Monet, Degas, Renoir, Manet, and Toulouse-Lautrec: They're some of the best-known impressionists. They're also all men. Women artists in nineteenth-century Paris faced an uphill battle in pursuing their craft. The social norm was that women had no business exploring city life on their own. They were excluded from the state-run art school. Despite these challenges, the most passionate women artists of the time made it to Paris, refined their skills, and developed their own unique artistic styles – only to be ignored by art historians more interested in these women's male counterparts.
Coming October 2017, the Denver Art Museum will host a new traveling exhibit highlighting some of the greatest women painters of the second half of the nineteenth century. Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism will showcase paintings by 37 female artists from a variety of backgrounds and countries. They all came to Paris to paint between 1850 and 1900, a time when Paris was the center of the art world and professional female artists were rare. Her Paris explores the limitations women faced in pursuing professional art careers, as well as ways that these artists resisted such restrictions to create stunning works.
To learn what to expect from this upcoming exhibit, Westword spoke with Angelica Daneo, local curator for Her Paris and curator of painting and sculpture at the DAM.
Westword: Give us some background on the exhibit.
Angelica Daneo: Her Paris was organized by the American Federation of Arts, and it focuses on the contribution of women artists working in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century. The AFA proposed the project to us, and we were thrilled to incorporate it into our program. We feel that the exhibition narrative is engaging and innovative, because while it approaches a period that we have dealt with in the past, it does so from a different angle, focusing on the contribution of women artists. Even though retrospective exhibitions on single artists have been presented before, this project features a comprehensive group of the most important female painters working at the time. We are excited to be the national debut venue for this traveling exhibition.
So the Denver Art Museum is the first place this exhibit will be shown?
You mentioned that the exhibit is unique because it’s showing a wide variety of female artists, including some that aren’t widely known.
Yes, it’s quite exciting. There are more than eighty paintings, by 37 different women artists. Paris is the common denominator, but these artists came from countries including Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the United States and France. They all converged in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century, as Paris was the art capital at the time.
Why did women travel to Paris to paint?
Interestingly enough, they all traveled to Paris, although they could usually train in academies in their own country, and, in some cases, in academies that were more open to female artists at the time. What distinguished Paris as the place to be was the thriving art scene, the opportunities for exhibitions, and a very active art market. These women were not looking for a leisurely pastime. These were artists who wanted to pursue a professional career.
What was it like to be a female artist in Paris at this time?
Well, it was only in 1897 – so at the end of the time range of our narrative – that the state art school [the École des Beaux-Arts] began accepting women. Before then, women could not attend this free, state-funded academy, which was the place to learn and to practice art. It was the official training place for artists. But there were private academies, and some were prominent, like the Académie Julian. Some of the most respected private academies admitted women. They could be expensive, however. The fee was intended to discourage the amateur, both male and female.
Some private academies had women-only classes. Some artists’ studios allowed mixed classes. In some cases, women were allowed to draw a live model, but not the nude. It was considered indecorous. And yet, learning to draw from the nude was considered essential training for any artist who wanted to paint history paintings, which were considered the most prestigious and the highest in the hierarchy of subjects. These were paintings depicting mythological, biblical or historical scenes. To be able to paint these complex subjects and master the drawing of the live nude model — especially the nude male — and therefore gain an understanding of anatomy was considered fundamental. So without that, women were essentially excluded from that particular genre.
Women were allowed to submit their paintings to the Salon, which was the official state exhibition and the most prestigious place to show your work and be known to buyers and collectors.
What other types of social restrictions did women artists face?
Respectable women were not supposed to stroll through the streets of Paris unchaperoned. As a result, their lives were conducted mostly indoors and in the private sphere. They certainly could go outside, but they had to be in groups or chaperoned by a male companion. And if you think of Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century, so much of the artistic discourse is happening at the cafés and in public venues. There were a couple of cafes that male artists would frequent, and this is where they would exchange ideas and discuss art. A woman couldn’t go to a public locale like that. To simply enter a cafe would be considered unseemly and undignified for a woman.
Did these social restrictions influence the subject matter chosen by female painters?
If you look at the subjects that women chose, a lot of them are intimate and domestic scenes featuring family and friends. Their world was more private. In a way, their choice was tied to the places and experiences most familiar to them. The subjects that were considered more appropriate for women to paint were still lifes and portraits. They were considered “safe” [laughs]. In comparison to a nude live model, there’s nothing risqué about painting a bouquet of flowers. Intentionally, there are no still lifes in this exhibition, because we wish to highlight works that better represent women’s original contribution to the art of the time rather than feature the genres expected by their gender.
So, no, they wouldn’t paint subjects like the inside of a cafe, like Toulouse-Lautrec, because they couldn’t frequent cafes. But they painted other genres, as I mentioned. And they also painted landscapes, so the array of genres represented is actually pretty varied. But it has to be noted that the techniques, styles and their incredible maturity really put them at the same level as their male counterparts who have received more attention in the past.
You mentioned that some of these art institutions cost a lot to attend. Were most of the artists traveling to Paris wealthy women?
This is another aspect of the show that I think is fascinating. Certainly, there were a good amount of artists that came from well-to-do families and had the means to sustain themselves and didn’t have to financially rely on their art.
For example, Berthe Morisot came from the upper middle class, from a wealthy bourgeois family. She married the brother of Édouard Manet and she was able to continue painting throughout her lifetime, exhibit at the Salon and remain untouched by financial concerns. Mary Cassatt came from America, also from a wealthy family. She traveled throughout Europe at an early age and then settled in Paris. She helped some of her fellow artists and she had financial means to sustain herself.
