DSCO 1660Women Impressionist Artists Working In France And America
Prominent Women In Art
This is a version of an essay, taken from my rough copy only just come to hand, which I submitted for an Art History paper on Impressionism several years ago. I got an excellent mark for this essay.
I think the subject is very interesting – women in art of the impressionist period in France. Of course, there WERE important women artists working in the Impressionist period in France and in America, and probably other places as well, but their efforts have been largely ignored or undermined in written accounts about the period. The art world has, until fairly recently, been dominated by men.
This essay explores some of the reasons why this has happened, especially during the Impressionist period of the later 19th century, when two prominent women, namely Berthe Morrisot and Mary Cassat, made important contributions to the world of art. The topic question I chose was:
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.
If the documentation of art and artists in history books written before 1987 has any influence, we would be inclined to believe, mistakenly, that there were no great women artists working in France in the mid-to-late 19th century.
One reason for this is that the majority of successful artists were male, and so the bulk of surviving works is male.
Another reason is that women in the 19th century were still very much confined to domestic life and were very much subordinated to men. Society did not regard women as being equal to men.
Another reason is that art history books have been written, mostly, by men, and so the prevailing attitude towards women has had an influence on their perceptions of women and their contributions outside of the home. This essay will also look at how women impressionist artists have been depicted in a depracating way, in several late 20th century art history books.
The artistic and cultural achievements of women were easily swamped by the achievements of the males who predominated and who were accustomed to leading the field in whatever domain they chose to succeed.
Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot will be the focus of this essay, although there were other noteable women artists such as Marie Bracquemond and Suzanne Valadon working in France in the mid-to-late 19th century.
Cassatt, moeable for her strong lines and a Japanese print-like quality to her work, and Morisot, for her fluid, delicate abrushwork, both depicted women and children in refreshingly different ways to theost of their male contemporaries.
Both were respected as artists in their own right by other important (male) artists, and by many critics an collectors who bought their works.
Cassatt and Morisot exhibited at the majority of the group Impressionist exhibitions in Paris from 1874-1886, and on the whole, received positive reviews from critics, although, like their male contemporary Impressionists, had to take their share of negative criticism.
Berthe Morisot was hailed by some critics of Impressionism, and by other as ‘pushing the system to the limits’.
Both Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot were instrumental in making the group exhibitions a success, Mary Cassatt especially: she did much to aid and promote her friends, being a woman of much wealth and much kindness.
Yet, for all the acclaim these women received at the time, their imortant contributions to the wold of art have largely been written out of history until the last fifteen years or so.
This essay will examine the lack of representation of women artists in several selected texts, written by males, and discuss some of the reasons for the lack of acknowledgement of women artists.
Lack of representation in text books or reference books has a huge impact on the masses. Most of us do not ever get the opportunity to go and see art works by prominent artists first hand: These are mostly housed in the famous galleries of Europe and America. So, unless we are rich and can indulge ourselves in visits to these galleries, all we have to tell us about the art world is what we can see in text books. Of course, the internet is, thankfully, changing this state of affairs, but until recently, male writers of art text books had a field day.
Social conditions and expectations of women in the 19th century had a bearing on their subject matter – more about this further down the track.
Males have predominated, until recently, not only as artists, but also as the writers of books, including art history books. Males have it within their power to either consciously or unconsciously minimize the impact of woment on art and its development.
This has been done by either leaving important material out of the text, or by depicting women as secondary, or inferior, to the male artist.
Cassatt’s association with Degas is a favourite theme used by male writers to represent an imagined dependency of the female artist on the ‘superior’ male artist, or to subordinate the woman. – HE paints, while SHE tries on hats…..
Cassatt is often referred to as merely his pupil, or devotee, whereas Degas himself, speaking of Mary Cassatt, said
:I cannot bring myself to admit that a woman draws so well”.
(Consult the book by M. G. Blunden, The World Publishing Co. New York, 1975)
The wonderful picture of “Mary Cassatt At The Louvre”, 1885, by Degas has the following caption in another book:
Mary Cassatt was an American artist who became a close friend of Degar’ and the other Impressionists. She figures in several prints and paintings by Degas”
This gross understatement about Cassatt is from ‘The Impressionist Revolution’ by Bruce Bernard. Well – yes – it WAS a revolution and that revolution is all the more exceptional because brought women artist to saleable prominence, probably for the first time in history, yet NOT ONE EXAMPLE of Mary Cassatt’s paintings appear in this 1986 text. This painting of her by Degas is the only way she gets acknowledgment at all in Bernard’s book: Through being the OBJECT of another, male artist’s, painting.
