Calendar Girls

American Fine Art Magazine - - Contributors - by Jay E. Can­tor

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.

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