Art’s Gender Divide in 19th-Century Paris

Does siphoning 19th-century women artists into their own book and exhibition really do them justice?

Marie Bashkirtseff, “In the Studio,” 1881. Oil on canvas, 60 5/8 x 73 1/4 in (photo by Dnipropetrovsk/Bridgeman Images, courtesy American Federation of Arts)

When most people think of artists in Paris in the late 19th-century, what immediately comes to mind are the Salons, the cafes, and the fraught relationship many had with the École des Beaux-Arts. As with most nostalgia-inducing tales, we tend to forget everyone who was missing from the picture. In this case, the women.

Cover of Women Artists in Paris, 1850–1900 (image courtesy Yale Press)

As Women Artists in Paris, 1850–1900 continually points out, women were habitually excluded from these artistic organizations and gatherings. The Salon exhibitions, although technically open to female artists, were often sexist in their selection, so much so that a new Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs formed a separate salon specifically for women in 1881. The École des Beaux-Arts didn’t begin accepting women until 1897, and, as Richard Kendall points out in his essay, women were often banned from life drawing classes in general, a topic that was extensively discussed in Linda Nochlin’s well-known “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” essay from 1971. As if that weren’t enough, the cafes and bars where male artists shared their best and most revolutionary ideas were often inaccessible to women.

Women Artists in Paris is the catalogue accompanying an exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts. Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism compiles almost 90 paintings by 37 artists from 11 different countries, all of whom converged in Paris in the late 19th century. Curated by Lawrence Madeline in an effort to correct the male-centric art historical record, the show just closed at the Denver Art Museum in mid-January. It’s currently on display at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, and it will open at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, this summer.

Berthe Morisot, “The Sisters,” 1869. Oil on canvas, 20 1/2 x 32 in (image courtesy the American Federation of Arts)

The exhibition and catalogue explore the many facets of the lives and careers of female artists living in Paris, featuring both household names — Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot — and less well-known figures, like Marie Bashkirtseff and Louise-Catherine Breslau. But perhaps most enlightening is the inclusion of a large number of Scandinavian artists, including Anna Ancher, Harriet Backer, Kitty Kielland, Emma Löwstädt-Chadwick, Elin Danielson-Gambogi, Mina Carlson-Bredberg, and Ellen Thesleff. As Vibeke Waalann Hansen explains in her essay, “Female Artists in the Nordic Countries: Training and Professionalism,” many female Scandinavian artists, encouraged by women’s emancipation efforts in their home countries at the time, traveled to Paris for the same reason the men did, to forge successful careers. (Finland was the first European country to grant women’s suffrage in 1906; by contrast, French women weren’t allowed to vote until 1945.)

While the histories of misogyny and exclusion that wrap themselves around Women Artists in Paris are both important and illuminating, what I found most frustrating in the book is the irony in continually citing the segregation of the sexes 150 years ago in a book that does the same thing. Choosing to celebrate women artists separately is all well and good, but the fact that traditional academic painters and Impressionists, artists with completely different styles, are all jumbled together under thematic categories — portraits, everyday life, la toilette (ugh!), childhood, landscape, history, and jeunes filles — reeks of exactly the same “feminine” typecasting and dismissal that Cassatt, Morisot, and Bracquemond fought against through their refusal to participate in any group shows or associations specific to female artists.

Anna Ancher, “The Harvesters,” 1905. Oil on canvas, 17 1/8 x 22 1/8 in (image courtesy the American Federation of Arts)

The inherent problem with dividing exhibitions and books by lines of gender, race, sexuality, and any number of different “othered” categories is that it automatically puts the historically subjugated group in its own separate bubble, thereby not only removing its members from the offical, often white-male-dominated narrative, but in the process also excluding the potential audiences that have the most to gain from learning about the plight of others.

While Paris in the late 19th century has some of the most well-known and revived painters and artworks (granted, mostly by male artists), the Her Paris show has been flying quietly under the radar. In fact, I only found one review of the Denver exhibition in a mainstream newspaper, Judith H. Dobrzynski’s take in the Wall Street Journal.

While curators continue to strive for inclusivity in their historical exhibitions, I only hope that next time there’s a show specifically devoted to female artists, they’ll at least be separated into more meaningful groupings than just gender, time, and location. (Or at the very least, do away with that la toilette category.)

Women Artists in Paris, 1850–1900 is out now from Yale University Press.

Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism continues at the Speed Art Museum (2035 South 3rd Street, Louisville, Kentucky) until May 13, 2018.

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