«by LINDA NOCHLIN While the recent upsurge of feminist activity in this country has indeed been a liberating one, its force has been chiefly ...»
The unconscious aura of titillation that arises from a visual representation of an aspiring woman artist in the mid-19th century, Emily Mary Osborn's heartfelt painting, Nameless and Friendless (1857), a canvas representing a poor but lovely and respectable young girl at a London art dealer nervously awaiting the verdict of the pompous proprietor about the worth of her canvases while two ogling "art lovers" look on, is really not too different in its underlying assumptions from an overtly salacious work like Bompard's Debut of the Model.
The theme in both is innocence, delicious feminine innocence, exposed to the world. It is the charming vulnerability of the young woman artist, like that of the hesitating model, which is really the subject of Osborn's painting, not the value of the young woman's work or her pride in it: the issue here is, as usual, sexual rather than serious. Always a model but never an artist might well have served as the motto of the seriously aspiring young woman in the arts of the 19th century.
But what of the small band of heroic women, who, throughout the ages, despite obstacles, have achieved preeminence, if not the pinnacles of grandeur of a Michelangelo, a Rembrandt, or a Picasso? Are there any qualities, that may be said to have characterized them as a group and as individuals? While 1 cannot go into such an investigation in great detail in this article, I can point to a few striking characteristics of women artists generally: they all, almost without exception, were either the daughters of artist fathers, or generally later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, had a close personal connection with a stronger or more dominant male artistic personality. Neither of these character* tics is, of course, unusual for men artists, either, as we have indicated above in the case of artist fathers and sons: it is simply true almost without exception for their feminine counterparts, at least until quite recently. From the legendary sculptor Sabina von Steinbach, in the13th century, who, according to local tradition, was responsible for the South Portal groups on the Cathedral of Strasbourg, down to Rosa Bonheur the most renowned animal painter of the 19th century, and including such eminent women artists as Marietta Robusti (daughter of Tintoretto), Lavinia Fontana, Artemisia Gentileschi, Elizabeth Cheron, Mme.
Vigee Lebrun, and Angelica Kauffmann--all, without exception, were the daughters of artists. In the 19th century, Berthe Morisot was closely associated with Manet, later marrying his brother, and Mary Cassatt based a good deal of her work on the style of her close friend Degas. Precisely the same breaking of traditional bonds and discarding of time-honored practices that permitted men artists to strike out in directions quite different from those of their fathers in the second half of the nineteenth century enabled women, with additional difficulties, to be sure, to strike out on their own as well. Many of our more recent women artists, like Suzanne Valadon, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Kathe.Kollwitz, or Louise Nevelson, have come from non-artistic backgrounds, although many contemporary and near contemporary women artists have married fellow artists.
It would be interesting to investigate the role of benign, if not outright encouraging, fathers in the formation of women professionals: both Kathe Kollwitz and Barbara Hepworth, for example, recall the influence of unusually sympathetic and supportive fathers on their artistic pursuits. In the absence of any thoroughgoing investigation, one can only gather impressionistic data about the presence or absence of rebellion against parental authority in women artists, and whether there may be more or less rebellion on the part of women
artists than is true in the case of men or vice versa. One thing, however, is clear:
for a woman to opt for a career at all,--much less for a career in art, has required a certain amount of individuality, both in the past and at present;
whether or not the woman artist rebels against or finds strength in the attitude of her family, she must in any case have a good strong streak of rebellion in her to make her way in the world of art at all, rather than submitting to the socially approved role of wife and mother, the only role to which every social institution consigns her automatically. It is only by adopting, however covertly, the "masculine" attributes of single-mindedness, concentration, tenaciousness, and absorption in ideas and craftsmanship for their own sake that women have succeeded, and continue to succeed, in the world of art.
It is instructive to examine in greater detail one of the most successful and accomplished women painters of all time, Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), whose work, despite the ravages wrought upon its estimation by changes of taste and a certain admitted lack of variety, still stands as an impressive achievement to anyone interested in the art of the 19th century and in the history of taste generally. Rosa Bonheur is a woman artist in whom, partly because of the magnitude of her reputation, all the various conflicts, all the internal and external contradictions and struggles typical of her sex and profession, stand out in sharp relief.
