It was a joke. It was prompted by a series of unanticipated professional moves. I became involved with a catalog raisonné of Mary Cassatt while I was at Christie’s during the mid-1980s.the project was begun by Francesweitzenhoffer,whose 1985 book about the late-19th- and early20th-century collectors Horace and Louisine Havemeyer had introduced her to the literature on Mrs. Havemeyer’s artist friend and advisor Mary Cassatt. Fran recognized the limitations of the existing catalog by Adelyn Breeskin and hoped to expand and revise that volume with the aid of her good friend, impressionist scholar John Rewald, and the encouragement of Breeskin’s heirs. The project was initially supported by Christie’s where she was affiliated with the impressionist department.that brought me into the picture as a Christie’s colleague and American paintings specialist.with Fran’s untimely death, I became the project director and continued that association when Adelson Galleries took over the work. Having spent more than a decade overseeing the catalog there, during which time I was drafted to the temporary position of president of the newly-founded Georgia O’keeffe Museum, I seemed destined to ultimately transfer my attentions to the third member of the trinity of celebrated women artists,frida Kahlo. At least,that was what a friend assumed when I was asked: “What’s next?” I replied that I was moving on and away from life with the Calendar Girls.the term, I explained, was prompted by the fact that every year there was a wall calendar devoted to these three most popularly visible and sometimes challenging women artists. In fact, a recent check of the internet, now two decades later, reveals that that hasn’t changed.the principal historic women artists who are featured in the 2019 calendar offerings are those three.their work is, of course, important, imaginative and, from the calendar publisher’s point of view, visually striking and possessing wall power. But this also illustrates the often conventional thinking in publishing circles and, not surprisingly, in museums, which tend to spotlight popular and familiar artists. (As for the men, you can probably name the calendar stars of that triad and, in fact, the most regularly exhibited painters: Monet, Picasso,and Van Gogh.)
I was thinking about this when I went to see the recently closed exhibition Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900.That exhibition, organized by the American Federation of Arts and curated by Laurence Madeline, was seen at the Denver Art Museum, the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, and concluded its tour at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where I saw it.
As several recent exhibitions have done, this show has helped to restore many neglected women artists to a position of parity with their male confreres. In the process, it offered many rewards. Familiar artists as well as those less often exhibited provide a rich menu of painterly expression. For the better-known names like Berthe Morisot, Rosa Bonheur and Mary Cassatt, some of their most familiar paintings were included. Other artists, known to me by name but not so often exhibited like Marie Bracquemond and Eva Gonzalès and others to whom I was introduced here, were represented by engaging paintings that lamentably have escaped attention for too long.a long list of discoveries by less familiar artists such as Anna Klumpke, Louise Abbéma, Ellen Thesleff, Anna Ancher, Louise Breslau and Kitty Kielland made the exhibit even more rewarding. What also interested me was the avowed
ambition to bring these artists into the light and the actual structure of the exhibition. In a column I published last year in this magazine, I commented on a 2016 show at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine that featured several women modernist artists who were all working in New York in the early 20th century. Other than contemporaneity, there was little aesthetic interchange between those artists and, as such exhibitions are wont to do, the claims of importance if not direct influence on their male contemporaries were not proven by the inclusion of works by male artists who, in a couple of instances, were artist spouses.while I am certain that neglected women artists should be recognized for their innovations and be seen as powerful exponents of their aesthetic arena, how much more rewarding it would be for the casual visitor to have visual confirmation of that. Without in-depth knowledge of the period, these assertions must be taken by the casual and curious visitor on faith. So, it did not surprise me, but certainly disappointed, that exhibition at the Clark followed a similar trajectory. I long to see the women’s contribution not in isolation but in the company of their male colleagues and have clear evidence of the artistic parity. Museum exhibition publications often take on a life of their own and include a collection of essays stimulated by concepts suggested by the exhibition. They can include art historical insights and information that are not always visible in the exhibition itself.while the catalogs can become significant part of the literature they are not always useful in experiencing the exhibition itself.they are generally acquired after the visit.wall labels abstracted from the text can thus be disconnected from what the visitor is looking at. Catalogs, purchased in the bookstore or, as common now at the Metropolitan, in the boutique that concludes the journey through the special exhibition galleries, become souvenirs of the visit along with postcards, scarves, jewelry and other related merchandise. Fortunately, many museums have begun to use the internet as a vehicle for preparing the visitor for an exhibition, something I have previously discussed in an article about the Thomas Cole show at the Metropolitan in my column in the March/april issue. I think museums could do more to alert visitors to this opportunity for informed and intelligent viewing. The suggestion that the best guide is lengthy wall labels, loaded with ancillary information that does not always focus on the object at hand is, to my mind, questionable and needs reconsideration. I am using the Clark exhibition as an example of a certain kind of museum enterprise,driven by a thesis which can stand outside the actual display itself or, where the objects are employed to illustrate an idea rather than from an aesthetic perspective. This exhibition, while insightful and rewarding was, to my thinking, somewhat flawed in conception and execution. I have tried to connect the dots between the well constructed essays which gave a clear picture of the obstacles faced by women artists in this period including prohibitions for study and exhibition that were placed in their path. But how, I wonder, can such concepts be made visible through the exhibit itself, in both the choices and the installation, without extensive didactic and possibly intrusive labeling.
