This frontispiece was one of three commissioned by the writer Margaret Cavendish, Marchioness (later Duchess) of Newcastle, from the artist Abraham van Diepenbeeck in the 1650s. The different engravings appear separately in volumes printed during Cavendish’s lifetime, under her own supervision.
In the 17th century women faced many obstacles to writing and publishing their own work. It was considered immoral and indecent for women to print their writing, because it was believed to expose the author’s person, as well as her work, to an anonymous public audience. Cavendish sought to overcome this prejudice by creating an authorial persona above reproach, emphasising throughout her career her aristocratic status and literary credentials to her readers.
This engraving depicts Cavendish as a classical statue. She is at the centre of the picture, raised high on a pedestal, and is flanked by statues of Apollo and Athena. Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of music, poetry, art, oracles and knowledge, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, are important companions for Cavendish. Their presence implies that she is the natural successor to the great poets of antiquity, such as Ovid and Virgil. Through the association with classical gods and classical literature, Cavendish attempted to establish a literary precedent for her work.
Sartorial status symbols
As well as placing Cavendish within the classical tradition, the portrait emphasises her noble status. She has a crown placed at the back of her head, and is wearing an ermine-lined robe. These are symbols of her aristocratic position: ermine was the traditional trimming of royalty, and the crown indicates that she is of the highest nobility. With a hand on her hip and her gaze directed out towards the viewer, Cavendish's pose exudes confidence. This stance was often used in portraits of male royalty and other important, high-ranking men. In this context, Cavendish’s nobility acts as a safeguard and a legitimising force for her writing.