Women have been systematically excluded from art history for centuries. About the life and work of female artists in the time of Paula Modersohn-Becker.
Art history in the Western world art in its various lineages is characterized by anecdotes and myths about artists that construct the figure of the white, cisgender* male artist. For centuries, women, along with other marginalized groups, were systematically excluded. Indeed, women were denied access to a professional training until deep into the 19th century or even longer. After the protracted and gradual process of opening their doors to women, all the state-run art colleges continued to be dominated and managed by men. This has influenced the collections of museums, the exhibition program of the institutions, the art trade, the promotion of art and with it the canons that evolved, not to mention our perception of art – and continues to do so to this day.
Given their peripheral position in society and politics, most women found it hard to lead the life of a professional artist; often the few female artists came from families of artists or were married to an artist. Consequently, being able to embark on artistic training in the 19th century was all the more important. As art colleges were not only places of learning but also places where opinions and ideas were exchanged, attending them constituted a first turning point in the standing of female artists in society.
Art colleges were not only places of learning
Female artists like the co-founder of the “Independents”, who were later known as the Impressionists, Berthe Morisot, or Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller were held in great, indeed international esteem in their lifetime, but were subsequently forgotten for a very long time. Morisot’s works were shown in her day in exhibitions in Paris and New York, and as a respected artist she also participated in the cultural life of the times. For example, in 1877 art critic Paul Mantz wrote of Morisot: “In this revolutionary group there is only one Impressionist: that is Mademoiselle Berthe Morisot.” Often her works sold at higher prices than those of her male counterparts and she was also acknowledged by art critics of the time – albeit from a perspective that always sought the “female” in her art.
In 1880, art critic Albert Wolff wrote in the newspaper Le Figaro: “There is also a woman in the group, as is common in such circles. Her name is Berthe Morisot, and she is interesting to observe. She retains her female grace despite the craziness of her mind.” It was not unusual for female artists to be termed “crazy” as a means of belittling their achievements – indeed this was a standard practice used to defame women that also survived in other walks of life up until the 20th century. After her death and until the 21st century Morisot was either seldom mentioned or was decried. It was not until the 1970s that a new generation of feminist art historians devoted themselves to the work of Morisot and paved the way for large, but overly late museum exhibitions such as the retrospective in Museée d´Orsay 2019 or the show Women Impressionists. Berthe Morisot – Mary Cassat – Eva Gonzalès – Marie Bracquemond in the Schirn in 2008.
It was not unusual for female artists to be termed “crazy”
During her lifetime American sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, who alongside her sculptures also produced paintings and poems, was considered an important Afro-American artist and later also made herself a name for herself in Paris. Her works were exhibited in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago 1893 and also in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1907, she became the first Black woman to be commissioned by the US government and produced the diorama “Landing of First Twenty Slaves at Jamestown” for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition in Norfolk, Virginia. Consisting of 24 sculptural figures it depicted the life of slaves arriving in Jamestown 1619. She was ignored after her death and this lasted until the end of the 20th century, while today she is deemed to be the pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance and the first respected Black sculptor in the United States.
Unlike many of her contemporaries Warrick Fuller enjoyed art training early on, first at the art school of J. Liberty Tadd and from 1894 on a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art. Painters like Berthe Morisot or the self-taught Suzanne Valadon, belonged to a generation in France who were denied access to the state academies.
Morisot, who came from a wealthy family only took private drawing and painting lessons but had excellent teachers and despite all the odds she exhibited regularly in the annual Salon – the major Parisian art show. By contrast, Valadon came from a poor background and lived and worked from a studio in Montmartre. For several years she acted as a nude model variously for Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Degas, and learned painting and drawing through careful observation and study. She quickly became one of the best-known female artists of the day and was even able to earn a living as an artist. In other words, both Morisot and Valadon went against society’s expectations and secured their positions as artists in the important art metropolis of Paris and beyond without undergoing the customary academic training.
