«by LINDA NOCHLIN While the recent upsurge of feminist activity in this country has indeed been a liberating one, its force has been chiefly ...»
ox? the nether regions are obscure in the photograph), a naked cow to be sure, perhaps a daring liberty when one considers that even piano legs might be concealed beneath pantalettes during this era. (The idea of introducing a bovine model into the artist's studio stems from Courbet, who brought a bull into his short lived studio academy in the 1860s). Only at the very end of the 19th century, in the relatively liberated and open atmosphere of Repin's studio and circle in Russia, do we find representations of women art students working uninhibitedly from the nude--the female model to be sure in the company of men. Even in this case, it must be noted that certain photographs represent a private sketch group meeting in one of the women artists' homes; in another, the model is draped; and the large group portrait, a cooperative effort by two men and two women students of Repin's, is an imaginary gathering together of all of the Russian realist's pupils, past and present, rather than a realistic studio view.
I have gone into the question of the availability of the nude model, a single aspect of the automatic, institutionally maintained discrimination against women, in such detail simply to demonstrate both the universality of this discrimination and its consequences, as well as the institutional rather than individual nature of but one facet of the necessary preparation for achieving mere proficiency, much less greatness, in the realm of art during a long period.
One could equally well examine other other dimensions of the situation, such as the apprencticeship system, the academic educational pattern which, in France especially, was almost the only key to success and which had a regular progression and set competitions, crowned by the Prix de Rome which enabled the young winner to work in the French Academy in that city--unthinkab1e for women, of course--and for which women were unable to compete until the end of the 19th century, by which time, in fact the whole academic system had lost its importance anyway. It seems clear, to take France in the 19th century as an example (a country which probably had a larger proportion of women artists than any other-that is to say, in terms of their percentage in the total number of artists exhibiting in the Salon), that "women were not accepted as professional painters. In the middle of the century, there were only a third as many women as men artists, but even this mildly encouraging statistic is deceptive when we discover that out of this relatively meager number, none had attended that major stepping-stone to artistic success, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, only 7 percent had ever received any official commission or had held any official office-and these might include the most menial sort of work only 7 percent had ever received any Salon medal, and none had ever received the Legion of Honor. Deprived of encouragements, educational facilities, and rewards it is almost incredible that a certain women did persevere and seek a profession in the arts.
It also becomes apparent why women were able to compete on far more equal terms with men--and even become innovators--in literature. While art making traditionally has demanded the learning of specific techniques and skills, in a certain sequence, in an institutional setting outside the home, as well as becoming familiar with a specific vocabulary of iconography and motifs, the same is by no means true for the poet or novelist. Anyone, even a woman, has to learn the language, can learn to read and write, and can commit personal experiences to paper in the privacy of one's room. Naturally this oversimplifies the real difficulties and complexities involved in creating good or great literature, whether by man or woman but it still gives a clue as to the possibility of the existence of an Emily Bronte or an Emily Dickenson and the lack of their counterparts, at least until quite recently, in the visual arts.
Of course we have not gone into the "fringe" requirements for major artists, which would have been, for the most part, both psychically and socially closed to women, even if hypothetically they could have achieved the requisite grandeur in the performance of their craft: in the Renaissance and after, the great artist, aside from participating in the affairs of an academy, might well be intimate with members of humanist circles with whom he could exchange ideas, establish suitable relationships with patrons, travel widely and freely, perhaps politic and intrigue,nor have we mentioned the organizational acumen and ability involved involved in running a major studio-factory, like that of Rubens.
An enormous amount of self-confidence and worldly knowledgeability, as well as a natural sense well-earned dominanace and power was needed by the great chef d'ecole both in the running of the production end of painting, and in the control and instruction of the numerous students and assistants.
The Lady's Accomplishment
In contrast to the single-mindedness and commitment demanded of a chef d'ecole, we might set the image of the "lady painter" established by 19th century etiquette books and reinforced in the literature of the times. It is precisely the insistence upon a modest, proficient, self demeaning level of amateurism as a "suitable accomplishment" for the well brought up young woman, who naturally would want to direct her major attention to the welfare of others-family and husband--that militated, and still militates, against any real accomplishment on the part of women. It is this emphasis which transforms serious commitment to frivolous self-indulgence, busy work, or occupational therapy, and today, more than ever, in suburban bastions of the feminine mystique, tends to distort the whole notion of what art is and what kind of social role it plays. In Mrs. Ellis's widely read The Family Monitor and Domestic Guide, published before the middle of the 19th century, a book of advice popular both in the United States and in England, women were warned
against the snare of trying too hard to excel in any one thing:
It must not be supposed that the writer is one who would advocate, as essential to woman, any very extraordinary degree of intellectual attainment, especially if confined to one particular branch of study.
