A new traveling exhibition highlights the achievements of women artists in 19th-century Paris, while acknowledging their struggles for legitimacy.
In her inaugural address at the opening of the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs in Paris in 1881, Hélène Bertaux, the union’s founder, said, “The woman artist is an ignored, little-understood force, delayed in its rise! A social prejudice of sorts weighs upon her; and yet, every year, the number of women who dedicate themselves to art is swelling with fearsome speed.” At the time of the union’s foundation, women were still barred from the state-sponsored École des Beaux-Arts, and though the academy and the Salon de Paris were slowly losing their once-unyielding grip on the French—and global—art world, it was necessary for women artists to seek alternative means of training and recognition.
As Bertaux noted, in the second half of the 19th century, women—and men—seeking careers as artists flooded Paris. The city of light was also the city of art, where both classical training and avant-garde innovation thrived. In the reverse of what would happen in the event of a sinking ship, not enough room for everyone meant women were left behind, and the lifeboats—academic positions and those in the salons—went to men. Women were often left to band together and create their own opportunities, as with the Union; attend women-only classes; or train in private or artists studios, which were often very costly (training in the École des Beaux-Arts was free). Though these alternative situations allowed women to study, they didn’t always help their work gain acknowledgment—or buyers, for that matter.
Bertaux acknowledged systemic sexism as a “social prejudice of sorts,” which seems like a rather mild way to describe the immense struggles women go through when exerting themselves in any field (let alone art). Inherent sexism has been woven so deeply into the fabric of Western civilization that some of its threads can be difficult to perceive. Others are obvious: Plato, in all his ancient wisdom, thanked the gods that he was born a man and not a woman, a sentiment echoed in the traditional Jewish morning prayer. In Women as Other, the French feminist theorist and existentialist Simone de Beauvoir quotes Aristotle describing women as “female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,” and saying “we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.” St. Thomas Aquinas called woman an “imperfect man” and an “incidental being.”
These notions showed no sign of dissipating in the 19th century. In the typically progressive journal Revue blanche, the writer and painter August Strindberg wrote in 1895, “It is the fate of our age to discover, among other things, that a woman is a scaled-down man, a form whose development was arrested between adolescence and full manhood. This discovery, already anticipated by philosophers from Aristotle to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Schopenhauer, has been confirmed by scientists such as Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Mill, Haeckel, Virchow, Eduard von Hartmann, Friedrich Nietzsche, the craniologist Welcker, the biologist Letourneau, the physiologist Robin, and the anthropologist Topinard. Woman is inferior to man.”
Yet, there was the idea that women were lesser than men, and then there was the law. In post-Revolutionary France, the status of women’s rights regressed with the implementation of the Napoleonic Code. Under the Code, women owed their husband obedience; were prohibited from selling, mortgaging, or buying property; and experienced other restrictions. Though social advances were made, the Code remained in place in France largely unchanged for some 150 years, with women only gaining the right to work without their husbands’ permission in 1965 and men forfeiting the rights that came with the status of head of the family in 1970.
The Code hindered women’s abilities to make decisions for themselves and to live lives outside the home. In the 19th century, it was still taboo for women to be seen in public unaccompanied by a male chaperone. In her journals, published in 1891, three years after her death from tuberculosis at the age of 25, the painter Marie Bashkirtseff wrote, “What I long for is the freedom of going about alone, of coming and going, of sitting on the seats of the Tuileries, and especially in the Luxembourg, of stopping and looking at the artistic shops, of entering churches and museums, of walking about the old streets at night; that’s what I long for; and that’s the freedom without which one cannot become a real artist.” For the movements that emerged in France in the second half of the 19th century, namely Realism and Impressionism, both social and natural observation were essential. Without the ability to move freely in public, women artists were at a disadvantage.
There was another crucial limitation for women artists. In the Academy, the mastery of human anatomy was central to a painter’s training. The Academy’s foremost genre, the one held in the highest regard in France, was history painting, which required accurate depictions of the nude or draped figure. It was deemed improper—even unsafe—for a woman to be in a room with a nude model (even if it were female). On this basis women were not only barred from the Academy, they were refused the ability to study life drawing in private art institutions, which based their curriculum on that of the French Academy. History painting was the most profitable style of painting at the time, and without access to nude models, women artists weren’t able to execute these “important” works. This had a major impact on their careers: entry into official competitions, such as the Prix de Rome, was out of the question, and state commissions and purchases a pipe dream.