But then you have the example of Marie Bracquemond. She’s a wonderful artist who was fascinated by impressionism. Her upbringing was less glamorous than Cassat’s or Morisot’s— but she was able to study under Ingres, the quintessential academic painter. Despite this very traditional training, she grew fond of the art of the impressionists and was particularly influenced by Monet. She married a fellow artist, Felix Bracquemond, whose strong opinions on art and inability to accept his wife’s different artistic views led her to eventually abandon painting completely. Marie Bashkirtseff came from a prominent Russian family. So she also had the means to support her artistic career.
If you ask where all these artists found common ground, yes, there was Paris, but also their drive and passion for art. I cannot say that enough. You can find pretty works by unknown ladies of the time, who were encouraged to draw and encouraged to paint — just not be too good at it, right? [Laughs.] You have to consider that affluent women were supposed to master drawing, painting and music, but on a more superficial level. In fact, there is a great quote from a letter by the artist Guichard, who was a teacher of Berthe Morisot and her sister Edma, who warned their mother, saying, “My teaching will not endow them with minor drawing-room accomplishments; they will become painters. Do you realize what this means? In the upper-class milieu to which you belong, this will be revolutionary — I might almost say catastrophic.”
So all of these women, no matter whether they came from wealthy families or a less fortunate upbringing, wanted to become professional artists. That driving passion is quite inspiring throughout the show.
Why do you think it’s still important to have art shows that specifically feature women artists?
I think it’s important because it highlights the fundamental contribution women made to the art of their time. In the case of our exhibition, the contribution and the results are varied. The women featured in the show did not paint in one style. Some painted in a more realist style. A great artist featured in the show is Rosa Bonheur, who was the first woman to be awarded the French Legion of Honor. She became extremely successful and known for her ability to depict animals. In order to study them, she would sketch in slaughterhouses and was allowed to wear male clothes to avoid attracting too much attention. She became one of the most known and most successful female artists, both critically and financially.
While Bonheur painted in a more realist style, there were artists who contributed significantly to the impressionist movement, the group of artists rebelling against the Academy’s emphasis on smooth surfaces and precise draftsmanship, as well as a preference for mythological, biblical or historical subjects. Instead, the Impressionists wanted to paint the modern life around them, with looser brushstrokes and a lighter palette.
Artists like Morisot, Cassatt and Bracquemond really made fundamental contributions. And Morisot in particular: She exhibited in seven out of the eight impressionist shows, missing only one because of a complication following her pregnancy. One of the strengths of this exhibition is that it allows us to approach and explore the different contributions of these remarkable artists. It’s not just about one artist. There have been shows organized solely on Mary Cassatt, for example. There have also been shows organized solely on Berthe Morisot. But this exhibit shows the richness of the women’s contribution to this artistic period.
At the end of the day, the show is about great art created by great artists. Because of their gender and the society they lived in, they had to overcome many obstacles, misconceptions and critical reviews by male authors and fellow artists who didn’t think women could paint at the same level as their male counterparts.
Degas allegedly blurted out while looking at a Mary Cassatt’s work: “I won’t admit that a woman can draw like that.”
Yes. Women artists experienced limitations and a general reluctance to accept their professional ambitions. And yet they were able to overcome these obstacles and create beautiful and influential art.
Do you have a favorite piece from the exhibit?
It’s always the hardest question. You study these pieces, you research them, and you feel guilty for choosing one instead of the other, like it’s a betrayal [laughs].
Berthe Morisot’s self-portrait from the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris stands out to me. It’s not just the remarkable technique — and some critics at the time considered her the quintessential impressionist because of her very light, feathery brushstrokes and her bright color palette. But it’s the way she portrayed herself. She has this very sketchily painted palette in her hand, and she’s turned toward the viewers looking very confidently and directly at them. And to me, this attitude almost sums up the show. This is not an artist who is portraying herself in beautiful, refined garments while delicately holding a brush, with barely any splatter of paint on her white dress, or one who is delicately placing a few brushstrokes in between tea and scones. Instead, this is a woman who identifies with her work. She is declaring her passion and her profession. It’s a statement: “I am an artist.” We can talk a lot about style and technique, but I think it’s that perspective of the artist that comes through so forcefully. I think that’s what makes it such a compelling work.
Did you find anything surprising while you’ve been working on this exhibit?
The wealth of these women artists' experiences surprised me. Even though we are placing these women together in a group, they are so individualized in their own experiences and trajectories.
You have Berthe Morisot. She had it all. She came from a well-to-do family, was able to study art and exchange ideas with a circle of artists and intellectuals, and married Eugène Manet, who was a very supportive and encouraging husband. She exhibited her work at the Salon, in the impressionist shows, and continued to work professionally as an artist for the rest of her life while fulfilling her role in society as a married woman and as a mother.
And then you have Mary Cassatt. She also had financial means, but she never married and never had children, devoting her life to her art.
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Marie Bracquemond, who came from more humble beginnings, married an artist and left us with an incredible body of work, despite the fact that her husband was very opinionated, to say the least. He did not approve of his wife’s appreciation of the impressionists’ art. His constant criticism and artistic intolerance wore her out to the point that she abandoned painting.
These, of course, are not the only women artists featured in this exhibition, but they offer an example of the compelling stories behind the many remarkable women who placed art at the center of their lives in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism will be on display October 22, 2017, to January 14, 2018, at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway. For more information, call 720-865-5000