'I should like to excel in something' is a frequent and, to some extent, laudable expression; but in what does it originate, and to what does it tend? To be able to do a great many things tolerably well, is of infinitely more value to a woman, than to be able to excell in any one.
By the former, she may render herself generally useful; by the latter she may dazzle for an hour. By being apt, and tolerably well skilled in everything, she may fall into any situation in life with dignity and ease--by devoting her time to excellence in one, she may remain incapable of every other.
So far as cleverness, learning, and knowledge are conducive to woman's moral excellence, they are therefore desirable, and no further. All that would occupy her mind to the exclusion of better things, all that would involve her in the mazes of flattery and admiration, all that would tend to draw away her thoughts from others and fix them on herself, ought to be avoided as an evil to her, however brilliant or attractive it may he in itself.
Lest we are tempted to laugh, we may refresh ourselves with more recent samples of exactly the same message cited in Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique, or in the pages of recent issues of popular women's magazines.
The advice has a familiar ring: propped up by a bit of Freudiansim and some tag-lines from the social sciences about the well-rounded personality, preparation for woman's chief career, marriage and the unfemininity of deep involvement with work rather than sex, it is still the mainstay of the Feminine Mystique. Such an outlook helps guard men from unwanted competition in their "serious" professional activities and assures them of "wellrounded" assistance on the home front so that they can have sex and family in addition to the fulfillment of their own specialized talents at the same time.
As far as painting specifically is concerned, Mrs. Ellis finds that it has one immediate advantage for the young lady over its rival branch of artistic activity, music--it is quiet and disturbs no one (this negative virtue, of course, would not be true of sculpture, but accomplishment with the hammer and chisel simply never occurs as a suitable accomplishment for the weaker sex); in addition, says Mrs. Ellis, "it [drawing] is an employment which beguiles the mind of many cares....Drawing is, of all other occupations, the one most calculated to keep the mind from brooding upon self, and to maintain that general cheerfulness which is a part of social-and domestic duty.... It can also," she adds, "be laid down and resumed, as circumstance or inclination may direct, and that without serious loss." Again, lest we feel that we have made a great deal of progress in this area in the past one hundred years, I might bring up the remark of a bright young doctor who, when the conversation turned to his wife and her friends "dab bling" in the arts, snorted: "Well, at least it keeps them out of trouble!" Now as in the 19th century, amateurism and lack of real commitment, as well as snobbery and emphasis on chic on the part of women, in their artistic "hobbies" feeds the contempt of the successful, professionally committed man, who is engaged in "real" work and can, with a certain justice, point to his wife's lack of seriousness in her artistic activities. For such men, the "real" work of women is only that which directly or indirectly serves the family;
any other commitment falls under the rubric of diversion, selfishness, egomania, or, at the unspoken extreme, castration. The circle is a vicious one, in which philistinism and frivolity mutually reinforce each other.
In literature, as in life, even if the woman's commitment to art was a serious one, she was expected to drop her career and give up this commitment at the behest of love and marriage: this lesson is, today as in the 19 th century, still inculcated in young girls, directly or indirectly, from the moment they are born.
Even the determined and successful heroine of Mrs. Craik's mid-19th-century novel about feminine artistic success, Olive, a young woman who lives alone, strives for fame and independence, and actually supports herself through her art--such unfeminine behavior is at least partly excused by the fact that she is a cripple and automatically considers that marriage is denied to her--even Olive ultimately succumbs to the blandishments of love and marriage. To paraphrase the words of Patricia Thomson in The Victorian Heroine, Mrs. Craik, having shot her bolt in the course of her novel, is content, finally, to let her heroine, whose ultimate greatness the reader has never been able to doubt, sink gently into matrimony. "Of Olive, Mrs. Craik comments imperturbably that her husband's influence is to deprive the Scottish Academy of 'no one knew how many grand pictures.'" Then as now, despite men's greater "tolerance" the choice for women seems always to be marriage or a career, i.e., solitude as the price of success or sex and companionship at the price of personal renunciation.
That achievement in the arts, as in any field of endeavor, demands struggle and sacrifice is undeniable; that this has certainly been true after the middle of the 19th century, when the traditional institutions of artistic support and patronage no longer fulfilled their customary obligations, is also undeniable. One has only to think of Delacroix, Courbet, Degas, van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec as examples of great artists who gave up the distractions and obligations of family life, at least in part, so that they could pursue their artistic careers more singlemindedly. Yet none of them was automatically denied the pleasure of sex or companoinship on account of this choice. Nor did they ever conceive that they had sacrificed their manhood-or their sexual role on account of their single mindedness in achieving professional fulfillment. But if the artist in question happened to be a woman, one thousand years of guilt, self-doubt, and objecthood would have been added to the undeniable difficulties of being an artist in the modern world.