Women were left to paint portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes, typically reflecting domestic life and the interior. Marie Bracquemond, a student of the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, observed in 1860 that Ingres “doubted the courage and perseverance of a women in the field of painting…He would assign to them only the painting of flowers, of fruits, of still lifes, portraits and genre scenes.” Without the means to paint gallant scenes of history, myth, and religion, women artists and their work were classified as safe, “feminine,” and resoundingly lesser-than. If a painting by a woman received praise from critics, it likely did so for its “tenderness” or “grace.” A great painting by a woman, should one come into being, managed to be great in the face of an inferior intellect and ability. “When someone says of a work of art, ‘It’s a woman’s painting or sculpture,’ what he means is, ‘it’s a weak painting or a mawkish sculpture,” noted the painter Virginie Demont-Breton in 1896.
Still some said even worse. A little over 100 years before Linda Nochlin asked why there have been no great women artists, Henry Harvard—with a rather different point in mind—observed in 1882, “Women have produced no masterpieces in any genre.” The Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau noted, after the publication of Bashkirtseff’s letters, “The large-scale intrusion of women in the realm of art would be a disaster beyond remedy. What will become of us, when creatures whose minds are as practical and down-to-earth as women’s minds are, when creatures so lacking in the true gifts of the imagination, proffer their horrible artistic common sense, supported by claims?…It’s enough to make you flee from art and everything related to it, never to return again.”
But, remarkably, this period of time wasn’t all bad. The second half of the 19th century was a time of incredibly progress for women artists in Paris. Despite their struggles, there was much gained. In the 1870s, life drawing classes became more readily available to women, and all-women classes were held at Charles Chaplin’s and the private Académie Julian. While the Academy’s stronghold on the art world loosened, and the first avant-garde movements (Realism, Symbolism, Impressionism) and their stars (Courbet, Manet, Monet) gained momentum, Rosa Bonheur received the Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1865; the aforementioned Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs was founded in 1881; and the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was created in 1893. In 1897, as the century gasped its last breathe, the École des Beaux-Arts admitted 10 female students.
“Women Artists in Paris, 1850–1900,” an exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts and curated by Laurence Madeline, opens on October 22 at the Denver Art Museum, where it runs through January 14 before traveling to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., in February and to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., in June. The show features over 80 paintings by 37 artists drawn from prominent international collections. Instead of telling the discouraging story related above, it celebrates the women who studied, made, showed, and lived art in Paris in the 19th century.
Madeline’s early conception for the show came when she was working with a particular museum collection. “Quite a long time ago, I was working at the Musée d’Orsay, and I was wondering about the works by women artists kept in the collection. They were never exhibited,” she says. “Today, women artists have established places in biennials, they win top art prizes, and more and more they are gaining recognition. I wanted to know what the story was for 19th-century women artists.” Madeline acknowledges that this is an important moment for shows revolving around art made by women: “I think that obviously everybody is wondering about the situation of women, not just women artists but women in general—how women can create, work, live, and so on.” This general interest actually made organizing the show a bit more challenging. “In 2008, when I was trying to put together a good checklist, works by women artists of this period weren’t being displayed in permanent collections,” says the curator. “But when I started asking for the works, museums were having the same idea, and all of a sudden were willing to show their collections of women artists.”
For Madeline, the exhibition isn’t just about gaining visibility for little-shown paintings by women, it’s also about adding depth to the image of art in France after 1850. “Art history was made around big male artists,” she says, “but when you start looking at the 19th century more closely, it’s not just those same figures, and there were ways of painting that weren’t just Impressionism.” Madeline notes that when one looks at the actual artistic production of the period, “it’s possible to look at works that are different not just because they’re by women, but because they’re not what’s mainstream.”