In 1906, the guidelines for the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (today Berlin University of the Arts) still read “Female students are not admitted”. In 1919, women in Germany were first allowed to vote in an election, and the equality of men and women was anchored in the German constitution – two events that paved the way for greater educational opportunities. Nonetheless, some academies including those in Düsseldorf and Munich delayed admitting women until 1920-1. Colleges of applied art had admitted women for longer but their reputation was not comparable to that of art academies and the syllabus also differed enormously. This approach to women’s right to art education in France, Germany and many other countries besides compared badly with Russia, where since the early 19th century women had been allowed to attend state academies. Similarly, Hilma af Klimt, the Swedish artist and pioneer of abstract art, studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm (Kungliga Akademien för de fria konsterna) as early as 1882. There, women had been allowed to train as arts as 1857.
Female artists needed larger wallets
For women one alternative to state institutions were the private art academies that shot up like mushrooms in the 19th century and in Paris, Berlin and Munich were located in the immediate vicinity of the state art academies. These schools were a lucrative source of income for the founders and instructors – typically state-trained but mediocre artists. The classes were usually full, and admission was granted less to those who had the best skills and more to those who had the larger wallets.
Two academies that stood out at the time were the Académie Julian, which was opened in 1868 by artist Rodolphe Julian, and the Académie Colarossi im Quartier Latin, founded by Italian sculptor Filippo Colarossi, in Paris. Both academies enjoyed excellent reputations and were considered to be progressive and liberal-minded especially when compared with the conservative École des Beaux-Arts. As early as 1910, Frances Hodgkins was appointed as an instructor to the Académie Colarossi where he taught watercolor painting.
Quality played a subordinate role
Around 1900 these private art academies with their inflated entry fees attracted female artists from all over the world to the exciting art metropolis and enabled students to attend mixed classes – in other words to study alongside men. Although female artists had to contend with various factors, such as great resistance to them and discrimination, course fees that were up to five times as expensive as those for men, and the quality of the teaching played a subordinate role in the curricula, these private schools attracted hundreds of female artists from various countries: alongside Laura Muntz Lyall, Eileen Gray, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Clara Rilke-Westhoff, and painter Paula Modersohn-Becker.
Modersohn-Becker came into money through an inheritance and after her first visit to Paris in 1900 stayed another three times in the city she had already dreamt about as a young woman. She appreciated this new opportunity to educate herself and the new perspectives on her art it gave her. Her experience in Paris strengthened her deep conviction and heartfelt wish to become an artist – which she recorded in her diary: “I love art, I serve it on my knees. It must become mine.”
In particular, nude drawing classes that were forbidden at the private academies in Germany or only allowed with parental permission proved to be highly useful to the female artists. In the artist colony in Worpswede Modersohn-Becker was taught by Fritz Mackensen, whom she put up with rather than appreciated. He insisted she focus on landscapes and gave Modersohn-Becker very little artistic freedom. It is true that people from the poorhouse in Worpswede were willing to sit as models in exchange for a small sum of money, but it was above all in Paris that she was able to extend and deepen her knowledge of the human body and its depiction as well as find her own artistic style.
I love art, I serve it on my knees. It must become mine.
During her final stay in Paris, she created self-portraits that are considered to be the first nude self-portraits in art history and at the time broke with every conceivable convention. These works were only shown publicly twenty years after her untimely death in 1907.
There is still work to be done
Once private and eventually state art academies opened their doors to women it was possible to secure a professional training as an artist but the chances of living from one’s art remained few and far between. Another common theme that persisted was that women’s artistic achievements were soon forgotten after their death, even if having been admitted to art schools had led to female artists gaining greater acceptance in society. Today, there are still numerous non-white and non cis-male artistic positions waiting to be recognized as having contributed actively to the history of Western art. It is now up to us to reappraise these positions and also to look beyond the patriarchal and colonial structures of art that are still firmly anchored in it.