In January 1874, a governess and private tutor named Nielsine
Nielsen petitioned the Danish government for a place at the University of
Copenhagen. At that time, no Danish
university admitted female students but public opinion was beginning to favor
greater rights for women. In 1875, a
royal decree from King Christian IX opened Danish universities to women. Nielsine was one of the first two female
students to enroll. She graduated as
Denmark’s first female physician in 1885.
Nielsine planned to specialize in gynecology, but she could
not secure a position at a Danish hospital because the country’s only
gynecologist (F. Howitz) objected to her appointment. Instead, Nielsine opened a private
practice. Eventually, she became a
well-respected physician. In 1906, Nielsine
was named as an expert in sexually transmitted infections by the Copenhagen
Frederic Leighton painted A Boy Defending a Baby from an Eagle in around 1850.
Leighton’s pyramidal composition—baby sleeping at one corner, boy winding up with his sickle at another, and eagle at the pinnacle—makes this dramatic scene even more dynamic. He emphasizes the three corners of the work by the setting. A grassy field implies the infant’s natural innocence; the field stands testament to the boy’s earnest industry; and a threatening sky full of storm clouds frames the equally wild eagle.
Despite the emphasis on nature, the painting nonetheless betrays a little bit of wider human context. As he often does, Leighton sets this painting in the past. The boy, is dressed in an eighteenth-century coat and short pants, his tricorne cast off beside the little picnic in the grass.