Just over a week ago, I was invited to take part in a panel discussion at one of the Tate Britain’s ‘Tate Lates’ evenings. Tate Publishing have recently brought out in the UK a new title surveying feminist art called, ‘Art of Feminism’ of which I had been one of the contributing writers, putting together the first section covering women’s art broadly from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. About a third of the images for the section came from our archives here at the library. The discussion at this particular Friday late, focused on women artists, past, present and future, and I spoke alongside Sofia Karamani, curator of the Tate Britain’s ‘Sixty Years’ annual exhibition which this year focused on work by women artists in the Tate’s collection. Also involved were researcher and curator, Helena Reckitt who teaches at Goldsmith’s. Helena had been consultant editor on the book and chaired the panel, which also included artists, Michelle Williams Gamaker and Tamara Al-Mashouk. It proved a thought-provoking discussion on the past challenges and present issues still facing women artists in the 21st century. My job, as the writer of the first part of ‘Art of Feminism’ was to look at the past, set the scene, and map out the obstacles facing women artists a century before a defined feminist movement emerged. Packing a century of art into 25,000 words and around 75 pages proved difficult, and inevitably it was impossible to include everything I wanted to, but I hope my section presents a balanced and thoughtful overview on the female experience of the art world during this time.
Over four chapters, I cover women artists and photographers during world conflicts, who overcame marginalisation and prejudice to record their, often unique, view of war. I wrote about the inter-war period with its explosion of experimental art movements and the rise of the modern woman, some of whom achieved economic agency and independence through their art. And of course, there is a chapter devoted to the art of the suffrage campaign, a political movement which harnessed art and design – mainly by women – to create a distinctive brand and visual identity, still exuding a powerful pull a century since it was conceived. Forming the foundations of the section, I try to convey the struggle women artists faced in the nineteenth century, and the obstacles they had to overcome to achieve parity with men. It is not only about WHAT they painted, but also how they managed to become artists at all.
As part of the discussion, I chose to show, ‘Nameless & Friendless’ by Emily Mary Osborn, a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857, and on display at the Tate Britain (in the 1840 room if you’d like to go and see it https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/emily-mary-osborn-12441), which speaks very eloquently about the isolation of women artists in a male-dominated world. Our version shows an engraving of the painting which appeared in The Illustrated London News in July 1862, at the time the picture was on display at the International Exhibition. In many ways, the painting follows a traditional Victorian narrative tradition, and mines the rather bleak but popular themes of poverty and destitution. The central figure of the painting is a young woman who brings in a painting to sell to an art dealer. Her black dress suggests she has been recently bereaved, and the little boy at her side is most likely a younger brother, for whom she is now responsible. Consequently, the painting she brings to be assessed, is a device that seems to embody her future, making for a nerve-wracking scene. What Emily Mary Osborn is very good at is making us, the viewer, feel as uncomfortable as the subject herself. Here she is, entering a male domain, one in which she, inexperienced, nervous, grieving, has to attempt an economic transaction. As well as the disdainful look of the art dealer, who isn’t going to give her nearly as much as she’d hope for the picture, there is the pity of his assistant looking down on them from the vantage point of a ladder. Worse still, a couple of wolfish city swells, lounge around looking at prints of dancers with their shapely legs; they appraise the modest looking young women and we can imagine what they are thinking. Her only potential ally, another woman, accompanied by her son, is already bustling out of the shop, making her isolated position seem even more acute. It shows us that the art world is not a kind or encouraging place for a woman to be. It’s somewhere where she must find her own way.
In the nineteenth century, there was a dichotomy when it came to women and art. It’s not that women didn’t paint. In fact, middle and upper class women were positively encouraged to do so. Art was an accomplishment that a young lady should take pains to develop. Godey’s Lady’s Book, with a circulation of 150,000 in the United States during the 1860s and 1870s, featured “A Course of Lessons on Drawing,” though more pages focused on needlework and decorative art for the household. British writer, Sarah Stickney Ellis addressed the subject of art and its benefits to young women in Daughters of England, (a copy of which we have in the library alongside Godey’s), one of four popular advice manuals she authored. “Amongst these advantages” she wrote of drawing “I will begin with the least – it is quiet. It disturbs no one; for however defective the performance may be, it does not necessarily, like music, jar upon the sense. It is true, it may when seen offend the practised eye; but we can always draw in private, and keep our productions to ourselves.” Stickney’s suggestion that art could be carried out by women quietly, and without disturbing anyone, speaks volumes about the idea that any learning or cultivation of talents should be exercised purely within the framework of family obligations. But, to turn a benign hobby into a successful career? To exhibit and sell pictures? To BE a professional artist? That’s where the encouragement stopped and the barriers went up. There was an implicit & collective belief that woman’s designated role was to be the ‘angel of the home’. An unmarried woman’s ambition was to marry, and then, once married, her prime focus was to raise a family in a good & Christian way.
