Study for the "Emily Dickinson Plate" for "The Dinner Party" installation, 1979
This plate by Judy Chicago is one of dozens of “studies” the artist produced in creating her monumental Dinner Party (1974–1979, in the Brooklyn Museum), an icon of feminist art. The largest of The Dinner Party’s many components is a triangular table with place settings for thirty-nine historically important women, including Egyptian ruler Hatshepsut, medieval queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and poet (and Amherst native) Emily Dickinson. As this study suggests, the plate designs typically feature vaginal imagery with other details evoking the subject’s personality and the time in which she lived. An excerpt of Dickinson’s poetry suggests the author’s resolve to follow her own artistic vision despite cultural prohibitions. According to Chicago, the lace symbolizes suffocating Victorian values, against which Dickinson’s elegant but powerful poetry cut. The final design of the plate lacks the excerpt but includes an even greater and more tightly ruffled profusion of lace.
Fabricated in the late 1970s, The Dinner Party is a monumental installation conceived by Judy Chicago, and probably one of the most significant works of feminist art. Comprised of a triangular table, it has place settings for 39 women selected for their historical achievements or mythical powers. It spans the ages from prehistory through the twentieth century and includes such luminaries as Hatshepsut, Eleanore of Aquitaine, Artemesia Gentileschi, Sacajawea, Jane Austen, Susan B. Anthony, and Georgia O'Keeffe. Each place setting includes a ceramic plate on which a butterfly form rests. Chicago regards the butterfly as "a symbol of liberation and the yearning to be free."
These two works are preparatory studies for Emily Dickinson's place setting. For Chicago, Dickinson was oppressed by her father, but attained her freedom through her poetry, which "revealed feelings that society had taught women to repress." The pink plate, with its porcelain lace and vulva-shaped center, symbolizes sexual liberation as well.