Courtship in American Genre Painting

Courtship was a popular theme of American genre painting and prints in the 19th century. Artists created these paintings when technological, economic, social, or political change were redefining social class and status. Quickly changing social class expectations made courtship a challenge. In these depictions of courtship, codes of urban, genteel behavior were contrasted with the behavior of the country rustic. A young woman choosing between two suitors was popular in theatrical comedies as well.

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Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride (1830) by William Sidney Mount
Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride (1830)

Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride (1830) by William Sidney Mount (1807–1868) depicts a crowd of more than twenty men and seven young women. The focus is on two couples. The fashionably dressed woman in red is dancing with a country bumpkin with untied shoe laces and a loose cravat.  On the other hand, the woman in white is courted by a stylish man in a black suit and starched color.
The black fiddler and man with the bellows (far left) are depicted in a stereotypical manner of the era that symbolized their low social status.

The Sportman’s Last Visit (1835) by William Sidney Mount
The Sportman’s Last Visit (1835)

In The Sportman’s Last Visit (1835) by William Sidney Mount, a demure young woman, in a fashionable white dress is courted by two men in a simply furnished rural home.  The man on the left represents the stylish, urban man – with a high collar, black trousers and a frock coat. On the right is the country sportsman, with his powder horn and hunting equipment. He has arrived to court the girl also, but there is no chair for him, and he seems confused about the proper rules of etiquette.

The City and the Country Beaux (1840) by Francis William Edmonds
The City and the Country Beaux (1840)

In The City and the Country Beaux (1840) by Francis William Edmonds (1806 –1863) the subjects of the painting are more exaggerated. The city gentleman in the black suit bows to his country rival with his hat in his hand and a pretentious monocle in the other. His country rival is dressed in loud and rumpled striped trousers and shows a lack of manners by wearing his hat indoors and smoking a cigar. Both men are overdressed, the city suitor is too elegant for the occasion, the country suitor is clearly a newcomer to fashion and aspiring to enter the middle class.

From Elizabeth Johns, American Genre Painting, The Politics of Everyday Life. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1991.


Dance Card Etiquette, 1858
Dance Card Etiquette, 1858

In this cartoon from Harper’s Weekly, October 9, 1858, the young woman pretends that she has made a mistake on her dance card so that she could refuse the short, less attractive suitor. Dance cards were small booklets used by women at formal dances to record the names of men who had asked for dances during the evening. According to the rules to the rules of etiquette, if a man ask properly for a dance, a woman would have been rude to refuse.

Two Suitors (c. 1913) by Charles Dana Gibson
Two Suitors (c. 1913) by Charles Dana Gibson

The Gibson Girl represented the ideal woman in the late 19th and early 20th century. This “New Woman” was described as independent, well-educated, and athletic. Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) created numerous depictions of Gibson girls that often provided somewhat satirical commentary on the social customs of the time. In this image, the girl must choose between two suitors. The mother’s pose suggests that the short, unattractive man on the right is the best choice, because of his wealth. For more on the Gibson Girl, see the Library of Congress exhibition “The Gibson Girl’s America


Visiting Cards

The calling card, or visiting card, was required for upper and striving middle class people who wanted to be included in respectable middle and upper class society. The calling card was left at homes or sent to individuals for various social purposes and many complicated rules governed its use.

For more images, information and ideas about visiting cards – click here.

Visiting Cards, 1909. Complicated rules of etiquette governed the appearance and use of visiting cards. The black border on the card on the bottom left indicated that the person was in mourning due to the death of a family member.
Courtesy of Eastern Kentucky University Special Collections and Archives, Richmond, KY.


About the header image: Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms: Guide to Correct Writing by Thomas E. HIll, 1875.