The accompanying book for this exhibition (and I use that term rather than catalog, as it does not even have a checklist of the show or indicate if all works were shown in all venues), documents at length the limitations posed for women artists by their exclusion in Paris from attending the École des Beaux-arts and their limited acceptance at the official salon, the major vehicle for exposure to the collecting,critical and popular audience. It also documents the often negative and demeaning reviews of art by women that were regularly proffered
by even the most discerning critics. Accusations of amateurism abounded, and women were regularly assigned to more seemingly feminine pursuits such as watercolor, enamel, fan painting and decorating ceramics. Similarly, they were encouraged to focus on less challenging subjects such as portraits and still lifes. Although they only gained access to the École des Beaux-arts in 1897, there were schools aplenty and artists available to tutor and instruct. Academic discipline of the École often focused in tedious copying was replaced by a lively and supportive artistic atmosphere as well through access to museums that became a classroom in the whole history of art.travel to other countries allowed further exposure to a great feast of historical art.the official annual salon included thousands of works and the renegade exhibitions, such as the impressionist shows and World’s Fair displays, provided other opportunities for exposure to new ideas and artistic strategies. Certainly, there were societal factors that could limit a woman’s freedom to pursue a career as a professional artist, but this was, in fact, true of almost all professions.the fact that as many women went on to gain a modicum of fame and success in art is a story that need not be told in isolation but rather one better told by inclusion.
And while the exhibition goes some distance to redress the conventional thinking about the role and relevance of women artists at the dynamic half century that did so much to change the western pictorial tradition it does not, it seems to me, prove that the women artists were at the forefront of innovative experimentation. while both the essays and the installation itself provide evidence for the degree to which women were denied opportunity to study and exhibit, it simultaneously documents their achievement in the conventionally accepted areas of artistic style.
In describing the works, a label notes: “These groundbreaking women overcame immense obstacles to refine their art and develop their careers, staging what we now recognize as a quiet revolution.they played a pivotal role (emphasis mine) in the emergence of the first avant-garde movements, such as impressionism and symbolism, as well as in dismantling the Salon system,where training, exhibitions, and purchases were overseen by the government.”yet many of the works in the exhibition, indeed most, don’t reflect advanced theories of impressionism or Symbolism. They are rather stylistically conventional albeit exploring the notion of modern life that was a subtext of the “New Painting” as advanced art has come to be known.the selections seem to have been based on the limited subject areas that characterize their work.
The exhibition is divided into themes such as“the Lives ofwomen,” “Fashioning an Image,” “Picturing Childhood,” “A Modern Landscape,” and “History Painting and Everyday Heroism.” Many of these subjects were also explored by male contemporaries because the substance of the modern revolution was a rejection of high style literary, historic and allegorical subjects in favor of themes drawn from everyday life as well as an exploration of painterly and individualized styles. Personal expression rather than universal themes became a major point of distinction from the past. Of course, the subject matter was also limited by the social conventions that kept women of some gentility from visiting cafés
and brothels, and the dangerous world of the theater and scenes of nightlife explored by their male contemporaries. that limitation alone meant that the domestic sphere would occupy the focus of many women artists. The painters of modern life had staked their claim on the everyday as the meaningful focus of artistic ambition and many women artists were present at the creation.
