the red blush on the girl’s cheeks, this being one of the key physiological manifestations of timidity as discussed in nineteenth-century medical treatises (and by Darwin), and still something of a mystery today;[1] the indirect, three-quarter pose, suggesting a certain reluctance to meet the painter’s, and our, gaze head-on (a shying away); and, in relation to this, a sombre expression which might imply some level of fear on the part of the subject (shyness is often defined as a fear of social interaction).[2] But without the initial diagnosis indicated in the principal title, it would be hard to draw conclusions from such diffuse ‘symptoms’ (this being one of the difficulties of talking about emotions at all, in fact – do they have a clearly demarcated existence independent of language, or do they amount to rough labels that cultures have developed to get a purchase on the complexity of human subjectivity?).[3] We can’t know if the girl sitter was really feeling shy – whether this was something she might have articulated to herself or, if not, whether she was experiencing a number of physiological and psychological phenomena that moralists or medics of the day would have identified as shyness. But what the title does indicate is that since its creation – most likely in the 1840s – it has been thought pertinent and, moreover, appealing to talk about this painting in terms of shyness (a title being a way to clarify something of the spirit of a work, but also draw people to it).

Critical Contradictions

The reasons for this response interest me because it draws out some of the contradictions and tensions within the nineteenth-century discourse on shyness. Certain nineteenth-century moral guides condemned shyness as an emotion implying an excessive, egotistical concern with the self which it was important to rid individuals of from a young age. But late nineteenth-century works of psychology thought shyness was only ever a problem for men: timidity was understandable (necessary, even) in children, and synonymous with ‘innate’ sexual modesty for women. When we consider this portrait’s alternative title, The Country Girl, we can see, by a process of association, that shyness is acceptable and attractive when it is synonymous with feminine virtue and a simple, rural way of life far-removed from the cut-throat Victorian city – where timid sorts won’t survive for long. The art critic John Ruskin alludes to this when, in a catalogue accompanying a posthumous exhibition of Hunt’s work at the Fine Art Society’s Galleries in London in 1879, he discusses The Shy Sitter (with this title) alongside The Fisher-Man’s Boy and The Blessing:

‘The strength of all lovely human life is in them; and England herself lives only, at this hour, in so much as, from all that is sunk in the luxury – sick in the penury – and polluted in the sin of her great cities, Heaven has yet hidden for her, old men and children such as these, by their fifties in the fields, and on her shores, and fed them with Bread and Water.’ (p.90)

For Ruskin, then, The Shy Sitter is symbolic: a portrait of a threatened morality and an endangered England embodied in the virtuous poor who alone can redeem the nation. While he may be forcing a sentimental social agenda onto Hunt’s work (as the art historian Tom Jones argues),[4] his lyricism nonetheless suggests that shyness is associated, for Ruskin, with a pre-industrial age of innocence: an interesting contrast to another possible narrative of shyness which postulates that it is in fact a modern emotion brought about by the ‘civilising process’ (Norbert Elias) and the growth of politeness and self-control. Which of these narratives, if either, was the most prevalent in the nineteenth century is what I hope my research will uncover.

Changing Contexts

The final point of interest in relation to this portrait is the nature of the adjectival ‘shy’. Medical debate in late nineteenth-century France, for example, distinguished between the fleeting attack of timidity and the chronic state of timidity (which frequent experiences of the former would often result in). Again, we can’t attempt to work out whether the real girl this portrait depicts was temperamentally or temporarily shy, but what the painting makes me think about is the relationship between cultural and technological shifts and the new forms of shyness these might have created or reconfigured. We have talked about being ‘camera-shy’ in English since the early twentieth century (OED, 3rd edition): a form of social discomfort triggered or exacerbated by the use of the camera. Might the democratisation of the portrait in the nineteenth century – or the growth of realism and painterly interest in rural communities – have created new contexts for shyness for those uncomfortable with, or unused to, the intensity of focus on the self these representational practices entail (being ‘canvas-shy’, or something like that)? Again, these are questions which I hope my research will go some way to answering.

[1] E.g. The Psychological Significance of the Blush, edited by W. Ray Crozier and Peter J. de Jong (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Crozier has suggested, however, that blushing is associated more with embarrassment than shyness.

[2] Shy, Germanic in origin (unlike timidity which is Latin), originally meant to be ‘easily frightened or startled’. It was most frequently applied to animals, before being extended to humans; see an interesting discussion in The Tablet by John Morrish (‘Awkward moments’, 28 May 2015). My next blog post will explore the semantics of shyness in greater detail.

[3] Questions discussed in e.g. Tiffany Watt-Smith’s The Book of Human Emotions (London: Profile Books, 2015) and Jan Plamper, The History of Emotions: An Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2015).

[4] In William Henry Hunt, 1790-1864 (Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 1981).



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