The success of Rosa Bonheur firmly establishes the role of institutions, and institutional change, as a necessary, if not a sufficierit, cause for achievement in art. We might say that Bonheur picked a fortunate time to become an artist if she was, at the same time, to have the disadvantage of being a woman: she came into her own in the middle of the 19th century, a time in which the struggle between traditional history painting as opposed to the less pretentious and more freewheeling genre painting, landscape and still-life was won by the latter group hands down. A major change in the social and institutional support for art itself was well under way: with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the fall of the cultivated aristocracy, smaller painting generally of everyday subjects, rather than grandiose mythological or religious scenes scenes were much in demand. To cite the Whites: "Three hundred provincial museums there might be, government commissions for public works there might be, but the only possible paid destinations for the rising flood of canvases were the homes of the bourgeoisie. History painting had not and never would rest comfortably in the middle-class parlor. 'Lesser' forms of image art--genre, landscape, still-life-did." In mid-century France, as in 17th century Holland, there was a tendency for artists to attempt to achieve some sort of security in a shaky market situation by specializing, by making a career out of a specific subject: animal painting was a very popular field, as the Whites point out, and Rosa Bonheur was no doubt its most accomplished and successful practitioner, followed in popularity only by the Barbizon painter Troyon (who at one time was so pressed for his paintings of cows that he hired another artist to brush in the backgrounds). Rosa Bonheur's rise to fame accompanied that of the Bar bizon landscapists, supported by those canny dealers, the Durand-Ruels, who later moved on to the Impressionists. The Durand-Ruels were among the first dealers to tap the expanding market in movable decoration for the middle classes, to use the Whites' terminology. Rosa Bonheur's naturalism and ability to capture the individuality--even the "soul"--of each of her animal subjects coincided with bourgeois taste at the time. The same combination of qualities, with a much stronger dose of sentimentality and pathetic fallacy to be sure, likewise assured the success of her animalier contemporary, Landseer, in England.
Daughter of an impoverished drawing master, Rosa Bonheur quite naturally showed her interest in art early; at the same time, she exhibited an independence of spirit and liberty which immediately earn ed here the label of tomboy. According to her own later accounts, her "masculine protest" established itself early; to what extent any show of persistence, stubbornness, and vigor would be counted as masculine" in the first half of the 19th century is
conjectural. Rosa Bonheur's attitude toward her father is somewhat ambiguous:
while realizing that he had been influential in directing her toward her life's work, there is no doubt that she resented his thoughtless treatment of her beloved mother, and in her reminiscences, she half affectionately makes fun of his bizarre form of social idealism. Raimond Bortheur had been an active member of the short-lived Saint-Simonian community, established in the third decade of the nineteenth century by "Le Pere" Enfantin at Menilmontant.
Although in her later years Rosa Bonheur might have made fun of some of the more farfetched eccentricities of the members of the community, and disapproved of the additional strain which her father's apostolate placed on her overburdened mother, it is obvious that the Saint-Simonian ideal of equality for women--they disapproved of marriage, their trousered feminine costume was a token of emancipation, and their spiritual leader, Le Pere Enfantin, made extraordinary efforts to find a Woman Messiah to share his reign--made a strong jmpression on her as a child, and may well have influenced her future course of behavior.
"Why shouldn't I be proud to be a woman?" she exclaimed to an interviewer.
"My father, that enthusiastic apostle of humanity, many times reiterated to me that woman's mission was to elevate the human race, that she was the Messiah of future centuries. It is to his doctrines that I owe the great, noble ambition I have conceived for the sex which I proudly affirm to be mine, and whose independence I will support to my dying day...." When she was hardly more than a child, he instilled in her the ambition to surpass Mine. Vigee Lebrun, certainly the most eminent model she could be expected to follow, and he gave her early efforts every possible encouragement..At the same time the spectacle of her uncomplaining mother's slow decline--from sheer overwork and poverty might have been an even more realistic influence on her decision to control her own destiny and never to become the slave of a husband and children. What is particularly interesting from the modern feminist viewpoint is Rosa Bonheur's ability to combine the most vigorous and unapologetic masculine protest with unabashedly self-contradictory assertions of "basic" femininity.
In those refreshingly straightforward pre-Freudian days, Rosa Bonheur could explain to her biographer that she had never wanted to marry for fear of losing her independence. Too many young girls let themselves be led to the altar like lambs to the sacrifice, she maintained. Yet at the same time that she rejected marriage for herself and implied an inevitable loss of selfhood for any woman who engaged in it, she, unlike the Saint-Simonians, considered marriage "a sacrament indispensable to the organization of society."
While remaining cool to offers of marriage, she joined in a seemingly cloudless, lifelong, and apparently Platonic union with a fellow woman artist, Nathalie Micas, who provided her with the companionship and emotinal warmth which she needed. Obviously the presence of this sympathetic friend did not seem to demand the same sacrifice of genuine commitment to her profession which marriage would have entailed: in any case, the advantages of such an arrangement for women who wished to avoid the distraction of children in the days before reliable contraception are obvious.
Yet at the same time that she frankly rejected the conventional feminine role of her times, Rosa Bonheur still was drawn into what Betty Friedan has called the "frilly blouse syndrome, " that innocuous version of the feminine. protest which even today compels successful women psychiatrists or professors to adopt some ultra feminine item of clothing or insist n proving their prowess as piebakers.' Despite the fact that she had early cropped hair and adopted men's clothes as her habitual attire, following the example of George Sand, whose rural Romanticism exerted a powerful influence over her imagination, to her biographer she insisted, and no doubt sincerely believed, that she did so only because of the specific demands of her profession. Indignantly denying rumors to the effect that she had run about the streets of Paris dressed as a boy in her youth, she proudly provided her biographer with a daguerreotype of herself at sixteen, dressed in perfectly conventional feminine fashion, except for her shorn hair, which she excused as a practical measure taken after the death of her mother; "Who would have taken care of my curls?" she demanded.