Sunday, November 2, 2008

Woman, Art and Gender: A History

Rachel Ruysch " Flower Still Life" after 1700 - Oil on Canvas

Marry Cassatt "Mother and Child" 1889 - Oil on Canvas

An old New Yorker Cartoon depicts a group of prehistoric women painting images on the wall of a cave. One of the women suddenly pauses in her work asks: "Does it strike anyone as weird that none of the great painters have ever been men?"(Heller, 1987) This, of course is a parody of the long held assumption that all prehistoric art was created by men. Why should we assume this, when we don't even known why this art was created, much less by whom? It is because for many centuries, we have been taught that all great art was the product of men, and that art created by women was merely and attempt to copy the masters that came before. For many, many hundreds of years, women struggled to gain recognition as artists, and for the greater number of those years, women struggled to gain recognition as artists, and for the greater number of these years, they remained obscured due to the constraints of patriarchal society. Recently, however in the feminist movement of the seventies, women have found a voice and a face and recognition in the world of the arts followed. Yet women today are finding that they have yet another battle to fight, one that demands that they be looked at as more than merely women artists in the light of feminism. They are individuals who create art in the context of their identities, which include " ethnicity, personality, life stage, religion, class, and politics" (Norwood, 1987 p.4), as well as gender.

Since antiquity, women have created art and not received recognition for doing so. It is difficult to obtain a proper history of women in art because many records have been manipulated, and a great number of works by women have been credited to their male teachers or relatives, as it was believed that no truly great art could be created by a woman.(Heller,1987) A large number of artists from antiquity remain unknown, and many are to the opinion that perhaps "anonymous was a woman" (NMWA, 1998, p.1). We know that women were creating art during this period through discoveries of unaltered records and images of women artist working, yet there are relatively few known female artists of this time. Hypothetically, if not in truth, we may conclude that works were better received with artist unknown, rather than to be attached to the name of a woman. Clearly it was an unacceptable notion that a woman was capable of creating great art.

The Renaissance (1450 - 1600 A.D.), was dominated by an aristocratic society that recognized women artists, but did so in rare cases and always as having significantly less stature as artists than men. It was no longer believed that women were incapable of creating great art, yet the rarity of the event was made evident by the lack of noted women artist of the time. And if they were noted, their work was considered a "lesser" form of art. Sofonisba Anguissola, for example, was one of the finest portrait painters of the Renaissance and considered the first woman artist of the time. (NMWA, 1998) Society considered her a novelty and a child prodigy, a fact that likely contributed more to her success than did her talent.

During this time, art developed into "greater" and "lesser" categories. The greater categories included religious and historical themes, while still-life, portraits and landscapes were considered of the "lesser" type. As one might predict, all types of art considered appropriate for women were entirely of the lesser category, and they were thus denied the proper education to become professional artists. Even into the 20th Century, painted images of flowers and landscape were considered "womanish" and snubbed as being illegitimate. (NMWA, 1998) Rachel Ruysch (1664 -1750), a well-known Dutch painter of fruit and flowers (see image 1), pursued a scientific realism in her painting, and strove to achieve a symbolism of "the brevity and transience of life" (Martin, 1997 , p. 24). The actual depth of her paintings, however, is realized only in contemporary criticism, as in her time it was "generally believed that females were incapable of genius on moral grounds" (NMWA, 1998, p. 2). It seemed inconceivable that a woman was capable of more than a superficial comprehension of art.

The 18th Century brought about a change in society's value of women. Beauty was held in highest regard in this time, and those who possessed it or the power to create it were highly valued. Feminine beauty was power (even if only for its entertainment value), and women took advantage of this. Elisabeth
Vigee-Lebrun (1755 - 1842) became a very successful court painter because of her ability to "render all who came before her in a highly complimentary manner" (NMWA, 1998, p. 5). Even so, Vigee-Lebrun too was asked to refute accusations that she employed a man to paint the pictures she submitted for acceptance into the Academie Royale. Women were not taken seriously as artists but had become acceptable entertainment, but were not taken seriously as artists.

The 19th Century brought more women artists into the light of recognition, but they were still greatly limited in the larger world of art. The home and cafe society became subjects for contemporary art. As they composed the woman's world as dictated by a patriarchal society, the female perspective on these subjects was acceptable to society. Even so, women artists were not readily accepted into the world of professional and great art. Rosa Bonheur (1822 - 1899), one of the greatest animal painters of the 19th Century, had to pose as a man in order to accomplish this feat.(NMWA, 1998) Later in the century, Impressionism deviated from the confines of academic art, enabling artist such as Mary Cassatt (1844 - 1926), a painter made famous by her tender depictions of mother and child (see image 2), to make a name for themselves by drawing on their experiences as women for their art and expressing them freely. They were now able to create art from talent and imagination, no longer restricted by their lack of academic knowledge. (NMWA, 1998) Still they were not taken seriously as artists. Though Mary Cassatt's work was recognized, "at the same time it has been devalued and isolated for being either too much concerned with the female experience('all those mother and child images') or too limited by it('her models are confined to the family circle') (Vogel, 1988, p. 49). Women were in a no-win situation. When they created art with the focus of family or society, they were criticized for their limited subject matter, yet the confines of society allowed their lives to include little else.

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