I’ve always loved The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts so when I saw that they had a new exhibit called: Women Artists in Paris 1850-1900, it was a no-brainer; though honestly, I was more excited about “women” and “Paris” than I was enthused about women’s art.
That is until I walked into the exhibit and felt wave after wave of emotion.
GRIEF. ANGER. DISBELIEF. SURPRISE. AWE.
I wanted to weep. I wanted to fall to my knees. I wanted to throw things.
Why had I thought that men were the artists of the time?
And the authors and the scientists and engineers and the mathematicians and the leaders and the pilots and the firefighters and the warriors…
Why were the accomplishments of my gender so hidden, so maligned, so discarded by history?
(The 2016 film “Three Figures” comes to mind.)
I’d never done a gallery tour, not since my public school days, and I never wanted to until now. I wanted to know what I missed. And why.
I am heartbroken. I am appreciative. I am furious.
I am sorry that I did not know, did not celebrate, did not focus on the accomplishments of women.
“The first measure of success for a woman artist,” said the interpreter, “was to paint like a man.”
Isn’t this true everywhere? Men’s work/view/attitude serves as the benchmark for… Everything.
(Even my tea bags come with the quotes of men. Even my yoga teacher references the teachings of men almost exclusively.)
Confession: I have never taken an Art History class, and the subject of Women’s Studies didn’t exist at my Jesuit University (talk about achievement shaped around men!) so some of what I write here may be obvious to others, and even well worn, like the way “La Toilette paintings” of women in their dressing rooms, partially clad, were painted by men of women—as objects.
(#45 comes to mind.)
Not so a toilette painting by a woman where the sitter is subject, looking right back at the painter, and forcing the viewer to recognize her full humanity.
Women were turned away from the leading art schools, although one entered by pretending to be man, and women were further regulated to what was considered the bottom rung of art–the simplest to paint–still lifes–with the understanding that women could not manage the complexity of painting movement or the physicality of painting on larger canvasses or the indelicacy of painting nude. (In fact, they were prohibited from studying the male form altogether.)
To the women who pushed past, are pushing past, have always pushed past the artificial boundaries of a society shaped around men, THANK YOU.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, thank you.
Women Artists in Paris who painted into obscurity, thank you.
Clark Art Institute, thank you.
Gallery interpreters, thank you.
American Federation of Arts, thank you.
Laurence Madeline, curator of the tour, thank you.
Art historians and researchers, THANK YOU.
It is no surprise to learn, even while it is equally heartbreaking, that many women artists married male artists, and once married, gave up painting while he continued, and even more heartbreaking, resumed painting again after his death.
(“Your life must revolve around mine,” my father hollered at the kitchen table when my mother began to express needs beyond serving him.)
It is no surprise to learn that Nordic women were able to devote more energy to the arts, free to travel to Paris, because feminism had reached their part of the world first.
(Thank you, Nordic women, for leading still!)
During the tour, I watched as one older husband snapped his fingers at his wife when she paused too long in front of a canvass; and as another, changing his mind about the tour, came up to his wife, who was rapt in attention to the talk, forcing his headset into her hands and dashing off; while yet another oldler man whistled and scowled at the other tour group where three women were talking too loud (one of those women was the silver-haired interpreter.)
It was my husband who reminded me of this series of incidents which I took as a matter of course, but which for him, slowly awakening to the gender differential, shouted loud and clear, of a lifetime, lifetimes, of male entitlement.
What I did notice, uncomfortably, was that the exhibit guards for Women Artists in Paris were all men. It was an older man who came up to me as I scribbled into my notebook, telling me that I could not use a pen. It was a young woman, working the desk, who gave me a tiny pencil to use instead.
Gender discrimination isn’t a thing of the past. Feminism isn’t new or old. Women’s lives, like Black Lives, have always been full with humanity, even while that humanity wasn’t/isn’t recognized by the perpetrators of discrimination, degradation and assault and even while the absence of that full humanity is overlooked and often unseen by those who have been demeaned and those who love us.
The older I get, the more I weep in recognition of what was kept out of reach for so long.
(Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 features more than 80 paintings by 37 women artists from across Europe and America–at The Clark until 9/3)