Women Impressionists

“While amateur talents in drawing and watercolor were encouraged as part of a good bourgeois education, professional careers for women who did not need to work were considered detrimental as they were thought to divert women from their prescribed roles as wives and mothers.”
Women Artists in 19thc France, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History 

In the 19th century, women were denied access to the training necessary to become an artist.  The 19th century “doctrine of separate spheres” dictated that a woman’s place was in the home, so women were not permitted into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, nor were they allowed to work from the live model, which was fundamental to becoming a serious “history painter.”

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair, 1853-55. Metropolitan Museum

Rosa Bonheur got around this by studying the anatomy of horses rather than men.   This painting of a horse fair in Paris, with recognizable city landmarks in the background, was exhibited at the Salon of 1853, and has all of the grandeur and heroic action of a traditional History Painting.  To prepare the work, Bonheur had to dress as a man when she went to work on studies at the Paris horse market to avoid harassment:

“Bonheur began work on The Horse Fair in 1852. For a year and a half, she made sketches twice a week at the horse market in Paris, on the boulevard de l’Hôpital, dressing as a man in order to attract less attention from the horse dealers and buyers.”
Metropolitan Museum 

It’s a Man’s World
The Impressionist legitimization of modern life subject opened up new opportunities for women artists, since they could now paint the world around them (no need to study nude models), but they did not have access to many of the modern subjects painted by their male counterparts.  19th century Paris was very much a man’s world, dominated by the male flâneur (meaning “stroller,” or idle “people watcher”), who was quite at home as he traveled along the boulevards taking in the sights.  Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as “the passionate spectator” who enjoyed the anonymity that the crowded street of a city can provide.  Traveling “incognito” he could take in the sights like a voyeur.  But women were much more limited in their mobility, and in their ability to blend into the crowd.  As the writer Jules Michelet explains:

“How many irritations for the single woman! She can hardly ever go out in the evening; she would be taken for a prostitute. There are thousands of places where only men are to be seen, and if she needs to go there on business, the men are amazed and laugh like fools. For example, if she should fin herself delayed at the other end of Paris and hungry, she will not dare to enter a restaurant. She would constitute an event. She would be a spectacle. All eyes would be constantly fixed on her and she would overhear uncomplimentary and bold conjectures.”

Art historians argue that many Impressionist subjects are taken from the viewpoint of the male flâneur — they are like “snapshots” of urban life, taken by the artist as he wanders the environs of Paris.  But women Impressionists could not wander the city freely, unless they were willing to surrender their “respectability.”  This lack of freedom was quite irritating to the painter Marie Bashkirtsheff, who wrote in 1882:

“Ah! how women are to be pitied; men are at least free. Absolute independence in everyday life, liberty to come and go, to go out, to dine at an inn or at home, to walk to the Bois or the café; this liberty is half the battle in acquiring talent, and three parts of everyday happiness.”[1]

[1] Learn more:  http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/ARTH_220/social_space.html

Berthe Morisot, The Mother and Sister of the Artist, 1869/1870. National Gallery of Art

Berthe Morisot participated in most of the Impressionist exhibitions, and was highly respected by her male colleagues.  She painted with the loose brushstroke typical of Impressionist painting, but unlike her male counterparts, Morisot focused on domestic scenes, rather than the public spaces favored by her male colleagues, and she focused on family members and friends, rather than the anonymous crowd that typically populates Impressionist pictures by Manet, Monet, and Renoir.  Many of Morisot’s pictures include a distinct boundary separating the domestic realm of women and family from the public spaces of the modern city, which may reflect the artist’s awareness of the limits that were imposed on women’s social mobility.

Berthe Morisot, The Mother and Sister of the Artist, Smarthistory

Mary Cassatt, The Bath, 1893. Art Institute of Chicago

Mary Cassatt was from a wealthy Philadelphia family, and she also focused on domestic scenes of female relatives and friends.  An early supporter of Feminism, Cassatt portrayed the women in her family as remarkably strong and intellectual characters.  But Cassatt is best known for her images of mothers and children.  An update on the traditional theme of the Madonna and Child, Cassatt focuses on the close relationship between the care-giver and child, honoring the important role of female care-givers in a child’s upbringing and education:

“The woman’s gestures — one firm hand securing the child in her lap, the other gently caressing its small foot — are both natural and emblematic, communicating her tender concern for the child’s well-being. The two figures gaze in the same direction, looking together at their paired reflection in the basin of water.”
Art Institute of Chicago

Mary Cassatt, In the Loge, 1878. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Mary Cassatt, In the Loge, 1878. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One of Cassatt’s most remarkable paintings is In the Loge.  It depicts a fashionably dressed woman at the opera, gazing intensively through her opera glasses.  Perhaps she is trying to get a closer look at the performance, or (more likely) someone in the audience has caught her eye.  In the background, we notice a gentleman on the other side of the theater, gazing at her.  We all know what it is like to be “checked out” in public — it can be flattering, but it can also make us feel vulnerable and self-conscious.  Scholars refer to this as the “power of the gaze” — where the act of looking can create an unequal power relationship, placing the “object” of the gaze in a vulnerable position.  Cassatt brilliantly captures the dynamics of the “gaze” as it operates in social space, and the acute vulnerability of women in the male dominated world of 19th century Paris.

Cassatt’s In the Loge (Smarthistory)


Web Resources:

Women ARtists in Ninteteenth Century France (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History)

The Nineteenth Century, National Museum of Women in the Arts

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