9 Trailblazing Female Painters of the 19th Century You Really Should Know About
Although there is a long way to go before men and women achieve parity in the art world, female artists have undoubtedly made great strides in recent decades, with far greater representation at museums, galleries, and international exhibitions. But today’s contemporary female artists likely wouldn’t be where they are today were it not for their 19th century predecessors who flocked to Paris to pursue an education in the arts. Dozens of them are now emerging from the shadows, thanks to new research for a show now on at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts: “Women Artists in Paris, 1850–1900.”
France’s capital city called to artists throughout the 1800s, a beacon of light and culture that drew in painters and sculptors from around the world its salons and academies. Among them were many women—some familiar names, such as Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), Berthe Morisot (1841–95), and Rosa Bonheur (1822–99), but many others you might not know, their names lost in obscurity.
Esther Bell, who coordinated the exhibition’s presentation at the Clark, told artnet News that “Women Artists in Paris” included “paintings that I had not seen before and that really surprised me in their quality and in their power.” She stressed that: “In many ways this exhibition is about rewriting the history of art to include those names that have fallen away over time… it’s important that our visitors are meeting artists who they have not met before.”
The women who bravely paved the way for the modern-day counterparts are largely forgotten, mere footnotes in the art history textbooks. “Women Artists in Paris” seeks to change that, shining a light on 37 women from 11 countries who studied art in Paris in the second half of the 19th century. The exhibition, organized by the American Federation of Arts and curated by Laurence Madeline, previously appeared at the Denver Art Museum (October 22, 2017–January 14, 2018) and the Speed Art Museum, in Louisville, Kentucky, (February 17–May 13, 2018).
“The woman artist is an ignored, little-understood force, delayed in its rise!” said Hélène Bertaux, founder of Paris’s Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs in her inaugural address in 1881. “A social prejudice of sorts weighs upon her; and yet, every year, the number of women who dedicate themselves to art is swelling with fearsome speed.”
The union served a growing community of women artists, undeterred by the challenges they faced. “There had always been women painters, women sculptors, women ceramicists… but this moment in the late 19th century was an opportunity for women to be able to take formal classes and to enter art academies, to elevate their craft and train in serious ways,” Bell said.
But even with new opportunities open to them, she admitted, “women were systematically excluded from the structures that could train them.” Unable, even, to go out in public unchaperoned, women weren’t admitted by the government-run École des Beaux-Arts, for instance, until 1897, forcing women to follow less official channels, and to create spaces of their own.
“It is enough to make one cry with rage,” wrote Marie Bashkirtseff, a Ukrainian artist featured in the exhibition, in 1878, in her posthumously published journal. “Why cannot I go and study there?”
There were several reasons for women’s exclusion from the institutional structures that provided entry to the art world. Women were simultaneously viewed as a threat—male artists hardly needed more competition in an already-crowded field—and as naturally inferior and incapable of creative genius. While it was useful for women to draw recreationally, or even to make a living with decorative china painting or other stereotypically feminine work, they were were not taken seriously as professional artists.
Bell called Bashkirtseff’s memoirs “a wonderful entryway into this exhibition, because it helps you understand the psychology, and the types of obstacles these women were facing.”
Where the state-run academy was free, women had to pay for their education, taking private lessons or women-only classes at institutions such as the Académie Julian, founded by Rodolphe Julian (1839–1907). “One could argue he was a feminist in his own right, but he was also an entrepreneur,” said Bell. “He understood there was a market for an academy that specialized in training women, and that they would travel from all over the world to this studio.”
But even when they found schools that accepted them, women were forbidden to work with nude models, limiting their ability to create more prestigious history paintings. And when artists took over for the state running the official Paris salon in 1881, the number of women represented in the annual show fell by half. But despite the challenges, many women excelled, winning well-deserved honors and praise for their work.
“Every object in this exhibition was chosen because of its quality and its success as a painting and fine art object,” Bell insisted. “Absolutely these women measure up to their male counterparts!”
“Every single one of these artists could have a powerful monographic exhibition,” she added, noting that she hopes the current show will be a stepping stone for further recognition for its subjects. “It is the responsibility of institutions to continue this dialogue in a sustained way, not just having the exhibition and forgetting about these artists again, but to really keep seeking out opportunities to highlighting this work, encourage art historical inquiry, and to engage our public with the work of these women.”
Below, learn more about nine of the women in the show: