From October, 2017 to September, 2018, The American Federation of Arts gifted us with a traveling exhibit that focused on nothing but women artists who studied or worked in Paris in the second half of the 19th century. It was an astonishing effort that succeeded on all counts.
You would think that by now women wouldn’t be as thirsty as we are for a reflection of ourselves in history. After all, we have come so far since the 19th century. However, when the backlash against women feels like it is at an all-time high, when powerful white men refuse to listen to women’s voices, it is more necessary than ever that both women and men see and listen to women from history.
As Laurence Madeline says himself in the catalogue’s introductory essay Into the Light: Women Artists, 1850-1900, we must remain vigilant and we must honor those who have paved the way:
Institutional prejudices and limitations on women’s achievements continue to be increasingly challenged, and we have seem female artists conquer, one after another, formerly male-dominated bastions: they are now routinely represented in international contemporary art exhibitions and biennials, and are the beneficiaries of major commissions and sales.
Yet we must remain vigilant. Even in the twenty-first century we find art historians who, though they may acknowledge the growing recognition of contemporary women artists, continue to underestimate the importance of women artists during the second half of the nineteenth century, and ignore the ideological conditioning that holds women as secondary to men. Recent gains in women’s participation in the arts now demands an assessment of those who have paved the way – both the women artists who struggled to establish careers in art and the art historians who reinvented the circle language to accommodate them.
I saw the exhibit at the Clark Institute of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts in August, 2018. Due to the complications of modern life, travel schedules and the short period of time the exhibit was up, I went alone. Sometimes that’s good, when friends or family just don’t share your fascination for the art, when they’re more interested in rushing through to lunch than examining each painting’s brushstrokes. But this time, I wish I had gone with a group of women artist friends so we could have connected over how much it meant to us. To be seen, to be honored, and to stand alone with our complicated history. To listen to our own voices without getting drowned out by men.
Imagine seeing paintings you’ve heard about, read about and studied for years, but have never seen before. By women you deeply admire. It would take years and countless trips all over the western world to track down each of these paintings one at a time. And of course some are in private collections and may never be shown again.
The sheer depth of the roster was mind-boggling: from the Americans (Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, Elizabeth Nourse, Lilla Cabot Perry, Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau and Anna Klumpke), the French (Berthe Morisot and her sister Marie Edma Morisot Pontillon, Rosa Bonheur, Marie Bracquemond and Eva Gonzales), the Scandinavians (Anna Ancher, Harriet Backer, Mina Carlson-Bremberg, Kitty Kielland, Emma Lowstadt-Chadwick, Asta Norregaard, Hanna Pauli and Ellen Thesleff) and more, such as Marie Bashkirtseff from Russia and Paula Modersohn-Becker from Germany.
The quality of the pieces from each member of the roster was just as impressive. I saw key paintings that changed the trajectory of these women’s lives. Here is the painting that got Cecilia Beaux, an unknown American without any French connections into her first Paris salon in 1885. (Read my previous post about Beaux’s art studies and her work on this painting here.)
And then here is a rare treasure by Mary Cassatt, painted in 1873, when she was just in her twenties. It was her second painting ever accepted into the Paris Salon, before she became an impressionist, and one of the very few of her paintings that ever included a man as a subject.
And then there were the paintings of women painting. Self-portraits are as old as time, but these self-portraits of women feel daring and fresh. As if there is an urgent message to the world. But again, it is just the story of women asking to be seen. The paintings bear witness to their desires, their struggles, their sheer happiness.
Here, for example, is a painting by the Russian Marie Bashkirtseff of herself and other women painters at the Académie Julian in Paris, where she studied from 1877 to 1884.
Here is the Swedish artist, Mina Carlson-Bremberg, with an enviable glow of satisfaction.
And just take in the look that American Elizabeth Nourse wanted to present to the world. She moved to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian in 1887 and after just three months her teacher told her she required no further instruction. You can see it in her face.
But there was one painting I lingered over the longest. It was an ambitious self-portrait that included not only the painter, but also her husband. Anna and Michael Ancher were Danish painters from Skagen, a seaside fishing village that became an art colony in the late 19th century. The painting, a true collaboration by the two of them, shows them sitting quietly in a dark room, critiquing a painting together. We don’t know whose painting it is, but my guess is that it’s Anna’s. She looks the most comfortable; he has perhaps gotten up from his papers and his cup of coffee at the other end of the table to come and join in, to see over Anna’s shoulder exactly what Anna sees.
And quietly, collegially, they sit and look. And listen. Anna Ancher is seen and heard, and she knows it. Who knew, that in 2018, such a quiet, virtually unknown painting could convey such a powerfully emotional message?
The same goes for all of the paintings in this exhibit. It was an honor to bear witness.
Highly recommended: Because there are so many more fabulous paintings to see and stories to be heard, even if it’s not in person.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Paris attracted an international gathering of women artists, drawn to the French capital by its academies and museums, studios and salons. Featuring 37 women from 11 different countries, this sumptuously illustrated book explores the strength of these artists’ creative achievements, through paintings by acclaimed Impressionists such as Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, and exceptional lesser-known artists such as Anna Ancher, Marie Bashkirtseff, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Hanna Pauli, and Lilla Cabot Perry. It examines their work against the sociopolitical background of the period, when women were mostly barred from formal artistic education but skillfully navigated the city’s network of private studio schools, salons, and galleries. Essays consider the powerfully influential work of women Impressionists, representations of the female artist in portraiture, the unique experiences of Nordic women artists, and the significant presence of women artists throughout the history of the Paris Salon. By addressing the long-undervalued contributions of women to the art of the later nineteenth century, Women Artists in Parispays tribute to pioneers who not only created remarkable paintings but also generated momentum toward a more egalitarian art world.