Alas! A woman that attempts the pen,
Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed,
The fault can by no virtue be redeemed.
They tell us we mistake our sex and way;
Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play,
Are the accomplishments we should desire;
To write, or read, or think, or to enquire,
Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time,
And interrupt the conquests of our prime.
Whilst the dull manage of a servile house
Is held by some our utmost art and use.
Florence Nightingale in her essay, “Cassandra”, writes that Passion, intellect, moral activity- these three have never been satisfied in a woman.
Try to name five of the most famous female painters in history.
It’s a tough question, isn’t it?
There have been a few women writers, activists, politicians and even saints but hardly have we ever heard of women painters with the genius similar to Michelangelo, DaVinci or Renoir. Even after much research the few names we get are hardly as famous as Picasso or Van Gough, at least till the turn of century with the coming of movies and TV shows.
Assistant Professor Anni Trent at Cosumnes River College teaches art history classes including Art Survey: Ancient to 14th Century and Art Survey: Renaissance to 19th Century. Trent said that the lack of female artists is not due to a deficiency of talent. Many women were marginalized and their names omitted from history books, she said in an e-mail interview. Women artists usually worked under their husband or farther who were already established artists. They were not even allowed proper training in art schools. The famous Ecole des Beaux Arts of the Royal French Academy did not accept female students for most of the 19th century. “Women were not thought to have genius and creativity,” Trent said.
Modernist artist and Professor Hans Hoffmann, talking about Lee Krasner’s painting (the wife of Jackson Pollock.) said, “This is so good, you would not know it was painted by a woman,” in 1937. His words clearly show the discrimination faced by women artists. Female artists of the past are not well known and scholars agree. “I do agree that many women artists have been unfairly neglected,” said Scott A. Shields, Ph.D., associate director and chief curator at the Crocker Art Museum.
Women were not allowed to see nude figures when it was the part of the basic training for male artists. Women paintings were confined to still life and landscapes, thus denying them the training to paint the human form. Women were also not allowed to participate in competitions for prizes thus giving them little opportunity for professional growth. In 1860, Marie Bracquemond, student of painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, said, “The severity of Monsieur Ingres frightened me… because he doubted the courage and perseverance of a woman in the field of painting… He would assign to them only the painting of flowers, of fruits, of still life’s, portraits and genre scenes.” Bracquemond’s remarks mirror the boundaries of women artist’s training in France during the 19th Century.
The Guerrilla Girls, a group of artists, once surveyed the leading art museums and galleries in New York and hardly did any have women’s paintings. The Museum of Modern art which had 169 artists on display consisted of only 13 works by women artists. The modern art section in the New York Metropolitan Museum they found that 97% if the work was done by men and ironically 83% paintings were of nude girls and women. The scenario is not only confined to New York, be it Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles (newly opened in 2008) which consists of 87% art by men or the National Gallery of Art (1937) or the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC (1960), the story stays the same.
A Guerrilla Girl member says in an interview, “Museums have become venues of investment that produce unbelievable profits,” she continues. “Trustees are collectors. They influence what museums do and they manipulate the art market. There’s a direct connection. Art collectors who sit on museum boards know what is being shown and buy it. They can also get museums to show art they already own, that they bought years ago for very little. If they donate it, they get millions in tax deductions. The more corporate museums become, the more they serve as a vehicle for the one percent.”
Yet, their still is hope as the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum and The Institute for Women and Art at Rutgers University and many others help putting the thoughts of the other 50% gender in perspective.
The glass ceiling is still there and statistics suggests that when one submits one’s work in front of a jury for selection and the jurors are unaware of the gender of the person submitting it, the results are just and equal. But if the juror’s are aware of the person’s gender, the final results differ with a sudden drop in the number of women finalists. There are people who are fighting against this bias and are trying to promote equality. Painter and poet Danny Simmons of Rush Philanthropic Arts says “We show art for art’s sake. Just because no one wants to buy it doesn’t mean artists don’t want to create it and audiences don’t want to see it.” There are many more museums coming up which have hundreds of female artists in their collection, such as the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento.
Painting is an important form of communication of one’s thoughts. Like novels, poems and photography it expresses the artistic insights. If the senders of these insights are mostly male then the viewers will hardly understand the viewpoint of the other 50% of the world population i.e. of the women. Only a balanced perspective of both men and women can lead us and the future generation to understand and be aware of the true world.