Women artists’emancipation

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Women artists’emancipation

When he reaches the age of 6 or 7, teach your son how to read, then send him to study the trade that suits him. If your child is a girl, give her needlework instead of reading because it is not good for a woman to know how to read unless you intend her for nunnery.
Paolo Certado 1320.

No access to learning : this is the handicap women artists have had to put up with for about 5 centuries. They were deprived of :

  • drawing, anatomy or perspective classes
  • initiation to pigments preparations, live models, study travels
  • work in a workshop where they could have had stimulating confrontations
  • access to the sale network.
Alas God, why haven’t you made me come to the world with male gender ?
Christine de Pisan about 1400.

During the Middle Ages, women’s social status is quite important : they spin and weave, they manufacture basic goods like bread, beer, meat preserves, and they grow medicinal plants they give to the sick and suffering.

However they cannot belong to the artist world, concentrated in guilds : guilds rules do not accept them.

Only a few nuns illuminate manuscripts, or illustrate codex.

Within all Europe, we know the name of about ten female artists, whose work has often disappeared.

All along the Renaissance, the sphere of activities devoted to women shrinks: men absorb the traditional feminine trades, outside the domestic circle.

Artistic life is transferred from guilds to academies and workshops directed by Masters who, through their narrative large pieces of work, seek their personal glory and the favour of patrons.

Their students serve a long apprenticeship: they learn drawing, colour, mathematics, perspective, anatomy on masculine nude models and dead bodies…

Women are not admitted to these academies. They lack the required scholarship level and the freedom of movement.

Some of them are an exception to this exclusion:

  • first : the wives and daughters of painters, who with the agreement of their husband or father, have access to a workshop. It is the case of Artemisia Gentileschi and Lavinia Fontana, who succeed in a bright career.
  • Second : a few young ladies from the aristocracy can also benefit by an artistic education, if their parents consider it necessary to their accomplishment. At the Court of Spain Sofonisba Anguissola becomes painter and follower of Queen Isabella.

Recognized women artists are very scarce. They have to surround themselves with an aura of respectability, youth and chastity: they sign “Sofonisba, virgo”, “Lavinia, Damsell, daughter of Prospero Fontana”.

Their art is limited to portraits, self-portraits, still life and religious subjects for which the lack of models is a serious disadvantage. They cannot paint frescoes, landscapes, nor be a sculptor or an architect.

In “The Courtier”, Baldassare Castiglione clearly defines the field of women’s painting:

… as long as she keeps a sweet and delicate tenderness, an appearance of softness in each of her movements (…) so that she always appears as a woman, with no resemblance to a man, she is free to adorn herself with the most refined accomplishments recommended to gentlemen…

1648: Louis XIV founds the Royal Academy and declares he will « grant his protection to artists without consideration for the difference of gender. »

The admittance of women at the academy is most certainly an event but:

  • their number is limited to 4,
  • they do not have access to drawing classes, they cannot teach or hold any duty in the academy,
  • their allowance is much lower than their male colleagues.

However, they have the right to exhibit at the annual art exhibitions. Here are some of the most well-known:

  • The Venetian Rosalba Carriera (1645-1757) : pastellist of European reputation, she is heckled with orders in Paris. In Dresden, the Elector of Sax builds a gallery to shelter the 150 pastels he possesses.
  • Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun (1755-1842) : favourite painter of Queen Marie-Antoinette, she is a member of Rome, Parma, Bologna, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Geneva and Rouen academies.
  • The Berliner Angelica Kauffman (1755-1819) : she paints her first self-portrait at the age of 13. The public is all at the rage for her works of art.

Besides, some well-known painters such as Greuze or Regnault open private academies accessible to women artists. Teaching is limited, but they get the opportunity to exhibit their work.

The influence of women in society is at its climax (Salon of Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, of Madame Geoffrin …). The number of women artists increases.

1789: « Reprehension to citizen Lebrun: she encourages those who would like to occupy themselves with painting instead of embroidering the belts and cloaks of police officers… » Minutes of the Revolutionary Comity.

The French Revolution, after stirring up an important feminine effervescence (Olympe de Gouge writes a Declaration of Women’s Rights, Condorcet lays claim to their access to education, right to vote, authority equality within the couple), will lead to a time of throw-back and segregation.

The Royal Academy becomes the Popular Republican Society of Arts. One of its first act will be to exclude women artists. They are different from men, therefore they should not be allowed to carry on tasks devoted to men. Is this really the dawn of liberty, equality, fraternity ?

19th century

Men should take care of everything related to “Grand Art”, of what demands an elevated conception of artistic ideal (…), women should stick to the art forms they have always preferred: pastel, portrait, miniature or flower paintings, all these punctilious works that suit so well the abnegation and self-devotion role every woman is pleased to fulfill on earth and that is her religion.
Fine arts Gazette 1860 - Of the rank of women in Art.

The number of women artists increases by degrees, through a larger strata of society. They teach drawing as teacher or governess, sell their production in shops, and exhibit their work. A small “drawing industry” develops.

Restraints are still numerous, but feminism is on the march with Georges Sand’s writings, and the fight of the American suffragettes. In the middle of the 19th century, Paris is the centre of the artistic world. Women artists get organized: they get jobs, they share their lodgings, and pose one for another. Independent or in the wake of the Impressionist Masters, their names are :

  • Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), animal painter of European reputation. Amusing anecdote: when she paints her masterpiece “the Horse Market” (Metropolitan Museum, New York), she has to ask for a police official authorization to be able to wear trousers.
  • Berthe Morisot, painter, model, and Manet’s sister-in-law
  • Eva Gonzalès, painter, model, and Manet’s pupil
  • Mary Cassatt, painter, Degas’ protégée and friend
  • Suzanne Valadon, Renoir, Puvis de Chavanne and Manet’s model
  • Marie Bracquemont, engraver, close friend of the bateau-lavoir group
  • Camille Claudel, sculptor, Rodin’s pupil

In 1877, the Julian Studio opens. It is the only mixed establishment with the Colarossi studio to dispense quality art education allowing women to work with nude models.

In 1880, Paris School of Fine Arts opens to women artists, but their classes are not mixed, they have to pay their tuition, their models are dressed. They seat for different exams than men.

In 1897, Paris School of Fine Arts opens to women without restriction.

At the dawn of 20th century, what preconceived notions, what prejudice Marguerite Jeanne Carpentier, Elise Rieuf, Charlotte Musson, Frédérique Knoeri and the others of the first women school of art, will have to tackle ?

Some cruel words:

  • In front of a strong and beautiful piece of art: “It is beautiful, for a woman!” or: “She paints as a man!” the archetype is masculine.
  • “Women have a particular sensitivity that limits them to certain subjects”
  • Women should be source of inspiration, and keep their creative strength for maternity: « Man is a brain, woman a womb » Michelet
  • Genius expresses itself notwithstanding obstacles, so women have no genius unless they are abnormal. Writing on Camille Claudel, Octave Mirbeau says: « She was a great and marvelous artist (…), something unique, a Nature revolt : a woman of genius. »

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