Discovering Women Artists

I love discovering women artists I did not know about. It’s a little sad that the discovery so often seems to be online. I have spent a lifetime in museums, and I’ve seen so few women artists represented . . . The occasional Berthe Morisot, Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo. It’s as though women only started painting at a particular period in time, which isn’t at all accurate . . . there were professional women artists in the medieval period.

But this narrative, that women artists were few and far between, dominated my childhood. For me, as for many other women, reading Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Angel in the House” was transformative, because it gave us a reason why our female predecessors were missing — like the hypothetical Shakespeare’s sister, they had not been given the opportunity and support to develop their talents. The alternative narrative, the one that had been implicit in the cultural cannon I grew up with, was that women simply did not have the mental capacity for that sort of genius. Oh sure, maybe a few women here and there . . . but they were exceptions. I was probably not that sort of exception.

But Woolf wasn’t quite right either . . . Yes, women had lacked opportunities and support. Barred from life drawing classes, they had painted what they could. But the women were there. They were painting, drawing, sculpting, making pottery. We know, because their work exists — artists like Angelica Kauffman, Rosa Bonheur, and Sarah Bernhardt (who was known almost as much for her sculpture as her acting) were not only good, but prolific. So where had their works gone? Often, into private collections. Sometimes, their works had been bought by museums and still languished in storage rooms, not part of the main narrative of art. In the interest of creating and curating that narrative, which moved with seemingly irrefutable logic from movement to movement, museums had left out whatever branched from that main narrative, whatever existed on a byway — anything that disturbed the logical flow from, say, romanticism to impressionism to symbolism to expressionism . . .

Women often painted in those branches and byways. They painted flowers, or interiors, or genre paintings that were considered technically masterful, but perhaps not truly “innovative” . . . They were, perhaps, painting on porcelain. Or fans. Or perhaps they were doing what might be classified as “crafts,” although when male artists designed wall hangings or decorated rooms, those were still considered art . . . Women were often recognized as good technicians. They were rarely considered geniuses.

I’m actually not interested in arguing that they were, because I think the genius narrative of art impoverishes it. If we are to worship geniuses, and to argue about who is and is not a genius, we will have very little art to look at. Instead, I want to look at art as a tree with many branches, where each twig, each leaf, may be interesting in itself. Or a road with many byways branching off it, where those small paths may lead to the most interesting places. In fact, the art we look at least may be the most interesting, and the “lower” arts — illustration, pottery, embroidery — may teach us more than the most famous Picasso. I will confess: my eyes have grown tired of Picasso. I want to see delicate botanical paintings. They speak more to me, and to this particular cultural moment, than another blue harlequin. (This is not at all to discount Picasso, whom I admire even though I do not love, simply for painting so damn much that every major museum I’ve ever been to has its Picasso, proudly displayed.)

But the paintings I love to look at are the ones I’ve never seen before, the ones I can’t find in museums. They are often featured online by sites such as Female Artists in History. What I see there is like an eye wash for dusty eyes — every new image clears my sight, and I think, Oh, you can do that. You can see a room in that way, with sunlight flooding through a window shaded on either side by green curtains. You can paint onions and chrysanthemums. You can even paint female models with no reference to a male viewer, either inside or outside the canvas. Women were painting in ancient China, and Renaissance Italy, and Australia during the World Wars. Women were and are painting all the time, all over the world.

This is important to me because it gives me permission, a permission I did not quite have growing up, to create the way I want to. In those little branches and byways, even though I may not be a genius, even though I’m just off on some side road, some offshoot, doing my own thing, hoping it will be good. If the world is and was filled with women creating art, then I don’t need to be exceptional. I can just be, and do.

The following paintings are all by Blanche Hoschedé Monet, the daughter of Alice Hoschedé, Claude Monet’s second wife. Her father was Ernest Hoschedé, who was one of Monet’s first patrons. The family relationship was, shall we say, complicated. Blanche actually grew up in the Monet household, with her mother and siblings, as well as Monet, his wife Camille, and their two sons. After the deaths of Camille and Ernest, Alice married Monet. Blanche later married Monet’s and Camille’s son Jean. She was the only one of the children interested in painting, and Monet’s only student, as well as his assistant. After the deaths of Alice and Jean, she took over running Giverny and helped Monet with his work. It’s clear from her paintings how deeply she was influenced by him and impressionism, but to me, her work has a sensibility of its own, a different approach — softer, less influenced by a sense of balance and proportion inherited from the academic painters. It feels more spontaneous. To me, it’s a little more modern. And the colors are beautiful.

What do you think, should I write some poems about these paintings? I’m feeling inspired . . .

Bois Tailler En Automne (Effet d’Hiver) by Blanche Hoschedé Monet.

Primevères by Blanche Hoschedé Monet.

Le Jardin de Monet à Giverny by Blanche Hoschedé Monet.

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6 Responses to Discovering Women Artists

  1. Patrick Murphy says:

    Thank you for sharing these discoveries. Just shifting a viewpoint gives a whole new perspective to my museum going. Some disappointment, but very intrigued by what could be tucked away in museum holdings.

  2. Nancy says:

    Theodora, by all means, write poems to those works! Strike now while the inspirational iron is hot!
    Have you ever heard of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany? She started her life’s work at the age of 72, in 1772, creating mixed media collages of botanically correct flowers, stunning in their precision and beauty. An artist, yes, she was.

  3. ronwodaski says:

    I am so happy that you have gotten yourself to a place where you can articulate thoughts like these – I find a lot of fog and confusion there, and i appreciate your clarity. Cultural baggage on art and other things can be so misleading. you have given me a deeper feeling about how art happens, and i am grateful.

  4. Irene says:

    Thank you for your Blog! I really enjoyed this article. I have some Female artist’s works you haven’t seen. The nice thing is that the artist Edna Vognild was born in Rock Island Illinois in 1877. She painted a portrait of my mother in 1950. If you want I can send you photo’s of her work or you can look her up at Illinois Women Painters Project at Bradley College in Illinois. . I sent them copies of her work. They put the Portrait on the Edna Vognild page. She like many artists of her day worked in many mediums. She made Book Plates,Designed Textiles, Painted Murals, Painted in Oils Watercolors, she and her husband Enoch Owned a Fine Print Shop in Chicago. They were Internationally famous.

  5. helen says:

    Of COURSE you should write some poems about those paintings! What a wonderful idea.

    And thank you for your post, I enjoyed it very much. What you write about art being in the byways as well as in the grand narrative is so true. And, as you point out, recognising that women have always been creating art and that ‘genius’ is not a useful descriptor is liberating.

    And happy 2020 to you!

  6. cathypearl says:

    Theodora,
    Yes! Please write poems about these beautiful paintings. Thank you for the article.

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