Courtesy of the YCBA

In the 18th century, most women were excluded from intellectual life. But three German-British princesses decided they were more than their marriages, and their artistic and scientific interests shaped Enlightenment Europe.

The Yale Center for British Art is displaying “Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World,” a multimedia exhibit on these princesses: Caroline of Ansbach, queen consort to George II; Augusta of Saxe-Gotha married to Prince Frederick of Wales; and Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz, queen consort to George III. All German and raised with Enlightenment ideals, they were married into the Hanover line of the British royal family to preserve Protestantism in the monarchy. They then proceeded to revolutionize Britain (and the world) while they were at it.

As I face the exhibit, Caroline, Augusta and Charlotte guard the entrance in a set of three larger than life-sized portraits. They are stately and statuesque, gilded and gorgeous, adorned with the finest materials available both in Europe and from international trade. All three gaze directly out of the canvas to the viewer, sure of their own power. The vast size and elegance of the portraits demand deference, not only from me, but also from their husbands, portrayed in accompanying busts and smaller portraits. The YCBA cleverly places the kings next to their respective spouses in much smaller scale, so that they appear diminutive. History generally regards the consort as a subsidiary counterpart to the reigning monarch, but this exhibit recognizes the influence that these women held in their own right.

Groomed in the environment of the German Enlightenment, the princesses brought their intellectual interests into the courts and culture of Britain. They advanced literature, science, medicine, music and philanthropy.  The exhibit demonstrates their respective influences through rooms dedicated to the court of each princess and each realm of cultural progress. With an immersive mixture of sound, video, portrait and decorative arts, the exhibit recreates the feelings of these Enlightened courts.

Caroline, queen in 1727, had particular interest in science, music and entertainment. The room dedicated to her court is circumscribed with stern portraits of the leading intellects of the time — Handel, Newton and Clarke among them — immersing the viewer in the social environment of her court. They gaze down upon a display of books and scientific devices of her period, mixing visual with functional arts. As a result of her association with a retinue of leading thinkers, she encouraged the rapid cultural and scientific development of the Enlightenment period in England.

The serious intellectual current is complimented by the theatricality and ceremony of English court. My turn about the gallery is accompanied by the faint tune of a minuet. I find its source in a video projection of two dancers in an ornate hall performing “The Princess’s Passepied,” a dance designed for Queen Caroline. The empty space in front of the screen extends the hall outward, almost inviting the viewer to join in the dance. The couple circles the room with the graceful celerity of ballet dancers and the prim refinement of aristocrats.

The exhibit then transitions into Princess Augusta’s realm. Though she was never a queen, her ties with the monarchy as a dowager princess and mother to a future king granted her a similar level of influence. Here, I noticed that the exhibit placed more emphasis on the globalism of the British imperial monarchy. Augusta’s taste for botany was fed by the entrance of exotic plants from the “new worlds” into Britain, which were depicted in scientific books and images of her gardens.

Though elegant, Charlotte was the most austere of the princesses. She held more steadfastly to strict Protestant values. Charlotte’s reign was also marked by her patronage of music. A serious and accomplished musician herself, Charlotte associated with many prominent, A-list musicians. Among those she introduced to her court, and featured in portrait in the exhibit, were Haydn, Mozart and Christian Bach. To impart a sense of how that court may have sounded, the YCBA provides headphones to listen to the tunes and sonatas Charlotte would have enjoyed within her estate.

I commend the YCBA for acknowledging these women, who exerted more influence than society would have typically allowed. What impresses me most, though, is the YCBA’s determination to highlight rather than obscure the roles Caroline, Augusta and Charlotte played in sustaining the imperialist exploitation in Asia, Africa and the Americas. The exhibit contains decorative arts inspired by Chinese porcelain and motifs and luxurious damask silks dyed with American indigo. The exhibit recognizes the violence, exploitation, and slavery used to obtain them, just for the sake of luxury. A sculpture by contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare, “Mrs. Pinckney and the Emancipated Bird of South Carolina” (2017) is a striking criticism of the abuses of European trade. A female mannequin, whose head has been replaced by an open bird cage, wearing a European gown of rich American textiles, perches precariously atop a globe. She represents the abuse, control and vanity of European trade while the freed birds around her allude to impending liberation. The choice to include a modern artist diverges from the aesthetic of the exhibit and imposes modern criticism on this era of history.

I leave the exhibit with reflections on female agency and imperialist exploitation doing a passepied in my head. The princesses were stylish and accomplished, but also complicit and indifferent. Those three grand portraits of Caroline, Augusta and Charlotte see me out. They follow me with their steady gazes, holding their ranks, keeping watch on their legacies.

Contact Savannah DiGiovanni at savannah.digiovanni@yale.edu .