Looking for Women’s Voices—and Stories—at “Her Paris”

“Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism” is a revelatory exhibition of the art—and by extension, the lives—of 37 women painters from across Europe and America who worked in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century. It’s overdue and mostly admirable, not least for showcasing many women artists whose work has rarely—sometimes never—been seen in the U.S.

Because so much of the work is so good, and it’s so exciting to see, the show’s flaws are painful. They’re also a grim reminder of how far women still have to go to secure real space in the history of art.

In Denver, the first painting on the wall of “Her Paris” is not by a woman artist at all, but by a man—though it depicts a woman standing before a canvas, copying a Botticelli fresco in the Louvre while men in dark coats and hats mostly stare her way.

The first artwork in a show of women artists is a man’s vision of a woman copying the work of a (male) master. This is still woman as subject and object, rather than creator. Women artists, it turns out, get neither the first nor last word in this show.

It’s a misstep not made in the mostly excellent catalogue, where Plate 1 is a figure study by Helene Schjerfbeck from 1884 of that same Botticelli—and Plate 2 is the painting above. Copying works in the Louvre was standard for artists of the time, but especially for women, who had difficulty securing adequate instruction—the official École des Beaux-Arts was off limits to women until 1897—and who could only with great difficulty find access to life-drawing from the nude, though usually with more success than in other countries. Women artists often relied on ancient sculpture in order to sketch anatomy, and on artists of the past to serve as their instructors.

The catalogue diverges from the show in another interesting way. Titled “Women Artists in Paris 1850-1900,” it lists the exhibition at all three venues under the same name. It’s a name that makes sense. “Her Paris: Woman Artists in the Age of Impressionism” doesn’t.

There are only a handful of Impressionists amid more than three dozen women in the show, and Impressionism didn’t exist until the 1870s. There’s far more outside of Impressionism here than in—but museums are marketplaces, and nothing sells like Impressionism. (If you want to move an umbrella, slap a Monet on it.) Plus, the two best-known artists in the show are card-carrying Impressionists: Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot. Both are well-represented by terrific paintings, often already familiar from well-stocked American collections and endless reproductions.

The show’s revelations are instead artists you’ve likely never heard of—or, if you have, probably haven’t seen the work of in person. Many of the best paintings aren’t even French. Women artists came to Paris in the nineteenth century because it was the capital of art, and there they often discovered some freedom from the social strictures of their own countries while French women were still swimming in it. Marie Bracquemond barely survived her husband’s controlling scrutiny—and eventually stopped painting—while Berthe Morisot’s talented sister felt compelled to give up art once married, relinquishing her role as fellow artist to become Morisot’s most available model.

“Lucky Frenchwomen, you don’t know what other countries are like,” German-Swiss painter Louise Catherine Breslau once wrote, “especially the country I come from. You will never understand what France is for us… It has proven that the woman artist has a motherland on this earth.”

Breslau’s fabulous canvas, “The Friends (Les Amies)” from 1881, is a monumental presentation of the everyday lives of women artists in Paris. Three roommates—two painters, one a singer—hunch around a rose-colored table, with a little white dog sitting on top. The artist herself has her back mostly to us as she sits before raw canvas, a teacup balanced in her left hand, the dog between her and the other two women. They look tired and serious and intent. The little dog speaks to their fidelity, to art and to one another. It’s a great picture of female friendship and shared purpose—and it was a big hit, winning an honorable mention for the young painter at that year’s Salon.

That made it a public target. Satirical cartoons of female dog families followed. (Read: Bitches.)

Breslau’s rival, the Ukrainian painter Marie Bashkirtseff, has two large works in the show—one, the interior of the famous Académie Julien from 1881 depicting women artists at work. Bashkirtseff died at the age of 25, from tuberculosis; though she died young, she had a huge influence on other women as a result of her journals, published just a few years after her death. As the catalogue notes: “More than her paintings, it is this massive diary full of thwarted ambition, scandalous humor, and feminist rage that made Bashkirtseff a notable figure in the history of 19th century art.”

One woman inspired by those journals was the German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. Not only did Bashkirtseff’s writing spur Modersohn-Becker to pursue art in Paris, but they influenced her to keep her own journal of a life in art. From her own writing we know that the wall label next to her painting “Nursing Mother In Front of Birch Forest” from 1905, stating that Modersohn-Becker was “frustrated by a childless marriage to Otto Modersohn,” is misleading. It wasn’t the childlessness that frustrated her—it was wanting to be in the white-hot center of Parisian art, rather than on a conservative art colony in rural Germany. It would only take her own words here to establish her state of mind and heart.

But in fact, the voices of women feel missing from the show entirely, which is odd. In the ubiquitous gift shop just past the final painting, there’s every kind of ostensibly French gewgaw imaginable, things that have nothing to do with women artists—unless cookbooks, soaps, teapots and fashion are that. There are coasters dedicated to the Moulin Rouge and shelves of tote bags, paperweights, trays, breath mints and much more decorated with Theophile Steinlen’s famous illustration for “Le Chat Noir”—both rowdy nightclubs where women artists mostly did not go.

Not in the gift shop are the journals of Marie Bashkirtseff or Paula Modersohn-Becker—or nearly anything on any of the artists in the show, save a book or two on Cassatt and Morisot. There were no histories of women in art that I could find. There was nothing by Linda Nochlin or Griselda Pollock or Whitney Chadwick, all of whom have written extensively on women in art (and are referenced in the catalogue).

Without their voices, we’re left with the works themselves—which fortunately speak volumes.

The painting I can’t forget is “Echo” by Finnish artist Ellen Thesleff, from 1891, depicting a young girl in a baggy white blouse against a golden Scandinavian midsummer sky. Her head is back, skinny pigtail resting between her shoulder blades, and her mouth wide is wide open, hollering.

She looks to be entirely enjoying the sound of her own voice.

“Her Paris” exhibited in Denver until January 14 at the Denver Art Museum. It will show next at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, KY from February 17 to May 13 and then at Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA from June 9 to September 3.

 

Bridget Quinn is a writer, art history scholar and educator. She’s the author of Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order) and co-host of the weekly podcast from the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, The GrottoPod: Writers on Writing. She’s currently at work on a forthcoming book about the history of the 19th Amendment and what happened next.

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Comments

  1. More illuminating discoveries of women artists from Bridget Quinn! This 1881 painting by Louise Catherine Breslau of three women at a table (with dog) shows faces that strike me as so modern, or timeless, they could be from right now. My first reaction to “Les amies” was: has someone “collaged” a contemporary photograph into a period painting? The other work shown here, the painting class by Marie Bashkirtseff, seems to say that in this room there is something as important as art: women’s friendships, women’s support for, and interest in, each other. Even adoration and love between women. “Lucky Frenchwomen” indeed, as I can assert from my own experience in Paris almost a century later.

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