Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft

Contributor: Martin Fog Arndal

Location: National Portrait Gallery, London

Description: In 1797, renowned philosopher and author, Mary Wollstonecraft sat for her last portrait made by John Opie, portrait painter to the royal family as well as a number of other influential Britons. Of the different portraits Wollstonecraft would sit for, this one stands out due to its serene expression. Compared to Opie’s first portrait of her in 1790-1, in which Wollstonecraft is holding an open book in her hands, gazing straight into the eyes of the beholder, the latter portrait is radically different. Holding no objects, only bearing the colors of black and white, she lights up against a dark background, gazing to her right. In front of Opie sits not only the feminist depicted in 1790-1, but a mother of one, and pregnant once again. However, the vividness of her eyes, the relaxed shoulders, and the relaxed composition defy the emotional turmoil that had defined the years before her untimely death. Eleven days after giving birth, later that same year Opie depicted her for the last time, Wollstonecraft would pass away.

Upon her return from post-revolutionary France, Wollstonecraft learned of her partner at the time, American businessman Gilbert Imlay’s infidelities. What had begun as a passionate love affair in 1793, leading to clandestine meetups between Paris and Neuilly, had already turned nightmarish by the end of 1795. Upon the birth of their daughter Frances, named after Wollstonecraft’s friend from youth Frances Blood, Imlay lost interest in family life, devoting his time to his business and other female companions. Upon learning of his infidelities, Wollstonecraft tried to commit suicide, and as a reply to her failed attempt, urged her partner to stay. “I shall recover all my energy,” as she wrote to him from Hull on June 13, 1795, “when I am convinced that my exertions will draw us more closely together.” (Wollstonecraft 1798, 135).

Wollstonecraft was in Hull for a specific reason. In response to her attempt at overdosing on laudanum, Imlay procured a trip for her to Scandinavia officially for the sake of her health. In reality, Scandinavia was chosen as a destination because he wanted his partner to gather information about a cargo of silver he had lost. Wollstonecraft, their one-year-old daughter, and a maid, thus traveled toward unfamiliar territory in the summer of 1795. Naming their daughter Frances was by no means coincidental. In honor of her friend from youth, Frances Blood, with whom Wollstonecraft, according to her late husband Godwin, “contracted a friendship so fervent,” that it for years seemed “to have constituted the ruling passion of her mind” (Godwin 1798, 20). The two developed a loving friendship so close, that when Frances late in her pregnancy traveled to Lisbon to meet her husband, Wollstonecraft accompanied her. Unfortunately, during labor Frances died in the arms of her female companion.

Of the different portraits Wollstonecraft sat for, the one by Opie stands out for the depth of the rosiness of her cheeks. In her late Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, written during her stay in Scandinavia, Wollstonecraft reminisces on her old love, writing how “[t]he grave has closed over a dear friend, the friend of my youth.” She continues by writing how “[f]ate has separated me from another, the fire of whose eyes, tempered by infantine tenderness, still warms my breast.” And there, she notices the rosy cheeks of her daughter and how they remind her of Frances: “And, smile not, if I add, that the rosy tint of morning reminds me of a suffusion, which will never more charm my senses, unless it reappears on the cheeks of my child. Her sweet blushes I may yet hide in my bosom, and she is still too young to ask why starts the tear, so near akin to pleasure and pain?” (Wollstonecraft 1989, 271-72). Hidden in her child’s cheeks, reappears a suffusion reminiscent of an old love. Sitting in front of Opie, behind the stoic posture, hidden in the red cheeks are the two female loves of her life: Her baby girl and the friend from youth, the two Frances’, or Fannys as they were called.

Unbeknownst to her, behind the white gown in Opie’s painting, was another baby girl to be named Mary, after her mother. Although Wollstonecraft never got to meet the Mary that would grow into Mary Shelley, the renowned author of Frankenstein, we know her thoughts on the prospect of bringing a small baby girl into the world. During her trip to Scandinavia, Wollstonecraft contemplates the situation of women in light of the failed attempt at securing women’s political rights, a battle spurred by women such as Olympe de Gouges and Marie-Jeanne Phlipon Roland, besides Wollstonecraft herself. Writing from Scandinavia, Wollstonecraft laments the fate of her daughter: “You know that as a female I am particularly attached to her—I feel more than a mother’s fondness and anxiety, when I reflect on the dependent and oppressed state of her sex,” ending the passage by exclaiming “Hapless woman! what a fate is thine!” (Wollstonecraft 1989, 269).

This fate, Wollstonecraft never got to witness. Opie’s painting from 1797 is the only memory of the two together. Sitting in an open white gown showcases symbolically how Wollstonecraft had opened herself to life anew. Washed away were the sorrows and horrors of her life with Imlay, and now married and pregnant, the revolutionary had attached her romantically to a like-minded in William Godwin, a true appraiser of her talents. Unable to ever become the family they had intended, Godwin would hang the picture above their fireplace, so that Mary and Frances, whom he adopted, would never be far from the mother that risked her life to protect them: as children and political subjects.

Date: 1797

Creator: John Opie

Subject: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin

Object type: oil on canvas

Format:  76,8 x 64,1 cm

Media rights National Portrait Gallery, London

Publisher: National Portrait Gallery, London


Godwin, William. Memoirs of the author of A vindication of the rights of woman. By William Godwin. London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1798.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Posthumous Works of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman in Four Volumes, Volume 3. Ed. By William Godwin. London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1798.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Volume 6. Ed. By Janet Todd & Marilyn Butler. London & New York: Routledge, 1989.