IN THE TRADITION OF WOMEN ARTISTS
By Jeanne Stump – University of Kansas
Everyone interested in the history of art has become more aware of the myriad difficulties experienced by women who sought to establish themselves as artists in years gone by. These diverse and extensive problems have been explored and documented in convincing detail in a number of recent articles, books, and exhibitions. No comprehensive discussion is possible or intended here, but some mulling over of various predicaments which made life hard for women artists seems apropos.
One situation which caused distress was the inability of some male artists to treat as equals the female artists which whom they were associated. A case in point is the story of Edouard Manet’s brash repainting of a Berthe Morisot picture about which she had asked advice. He pounced upon the canvas with an improving brush, laughing uproariously; she stood by in anguish, unable to assert herself in protest. One can only imagine what kind of a fracas would have ensued if it had been Edgar Degas who’s painting Manet treated in this fashion! Degas, incidentally, can also be cited for his comments in regard to Mary Cassatt. While he admired her work enormously, he could not refrain from making highly insulting remarks such as, “I do not admit that a woman can draw like that,” or (explaining the studies he made of Cassatt Strolling in the Louvre) that “he wished to show woman’s crushed respect and absence of all feeling in the presence of art.”
Another kind of social rejection was recorded by Cecilia Beaux in her autobiography; she indicated the vague suspicion with which women artists have sometimes been viewed. While studying in France at the end of the last century, Beaux went to Concarneau in Brittany for summer sketching. Breton peasants were accustomed to serving as models for the artists who flocked to the area, and Beaux sought to hire a young Breton girl to sit for her. Accompanied by a female friend, the artist properly requested permission from the girl’s parents. She was coldly and stonily refused: “we turned away humiliated by the consciousness that we were in some way suspect.” Disappointed and unable to understand the precise reason for this rejection, Beaux sportingly accepted it as an entertaining incident, and resigned herself to having an American acquaintance pose for her.
A raffish, don’t-care attitude has been more or less expected of male artists. A studio bordering on squalor, an indulgence in drunken revelry, or a notorious love life never seemed to impair a male artist’s reputation. But women were always expected to maintain an appearance of respectability. (Thus women artists could scarcely risk appearing at the raucous cafe meetings which played an important role in the formation of various art movements in Paris in the nineteenth century). When poverty was added to the need for gentility, the student years could become particularly miserable. Apparently a matter of pressing concern was that of finding decent housing. Thus we discover that in 1878 in Rome, a Miss Mayor, aware of the needs of young Englishwomen studying in Italy, opened a “Home for Lady Artists” at 38 Via degli Artisti, where the young hopefuls were “received on the lowest terms possible to be remunerative.” The women (referred to an “inmates”) could become part of a community which fulfilled a supportive role, providing friendships and “good introductions” as well as summer excursions to sites of Italian art.
Women in the American colony in Paris responded to the same needs when they founded a similar instituteion in 1893 at 4 rue de Chevreuse, near the Ecole des Beaux-ARts and the Luxemourg garden. A library, reading room, and gallery for showing works were included.
At times, women’s biological and social functions have produced virtually insurmountable difficulties in achieving fulfillment as artists. These range from the merely harrowing (exhausting household work, nursing the sick) to the tragic (the blotting out of the promising careers of Eva Gonzales, May Alcott Nieriker, and Paula Modersohn-Becker, each of whom died after giving birth). Those artists which large families to tend, such as Rachel Ruysch and her ten children, appear heroic. The traditional belief in the weakness of women – in body, if not mind and spirit too – was a strong barrier to her acceptance in the art world. Thus Arthur Edwin Bye could write in 1918:
Why this emphasis upon masculine strength and virility in seeking a definition for a great artist? Because the production of a work of art demands these things. Painting is the hardest kind of work. Even an ordinary painting – a sketch, not a masterpiece – demands of an artist whole-souled concentration for the time being.
This is the same Mr. Bye who insisted that creating children must be the woman’s greatest aspiration, that a woman loses her life in her children; he thus explained why women can never be great painters.