The real discovery for me was the inclusion of many works (nearly one third of the exhibition) by artists from Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Most of these painters were unknown to me and I was fascinated to see how much the visual aspect and artistic vocabulary of their native turf was ingrained in their product. The pallet, light and even the representation of figures suggested cultural markers.their visual vocabulary was at times inflected by a northern accent. French paintings, 23 in all, of which nearly half of the works were by a single painter—berthe Morisot, barely edged out the number by Nordic artists. While American works were third in quantity, numbering 17 works by only 6 artists this also seemed a curious limitation. More than 2200 Americans born before 1880 were known to have studied or worked in Paris of whom it is believed about a third were women. I have no idea how many Europeans were working in the French capital and the exhibition could never represent a demographic sampling but, as an American art specialist, I was disappointed by the meager and curious selections. Most prominent of course were Mary Cassatt and Cecelia Beaux. And here, my personal experience with Cassatt comes into play. Beaux’s major signature works were here but some of the more innovative work by Cassatt was not. Cassatt had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before traveling to France where she spent time copying at the Louvre, working in artist run schools, residing in artist summer colonies and travelling for further study to Italy, Belgium, Holland and Spain which had become a popular destination for artist/students. It was there that she finally found a vocabulary of brushstroke and light that transformed her style into a more modern expression. (Cassatt’s major Spanish painting of 1873, Offering the Panal to the Bullfighter, listed on the exhibition checklist on the Clark’s web site was actually on view in the museum’s permanent collection galleries.)
More adventuresome works would have added to the argument for a seminal role but her later focus on women and children as a subject has somewhat distorted the nature of her ambition. In fact, earlier in her career when she was at her most innovative, Cassatt didn’t title her works Mother and Child. Such titles were given later and often post-mortem, suggesting a more sentimental and storytelling reading to what was for her a larger ambition of making modern figural works.
Cassatt was an important member of the impressionist group but her innovations in printmaking and her significant absorption of lessons from Japanese art are barely present.and while the exhibition includes a painting Child Picking a Fruit that relates to the mural (“Modern Woman”) Cassatt painted for the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the matching mural (“Primitive Woman”) on the opposing tympanum of the building by Paris-trained American artist Mary Macmonnies is not mentioned. Surely, she would have been an interesting presence in this show.
The dilemma of the artist wishing to create a unique artistic identity had been a focus since the dawn of modernism and the flourishing of the avant garde.this often involved a self-conscious decision about what and how to paint.would it be style or subject matter, or some other personal expression became defining questions. In the end a modern identity crisis was defined in paint or other artistic materials. Many of the women artists in this exhibition achieved success as professionals despite the impediments. So, the denial of access did not, in the end, totally limit career opportunities. It is equally true that many of the male artists who had greater advantage did not obtain lasting success or long-term historical reputation. Lifetime celebrity does not guarantee long-term significance. In a way, this exhibition is a testament to achievement rather than a document of neglect. But does it prove the fundamental thesis that, although denied immediate celebrity,these featured artists were critical in the development of modern art? If one looks at the work in detail, as the book clearly points out, many continued in a traditional and, in fact, in a soon to be outmoded style. Few can be counted amongst the pioneers. And while some may have participated in new artistic experiments, many of the most celebrated artists, those who can still be found on the calendars, and in the books and exhibitions, have found fame not only through their work but through compelling biographies associated with often larger than life personalities. For the many unsung and underrecognized women artists, those stories are still to be written.
Anna Ancher (1859-1935), The Harvesters, 1905. Oil on canvas, 171/8 x 221/8 in. Art Museums of Skagen, Denmark, SKM1465. Courtesy American Federation of Arts.
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Children Playing on the Beach, 1884. Oil on canvas, 383/8 x 293/16 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.19. Courtesy American Federation of Arts.
Ellen Thesleff (1869-1954), Echo, 1891. Oil on canvas, 24 x 171/8 in. Anders Wiklöf Collection, Andersudde, Åland Islands; Photo: Kjell Söderlund. Courtesy American Federation of Arts.
Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), Woman at Her Toilette, 1875-80. Oil on canvas, 23¾ x 315/8 in. Art Institute of Chicago, Stickney Fund, 1924.127.