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Where Are All the Ladies At?

elisabeth-vigee-le-brun-self-portraitOne day, while I was at home working on a painting, I decided to try to learn through osmosis and put a documentary on. I usually listen to music or have the TV on while I paint or draw, and I don’t really pay close attention since I am focused on my work. But instead of absent-mindedly trying to figure out who the real murderer was on some British mystery, I thought, maybe I could learn something! I always mean to watch more documentaries or read more about the topics I am interested in, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day. So I picked a topic, female artists, and selected a documentary on someone I’d never heard of.

The documentary was “Le Fabuleux Destin de Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun” (Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun: The Queen’s Painter). Truthfully, 18th Century court painting is really not an interest of mine. I’m more of a contemporary art kind of gal. But I do try to broaden my horizons and thought I could sit through an hour and a half of the documentary to learn about something I might not otherwise learn.

After a few minutes, I started to get really into my work and wasn’t paying much attention until I heard something about a school. A school for female artists in 18th century France.

Huh? Surely that was wrong; women were not permitted to study at an art school at that time, right? In my art history classes, we heard how there were very few famous female artists in our textbooks due to a combination of backward societal ideas (women were not thought to be intelligent enough), laws (women were not permitted to study at universities or as apprentices), and familial obligations (who else would have those babies and keep the house?) Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, and those exceptions were usually wealthy and had a father or family member who was an artist to learn from. But that lead to what I thought was maybe a handful of female artists every hundred years or so, right?

What was this documentary talking about?

I went back to this part to hear exactly what the historian had said. Yes, this woman was a famous, professional portrait artist, the personal artist to Marie Antoinette, and among other things, had started a school of art for young women.

Amazing! Why had I not heard of her? Shouldn’t she be in every art history book as the first woman to start an art school for women?

I immediately stopped what I was doing and Googled this. Who was this lady? What school? Why did I not know about it?

I discovered something amazing and infuriating: she was not alone. There have been many female artists throughout history who started schools, usually within their own homes, to teach art to their sisters, family members, or other female members of their community. Women may not have been permitted to attend schools with men, but that didn’t stop them from starting their own.

So then, if there were many female artists, why do we not hear more about them?

Women were not allowed to be in art schools, and they were not allowed to join professional organizations. Take, for instance, the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture that decreed in 1770 they would allow no more than 4 women members at any time. This was for the lifetime of an artist! Institutions like these controlled what got put into galleries and what people were able to view. If the art was not available for view, it was not talked about, written about, and was essentially lost to history. Another well-documented problem was that art dealers and collectors routinely changed the name of an artist from the unknown female artist, to either a male family member or a male artist, to maximize prestige and perceived value. Women that did prosper also had the problem of changed names due to marriage, making it difficult to properly assign multiple works to the same person, showing an evolution of an artist’s life’s work.

This lead me to the question, who was the first female artist? I knew that was an impossible question but I wanted to run with it. Google led me to an article from 2013 in National Geographic called “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?” This article cited a study that claimed that of the artist hand stencils analyzed from various cave walls across the globe (thought to be the “signatures” of the wall painters), 75% were women! Another article stated that the women of Mithila, India have been famous for painting domestic scenes on the walls of their homes to mark important life events since the 14th century.

In the book, Women Artists by Nancy Heller, she talks about how the historians of ancient Greece spoke of female artists, and how in some work that has survived antiquity, artists depict women working alongside men in artistic pursuits. There are records of women in ancient Egypt, women working during the Renaissance, and across almost every time period there are records for.

So if they there are records, why are they not in our canonical texts? Thanks to better education for women and more demands for inclusion in all areas of society, we are finally rediscovering the art and stories of so many women long forgotten.

For more on this topic:

Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader

Broad Strokes, by Bridget Quinn

50 Women Artists You Should Know, by Christiane Weidemann

The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art

Nicole Guerra-Coon is the Assistant Children’s Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the February 7, 2019 issue of the Norwood Transcript.


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