Rather than dwelling on such complex social, psychological, and physical problems, we might consider a relatively simpler one, that of the question of getting women’s art exhibited. Finding themselves frequently excluded from groups of male artists, as well as from various kinds of exhibitions, women in France in 1881 formed the Union des Femmes peintres et sculpteuses. By checking the journals of the time, one finds that their exhibitions grew steadily. In their tenth annual exhibition, held at the Palais des Champs-Elysees, there were 830 entries. A reviewer found a good word to say for the “interessantes physionomies d’enfants” which were displayed, but he felt that in the main there was a disturbing lack of originality.
It appears that there were small group exhibitions at the end of the century which were dominated by women, but not labeled as shows of “women’s art,” perhaps in order to receive unprejudiced treatment. One suspects this was the case in the exhibition called “Le Petit Salon,” opening at the gallery of the Theatre d’Application in Paris in December, 1890. It included four women – Mesdames Berria-Blanc, Louise Breslau, Delance-Feurgard, and Guerard-Gonzales- and one man – E. Ferdinand Polack. Madame Guerard-Gonzales was given special praise by a critic writing for Voltaire, who felt that she showed a notable acuity of vision, and possessed a style which could be considered as that of an “impressionistic Chardin.” In spite of his seeming preference for her household subjects, and his mention of her “womanly delicacy of soul,” this was lavish praise. (Her painting is virtually unknown today.) An abundance of critical opinion has been written about art produced by women (published chiefly by male critics) which reveals stereotyped thinking and a reluctance to give the artist her due. As recently as 1960 the French correspondent to Art News wrote condescendingly about what he believed was Mary Sassatt’s hopeless dependence on Degas. He stated that Degas had transmitted to her his “integrity, a professional competence, a firmness of line and decisiveness of composition.” This statement was follwed by: “She is like a healthy co-ed who has been asked to play singles by the college tennis champion, there is something strained (at times, one thinks of Valadon) about her brave effort.”
Humor has frequently been called upon to put women artists in their places. Jokes and anecdotes related in popular publications have implied that women should not bother their heads about being artists. To cite one example: the plight of a young woman artists “from the South” was described. She brought her works to show to a dealer. He didn’t seem to find them very interesting; she protested that he was not looking at her paintings. His insensitive reply was “I tried that. I’d rather look at you.”
Museums have not been guiltless in their treatment of aspirations of women, either. When the Rochester Memorial Art Gallery and the Rochester Art Club arranged a nostalgic exhibition to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Club, a “humorous” feature was the re-creation of a Lady Artist’s Studio, all feathers and furbelows, where presumably no real art could ever be made. A fine photograph of this effort was published in American Artist in January, 1953 issue with the comment, however, that the ladies had now “monopoly on this kind of artiness.”
Today the problems appear to be diminishing, as many of the attitude discussed here are being broken down. Certainly no one feels that the issues of the past should be dwelt upon as alibis. Women are actively seeking ways to support one another in the precarious ambiance of the art world, but probably the cardinal need is for the artist to find resources within herself. Stories of women who drew upon their inner stamina to confront difficult circumstances arae numerous; they are part of the tradition of women artists. One instance might be the reaction of Lady Kennet (born Kathleen Bruce) a British artist with many significant sculpture commissions in the years between World Wars I and II, largely forgotten today. In 1901 she was a naive, gently-reared art student in Paris, suddenly thrust into a life-drawing studio. At the end of the studio passed one by one a string of nude, male models. Each jumped for a moment on to the model throne, took a pose, and jumped down. The model for the week was being chosen. “Before reason could control instinct I turned and fled, shut myself into the Lavatory and was sick.”
Then she scolded herself, summoned up her courage, refused to quit. She returned to the studio, and found that it “took a very short time for me too to bast an appraising eye over a model, as critically as a pianist running his fingers over the piaano upon which he his about to play.”
Grace Hartigan has made interesting statements about her refusal to become a “victim” during her career, and about the importance of making deliberate choices. “But the moves that I have made in my life have been ones that I have wanted and I don’t feel that I have been Coerced.” Louise Nevelson is famous for her courageous outlook, for her refusal to be ignored, and for her confrontation of the establishment.
Finally, one might cite an often quoted, classic expression of the spirit of assertiveness from Georgia O’Keeffe. It appeared in the catalogue for her first large exhibition at New York’s Anderson Galleries in 1923:
I grew up pretty much as everybody else grows up and one day seven years ago found myself saying to myself – I can’t live where I want to – I can’t go where I want to – I can’t do what I want to – I can’t even say what I want to. I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint what I wanted to and say wanted to when I painted…