This is part two of an essay on 19th century female impressionists who worked in France. The first part of the essay is the post immediately prior to this one, entitled “Women Impressionist Artists”. The essay was produced for a university Art History paper I did several years ago on Impressionism.
The essay title is:
There were no great women artists working in France in the mid-to-late 19th century. Discuss this assertion in relation to specific mid-late 19th century artists and art.
Social conditions and expectations of 19th century society made it difficult for women to succeed as artists. Their subject matter was limited because they were not allowed to go into public places unchaperoned. This meant they had less opportunity to see life ‘in the raw’, less opportunity to paint workmen or street-walkers, or people involved in any public activity, as their male counterparts did.
Nor were they able to attend life-drawing classes, or visit brothels in order to paint nudes, as Manet, Degas and Cezanne were all wont to do.
This meant that women had no regular practice in drawing the nude, and so they produced no sensational nude works to compare with the fame of Manet’s ‘Olympia”.
Women had to draw on day-to-day experience of domestic life for their subject matter.
Cassatt and Morisot were nevertheless successful with their portraits of clothed women and children, despite the fact that they were competing against the ever popular nude, an acceptable form of soft porn, as seen in the example of Manet’s ‘Olympia”, or Degas brothel scenes, or Cabanel’s “The Birth of Venus”. These nude depictions effectively put these male artists ‘on the map’ for all time, drawing the attention of the public eye ever since their creation.
Morisot and Cassatt, with their sensitively depicted, homely, sweet scenes of women and children, or women at the theatre, were hugely successful.
The lack of nude depictions by Morisot and Cassatt must surely have been a contributing factor in the apparent slide of their popularity as indicated by the lack of their representation in art history texts.
Manet’s ‘Olympia”, a favourite of the male writer of text books on art until around 1985, gets an honourable representation in most text books, as do Manet’s “Luncheon On The Grass”, Cabanel’s “The Birth of Venus”, and Cezannes “Bathers”, the latter apealling to the homo-erotic aspect of male desire.
These nude depictions have no doubt helped to sell these art books over the years, keeping the art historian in print, his wages paid, and his interest,, in impressionist depictions of the nude, respectable.
The Guerrilla Girls point out in their book that Cassatt’s painting of her mother reading was no competition for Manet’s “Olympia”. They say of Cassatt:
She depicted women actively at work, at women’s work, not as passive models or objects of the male gaze, as did many of the impressionists”.
“Neither conventionally attractive, nor stereotypically fragile, her women are robust and powerful………….”, a colurful and rich example being “Young Woman Picking Fruit”: This wonderful exotic painting pictures a Botticelli-like Venus at centre, “fully and respendently clothed”. In researching for this essay, this painting was found in only one text of many books studied.
“Cassatt stresses the creation of a deliberate, stable order from the material of modern life”, says Marc Gerstein, in ‘Impressionism, Selections from Five American Museums.
Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot had to endure the fiers criticism of males who were used to “the ways patriarchy pictures both feminity and masculinity in order to contain women and empower men”. (see Cullen, from tutorial by Campbell Ewing: Representing the Body, Questions of Gender, 2002.
These women artists battled against prejudice against women and managed to achieve great success in their life-times, against all odds.
The assertion that there were no great artists working in the 19th century in France is a mistaken one perpetuated by male writers of art text books over the past one hundred years or so.
Thanks to new books inspired by a sympathy for feminism, such as “The Guerilla Girls Bedside Compaion to the History of Western Art”, Penguin, England, 1998, we can expect to see honest representation, true representation which does justice to their works, and more representations of Cassatt and Morisot in art history text books of the future.
True and honest representation and appraisal will put the value of their contributions alongside those of Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir and the other Impressionists. However, you can only do so much to satisfy male desire without the object of a female nude.
Bernard, Bruce, The Impressionist Revolution, Orbis, London, 1986
Blunden, Maria and Godfrey, Impressionists and Impressionism, Skira, The World Publishing Co, New York, 1975.
The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, Penguin, England, 1998.
Gerstein, Marc, S., Impressionism, Selections from Five American Museums, Hudson Hills Press, New York, 1989.
Cullen, from tutorial by Campbell Ewing: Representing the Body, Questions of Gender.
Moffett, Charles S., The New Painting, Impressionism, 1874-1886, Richard Burton and The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986.
Herbert, Robert L., Impressionism, Art, Leisure and Parisian Society, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1994.
Rosenblum, Robert, Paintings in the Musee D’Orsay, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, New York, 1989.
Stuckey, Charles F., French Painting, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates Inc., MacMillan Publishers, new York, 1991.