Above: Louise Breslau (Swiss, 1856–1927), The Friends, 1881. Oil on canvas, 33 1/2 x 63 in. © Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Ville de Genève, inv. no 1883-0002; Photo: Bettina Jacot-Descombes. Courtesy American Federation of Arts
The Clark Art museum’s characteristically dark exhibition walls are plastered with vibrant paintings over a century old. They depict war scenes, medical autopsy rooms, blooming gardens, allegories, agricultural labor, intimate friendships, and children under the careful gaze of their mother. They’re all painted by women.
“Women Artists in Paris 1850-1900” is a touring exhibition from the nonprofit American Federation of the Arts. The Clark is the third museum to host the collection, which includes paintings shown in the states for the first time, by multi-national artists who studied art in Paris during both the golden age of impressionism and the socially rigid Victorian era. It’s a time capsule of the struggles and triumphs that defined what it meant to be a woman (and, particularly, a female artists) in this period.
“They had to overcome many obstacles to make their way in a situation of fine arts, which was always very restrictive for women,” Laurence Madeline, lead curator of the project, said. “Women could have no responsibility at all. They had no autonomy…wanting to have a place in the world became absolutely awful. But some of them went to Paris and studied.”
It’s a fresh and poignant exhibit that illuminates the power and skill of the female artists who continued to push back against societal oppression as they worked on their craft. After a century and a half, the exhibition has dignified painters and their work which, save for a few stars like Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, were otherwise lost in the shuffle of male peers and critics.
“It’s always the same story. We have women who paint but who makes the criticism? It’s male. You have critics but it will be ‘Oh it is so charming, it is so nice.’ Even if you have strong women artists. The way that they are talked about is just patronizing,” Madeline told The Alt. “It took such a long time to have women as art historians who would talk about them. You can have all the wonderful artists you want, but who writes the history? The art history is written by the males.”
The walls of this exhibition seem charged with defiance. The intense and defiant eyes of Elizabeth Nourse’s self portrait welcome viewers into the collection, portraying the American artist at work in her studio. She has not made herself to be presentable, instead we’ve interrupted her in the middle of her work. Nourse has planted herself firmly in the art world, demanding to be taken seriously. It’s a commanding statement to kick off the collection.
In their work, artists like Nourse performed triumphant micro-rebellions by painting themselves in powerful stances or into social situations that would be entirely unacceptable.
Amélie Beaury-Saurel’s Into the Blue (Dans le bleu, 1894) portrays a thoughtful woman smoking alone at a table. It’s not clear if she is in her own home or having a coffee at a café. In a time where it was illegal for women to smoke in public, the ambiguous painting challenges the form of social control and offers up a brighter future for the free and modern woman.
This is a time when women could not even go to a café without a chaperone, let alone a park or museum to sketch. Their access was limited, their independent space that much smaller. This led to an intimate series of interior spaces, like studios, drawing rooms and apartments where the artists often lived together to collaborate in their art. These interior paintings take the viewer into quiet, contemplative, creative spaces.
In Mina Carlson-Bredberg’s Académie Julian, Mademoiselle Beson Drinking from a Glass (1884), the subjects eat and drink surrounded by etchings, easels and materials. Looking a bit disheveled but at ease, communicating that the women have been hard at work on their respective crafts, they revel in their studio space.
The exhibition also beautifully displays the ways in which the women used their femininity to their advantage–capturing the intimacy of a dressing room, the familiarity of their fellow artists. There is an exclusivity to their work, allowing them to use a vantage point and specific access to spaces and people that their male colleagues could not.
Berthe Morisot’s Women at Her Toilette (1875-80) is mesmerizing. With heavily carefully applied layers of cool, white tones, Morisot shows her ability as a painter and brings a perfect balance of power and delicacy to the subject. She is trendy, poised and practiced as she admires herself in the mirror. It’s an excellent example of the way female artists of the time were able to play to societal expectations while making their mark while they could.
While artists like Morisot, Cassatt, or Rosa Bonheur were able to navigate the male-dominated community of artists with success, others, like Marie Bracquemond (Three Women with Parasols aka The Three Graces, 1880) were more easily pressured and hindered by societal expectations to choose marriage and a family over a career as a painter.
Even those who were successful were ultimately judged by their ability to start a family. After Bonheur’s death, Madeline notes, critics acknowledge her work but demeaned her for not pursuing marriage and motherhood.
“Women were meant to be good mothers, good wives. That’s one of the reasons that women were discouraged, that it would be a distraction from the household,” Esther Bell, The Clark organizing curator of the show said. “Depicting childhood was very much encouraged…many of the paintings that Laurance has chose for the section have this psychological intensity because their approach to the subject would have been more personal.”
But even in the many depictions of motherhood and children at play, some broke the mold in interesting ways.
Cassatt’s Child Picking a Fruit (1893) was initially translated as a take on the story of Eve, but the artist corrected this theory, saying the work symbolizes a woman passing on the knowledge of science to the next generation, empowering those who will come after her. To pack an extra punch, Cassat never had children, but made a living off of the commissions of their likeness.
Paula Modersohn-Becker challenged the conventional styles and expectations of female artists in her time by painting in a coarse, primitive style and exploring a series of nudes in her short artistic career. In addition to the young boys in Three Bathing Boys by the Canal (1901) she was known to paint nudes of women and pregnant mothers.
The heart of the collection consists of the upper hierarchy of genres favored by academies in Paris such as wartime, history and agriculture, highlighted by Bonheur’s illustriously detailed and highly contrasted Plowing in Nivernais (1850). This room is particularly unique, both in the diversity of subject and the fascinating lives of the artists who made each work.
Bonheur was a pants-wearing (with special permission from the French police), eccentric artist with a live-in “female companion” and a cult following who dissected animals to better understand their anatomy. The young Marie Bashkirtseff was a well-read diarist and one of the first suffragettes and depicted realist street life paintings like The Meeting (1883). Annie Stebler-Hopf depicted a mortician at work in her detailed and macabre 1889 work, Autopsy and Lady Elizabeth Butler observed British army exercises and asked troops to charge at her on horseback so she could paint the most accurate war scenes.
The collection closes with les jeunes filles–paintings that depict young girls in explorative and introspective moments as they navigate adulthood. It reiterates again the one-of-a-kind perspective of a woman behind the paint brush. Walking out, viewers are with Ellen Thesleff’s Echo (1891) of a young girl screaming into the open air, listening as her voice reverberates around her.
“It’s as if she was discovering her own power of making an impact on the world which surrounds her. I thought this was a very good symbol because we are, as you see, moving from a type of realism to symbolism,” Madeline said. “A moment when [the artists] finally had this access to training and are absolutely ready to be part of it. A message that says, ‘Now go girls, you have the power, you have the strength and you have the ability to train. Make the conquest of the world.’”
Women Artists in Paris 1850-1900: The Clark Art Museum, Williamstown, Mass. On display through Sept. 3