If women wanted an art education in the 1800s, they had to fight for it. Some were lucky, like Emily Mary Osborn, who had a progressive family who encouraged her to become an artist. She had a strong support network, not only familial, but she was a central figure in female networks including the Society for Women Artists, which formed in 1857. She was also involved in the early suffrage movement (it is notable, though perhaps unsurprising, that a number of women artists were also suffrage supporters), but other women would not have the same advantages.
Two art schools opened for women in London in the 1840s – the Female School of Art, and the National Art Training School. Both emphasised training in the applied arts for manufacturing and industry. While this suited many women, for those who wished to become ‘fine’ artists, opportunities were scarce. Central to an art education was the study of the human form in life classes. And in most cases, women were denied access to a life class with a nude model in the interests of propriety. The Royal Academy, the hub of the art establishment, would not admit women to their school, despite two women, Mary Moser and Angelica Kaufmann being among its founding members in the eighteenth century. In 1860, artist Laura Herford submitted a picture signed only with her initials, which was judged of sufficient standard to gain admittance for its artist. When her identity was revealed, the Academy could find no rules to prevent her entering the school. To say Herford opened the floodgates for women at the Royal Academy would be to exaggerate. The RA remained reluctant for several decades and did little to encourage women students, some years putting a stop to their entry altogether. Not until 1922, did they admit a female associate member (Laura Swynnerton) and finally, in 1936, Laura Knight became its first woman Academician since the institution’s founding. The opening of the Slade School of art in 1871 was to mark a watershed moment, in that men and women both attended. It offered a serious alternative to the Royal Academy school as part of a liberal arts university, and could count Kate Greenaway, Evelyn de Morgan, Gwen John and Winifred Knights among its female alumni. Life classes however, remained segregated and for women attending the nude model was not actually nude but draped. Some women art students, in both Paris and London, felt so frustrated at the obstructions to this, they paid for their own anatomy classes, or life classes where the model was undraped. It goes without saying that privilege also played a part in women gaining access to an art education. In the latter part of the 19th century, hoards of American women art students travelled to Paris to seek training in artists’ ateliers, or at the Academie Julian, or Academie Colorossi, both of which opened up their studios to female students. Clearly an art education was impossible for any woman without the means to fund it.
As I picked my way through this century of women artists, what became very clear is that, in many ways, there was no such defining feature of ‘women’s art’. The images I chose had to be as much about the experience of being a woman in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as the feminist signals within their work. On one of the first pages, an impressionist portrait of two sisters by Berthe Morisot, sits alongside the muscular dynamism of The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur. Two women working at a similar time but with vastly differing styles. After all, why should women artists be lumped together into a homogeonous mass, and produce only one ‘type’ or style of painting? Their work was as individual (and as good or bad) as male artists. But if women wanted the freedom to paint what they wished but be taken seriously and perhaps forge a career, they had to have that training.
By the turn of the century, schools such as the Slade, and, in Paris, Academie Julian had far more female students than men, and the idea of the art student as female had become much more accepted. Magazines in our archive such as The Sketch and Lady’s Realm (with a largely female readership) ran regular in-depth articles on various art schools and their specialities. Women continued to fight to gain equality in the art world. For instance, women students were charged 30 per cent more in fees than their male counterparts in some schools. One of the reasons for this argued the Academie Colorossi was because women insisted the place was clean and the floors were swept! At the Academie Julian however, the weekly art competition, where paintings were submitted anonymously, were frequently won by woman. Interviewed in The Sketch in 1893, Rodolphe Julian, founder of the school, praised his female students as hard working and diligent. He added, in a comment that would have been considered radical a few decades earlier, “People often say that, with only one or two exceptions, no woman has made a great name in art; but they were given none of the opportunities which each artist claimed as his right.”
By the Second World War, a quarter of artists commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee were women. This was some sort of progress, but nowhere near equality, especially as most were paid less and given fewer commissions. Only one woman – Evelyn Dunbar – was salaried.
So where are we now? The evening’s discussion was rounded off listening to the experiences of Tamara and Michelle, both of whom still encountered issues when creating their work, whether related to funding, or finding that, as women artists of colour, they were often limited by perceptions of identity, and offered fewer opportunities to exhibit. Afterwards, I wondered what the women artists of a century and a half ago would have thought about those of today. Would they view them as lucky with opportunities and freedoms they could only have dreamt of? Would they be in awe that in the last decade, women Turner Prize winners have outnumbered men. Or would they still feel frustration that male artists still vastly outnumber female artists in almost every gallery around the world? The women who broke convention to seek an art education, and who painted pictures that proved they were the equal of male artists, were an integral part of the history of the women’s rights movement, and laid strong foundations for future generations of female artists. It was a fascinating and illuminating experience to be able to tell their story.
© Lucinda Gosling
‘The Art of Feminism’ is published by Tate Publishing, edited by Helen Reckitt, and written by Lucinda Gosling, Amy Tobin and Hilary Robinson.