This author treats Berthe Morisot in the same fashion: NO EXAMPLES of her work are included amongst the 246 colour plates.
Instead, a Manet called simply:
Berthe Morisot (page 84), and another Manet called “Berthe Morisot in Mourning” – 1874, (page 45) are the only references to this artist, where she is also, like Mary Cassatt, presented as the OBJECT of the paintings, and not as a painter.
The omission of Morisot’s and Cassatt’s work (and all the other female artists) from such a large collection of Impressionist works (246 plates) leaves an all male collection or art work, not a fair thing considering thei impact at the time on the Paris art scene, and also on the American art market.
The fact that only paintings of these female artists as modes for male artist are included could give weight to the idea that women are still seen by some men, (and women), and obviously art historians, only as fit objects for the male gaze.
Mary Cassatt makes a pictorial pun on male voyeurism in her “Woman in Black at the Opera”, 1880. This depicts a woman assertively raising her opera glasses to ‘spy’ on the other opera-goers, whilst an elderly man hangs out leeringly towards her as he peers through his opera glasses.
This is a reference to Renoir’s “The Loge”, of 1874.
Cassatt, in contrast to Renoir’s model, has given her woman a strong, independent stance, depicting her as a ‘sole-femme’, capable of retaliating to, and apeing the dominant male spectator.
“The Guerilla Girls” state that Mary Cassatt was working for the women’s suffrage movement in America. The picture of “Woman in Black at the Opera” strongly implies the ideal of euality of the sexes. (See The Guerilla Girls Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, Penguin, England, 1998, p.55.
See also John Rewald, The History of Imprssionism, published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2nd printing, 1980, page 425.
Pages 516 and 438 of Rewald’s book feature Degas’ “Portrait of Mary Cassatt”, 1880 and “Mary Cassatt at the Louvre”.
Rewald, like Bernard, seems to give more prominence to Degas’ use of Mary Cassatt as a model, and Manet’s use of Morisot as a model than to providing good examples of the art work of these women.”.
Rewald does something decidedly strange: He includes an exceptionally tiny “Self-Portrait” by Morisot, which is almost minimalized out of existence by its one and a half inch dimensions.
He also includes a small rendition of her “In the Dining Room”, 1884 which is in black and white. This is incredible – these paintings are all about colour. The male artists have colour to represent their works.
“The New Painting, Impressionism, 1874-1886”, written by Charles S. Moffet, published by Richard Burton 1986 and The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gives extremely good representation of all the women artists who exhibited in Paris: Marie Bracquemond, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot are all given good coverage in the text as well as pictorially. Reviews both positive and negative are included of all the major works contributed to the Impressionist exhibitions 1874-1886.
Berthe Morisot’s “Le berceau”, 1872, (The Cradle), La Lecture”, 1869-1870 (The Mother and Sister of the Artist), “Cache-cache”, 1873 (Hide and Seek), “Marine”, 1869 (Seascape, or “The Harbour at Lorient”),
Portrait de Mademoiselle M.T., c.a. 1873, “Portrait of Madeleine Thomas”, or “Young Girl With a Parrot”, and “Un Village”, (Le Village de Maurecourt). All were exhibited by Berthe Morisot at the First Exhibition in Paris, 1874. Castagnary, in “Le Siecle”, 29 April, 1874m says of Berthe Morisot:
Berthe Morisot has wit to the tips of her fingertips. What fine artistic feeling. You cannot find more graceful images handled more deliberately and delicately than “Berceau, and “Cache-cache”.
Her “Young Woman By a Window”, 1878, and “Woman at Her Toilet”, 1875,which were both exhibited at the Fifth Exhibition,
received very favourable responses from critics. (Berthe Morisot exhibited at all but one of the eight exhibitions)
Cassatt and Berthe Morisot were both blessed by their favourable financial positions. Neither had to demean herself in order to survive, and both had the time and where-with-all to paint, something which their male artist friends did not all necessarily have.
Mary Cassatt is reported in many texts as having been an extremely generous woman who shared her good fortune amongst her needy artist friends. She helped Paul Duran-Ruel financially on several occasions: the artists were dependent upon him to sell their works.
Mary Cassatt is responsible for getting together the nucleus of the Havermayer Collection at Teh Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Yet, for all her dedication to the Impressionist cause, the money she poured into establishing an art market in America, her generosity, her own artistic and innovative contributions, Mary Cassatt was not acknowledged by the “New York Times” at the time of her death in 1926.
to be continued tomorrow…..