The Struggle of 19th Century Women Artists in Paris

Despite the challenges, aspiring female artists flocked to Paris in the second half of the 19th century to seek careers as painters. In the face of societal and institutional pressures, these women created non-traditional paintings that played to their unique strengths. A selection of these will be shown in “Women Artists in Paris 1850-1900”, an exhibition sponsored by the American Federation of Arts that will travel throughout the U.S. between October 22 and September 3, 2018 making stops in Denver, CO; Louisville, KY; and Williamstown, MA.

Inspired by her two young daughters and the increasing prominence of women artists in contemporary art, curator Laurence Madeline, former curator at the Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, began to work on this exhibition in 2008. She chose the 50-year period between 1850 and 1900 to showcase the beginnings of the fight for women artists to be recognized. “There were more and more women who had to make their living but also many people who thought that women should not work,” she says, describing the contradictions between society’s expectations and reality. “There was also a kind of competition between men and women artists where men had the professional advantages of institutions such as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the most prestigious art academy in France.” It was only at the end of the century that women were allowed entry into the school. Until 1897, they had been denied the Ecole’s rigorous training that many art critics believed was required to create “important” works of art. “One of the most essential academic subjects was the male nude,” Madeline explains, “and it was very difficult for women to get access to a male model. As a result, they couldn’t depict ‘strong’ historical subjects like Romulus and Remus.”

The effort to win recognition and fame demanded perseverance and talent. French painter Rosa Bonheur – one of the first women to achieve widespread fame in the field, becoming a role model for many artists who followed – famously wore men’s clothing to blend in while studying horses for her paintings, avoiding the social stigma often faced by young women who painted in public. Others, like lesser-known painter Ukrainian Marie Bashkirtseff, would hire models to pose so that she could work from her own studio. Many women even won the respect of fellow male artists. Notably, American Mary Cassatt had a long-standing friendship with French painter Edgar Degas that led to mutual inspiration and artistic exchanges. A crucial advantage for many women at the time was that the century’s artistic movements of Realism and Impressionism heavily emphasized modern, everyday subjects that were accessible to them.


Beach Parasol, Brittany, 1881, Emma Löwstädt-Chadwick. © Lars Engelhardt 

“There was an increased interest among male artists in the interior, such as the garden or children, and modernity and it was expected that women would understand feminine subjects better. So in the later paintings, you can see women begin to deal with questions of landscapes and how they’ll represent the world they live in,” reflects Madeline, “If you consider Mary Bashkirtseff, she began her career by first focusing on very academic subjects. But, after having spent some time in France, she read Emile Zola and met fellow artist Jules Bastien-Lepage and started focusing on other topics. She became very interested with what was happening during her time.”

An interest in the contemporary led many women toward the subject of femininity. Often, the scenes featured were of domestic life, landscapes, or private gardens. Mary Cassatt in particular did many paintings of children with their nannies or mothers, turning it into her specialty. The young girl is also depicted frequently in leisure or domesticity. “It’s as if they wanted to catch the special moment at the beginning of womanhood which is also the beginning of art for many women,” Madeline says. While not an outright political statement or social commentary, “in considering the teenaged girl, they also promoted an interest in girls, which led to an interest in women and the idea of the girl having her own place in society.”

Autumn, Portrait of Lydia Cassatt, 1880, Mary Cassatt. © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY

The exhibition, which features more than 80 paintings by 37 artists, will be accompanied by an eponymous catalogue studying series of women artists during the period. In one section, Marie Bracquemond’s story is told. A promising painter and one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism along with Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, Bracquemond gave up her painting career later in life due to fervent opposition and criticism from her husband, fellow artist Félix Bracquemond. “I want to remind people that being a woman is a kind of struggle and a fight,” Madeline concludes. “It’s important to see women artists in this light, without thinking about males, and understand how strong they can be.”

Women Artists in Paris: 1850-1900
Discussion at Albertine, New York, NY: September 7
Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO: October 22, 2017-January 14, 2018
Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY: February 17-May 13, 2018
Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA: June 9-September 3, 2018

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