Rosa Bonheur experienced perhaps more mainstream success during this period than any other woman. She received copious honors during her lifetime, most notable the Legion of Honor of France, which was never before awarded to a woman. She won a gold medal at the Salon of 1848 for Cows and Bulls of the Cantal, and her painting The Horse Fair (1852–55) was exhibited at the Salon of 1853. She became a bona fide critical and financial success when the latter sold to an American collector in 1857. The painting was eventually gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1887.
Trained by her father, Raimond—a drawing teacher, landscape painter, and his daughter’s staunch supporter—Bonheur became known for her contributions to the popular genre of animal painting. Plowing at Nivernais, an 1850 oil on canvas and one of Bonheur’s most famous paintings, will be on view in “Women Artists in Paris.” The painting, which shows two teams of Charolais oxen plowing land in the area of Nevers, France, was commissioned by the French government for 3,000 francs. It also won Bonheur a medal at the Salon of 1849.
But part of Bonheur’s success was due to the fact that she didn’t live her life as a traditional French woman. She had closely cropped hair and even gained special permission from the police department to wear men’s trousers, so that she could survey the stables, slaughterhouses, and fields without being noticed. “She had an actual career, she could sell, and she had paintings bought by the French state,” says Madeline. “But at the same time, she behaved like a man and lived like a male artist. Perhaps it was a good strategy.”
Madeline is quick to note that Bonheur never had children or married. Marriage could be a divisive factor in the careers of women artists. Marie Bracquemond, whose 1880 painting On the Terrace at Sèvres (Sur la terrasse à Sèvres) comes to the exhibition from the collection of the Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva, eventually gave up her career due to the discord it caused between her and her husband, the painter and etcher Félix Bracquemond.
For Edma and Berthe Morisot, two sisters who studied under Joseph-Benoit Guichard, marriage had different effects: it led Edma to abandon her aspirations as a painter, while Berthe’s union with Édouard Manet’s younger brother Eugène substantially helped her career. Berthe has several paintings in “Women Artists in Paris,” but The Sisters, an 1896 oil on canvas, sticks out. The painting, which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., truly embodies the domestic sitting-room scene women artists were routinely chastised for. Morisot lavishes the image’s textiles, hairstyles, and décor with sumptuous detail. It is “soft,” not because it is lacking in technical ability, but because it excels in its ability to elicit a visceral sense of touch-ability. The sisters’ expressions are incredibly nuanced, tacitly conveying a sense of boredom, perhaps even frustration.
Morisot was an intrinsic member of the Impressionist group—the only one to participate in every show (well, she missed one in 1879, the year she gave birth to her only child). In fact, to some, Morisot embodied the movement’s true essence, in part because critics found the style “feminine” but also because of her palette and feather-like brushstrokes. After her death in 1895, Camille Mauclair declared the movement dead, saying, “It was done for, that shimmering Impressionism, an art so feminine that an admirable woman, Mme. Berthe Morisot, could by her works alone encapsulate all efforts.” Not surprisingly, some critics pit Morisot and Mary Cassatt against each other. Though they were both associated with Impressionism, the comparison is unnecessary.
Cassatt is perhaps the best-known American woman who lived in Paris during the 19th century. Like Bonheur, she never married and enjoyed a substantial amount of freedom. She trained in Chaplin’s studio and maintained a close friendship with Edgar Degas, who invited her to show with the Impressionists in 1879. She was substantially wealthy and well-connected, which was the case for the majority of women who gained traction in the French art world during this period (though this is also true of artists of both genders and most time periods).
Cassatt is best known for her depictions of mothers and children, as well as for her domestic subjects and portraits. Autumn, Portrait of Lydia Cassatt (1880), which will be featured in “Women Artists in Paris,” depicts Mary’s sister Lydia bundled up in an extravagant red coat that matches her red hair, sitting on a park bench. The subject of several Cassatt paintings, including Woman Reading and The Cup of Tea, Lydia was given a voice in Harriet Scott Chessman’s 2001 novel Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper. Lydia died of a kidney ailment the year after Autumn, Portrait was painted, and there’s something comforting in knowing that the gaze in this picture was not male but sisterly. Perhaps, that’s “soft,” “emotional,” or “feminine,” but it’s meaningful.
By Sarah E. Fensom