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Women in Art: But Not the Kind You Think!


Written for the third issue of ArtFond

Titian, 1534, Oil on canvas, Uffizi, Florence.

As I write this, we are approaching the 8th of March - the well celebrated International Women’s Day - I thought it only fitting to recognise that some of the most notable pillars of the art world, are in fact, women. Ranging from female artists who have heavily contributed to the art historical canon, to avant-garde collectors and modernising curators, the art world would not be where it is today without the fortitude and endurance of some of these monumental women. Just last week, Le Château Fontainebleau announced that a new president, Marie-Christine Labourdette would be taking charge on Monday the 8th of March. The passing of the presidential baton, on such a prominent and symbolic day, bares the inspiration behind this piece!

Labourdette is only one of the many influential women leaving an ambitious imprint on the world of art and culture. As Labourdette undertakes the challenges that accompany the position of Présidente du Château, let’s take a look through history at some prominent women in the art world. Compiling and selecting individuals for this list was challenging, as there are many remarkable female figures who are no less deserving of recognition. However, here are those whose names I feel everyone should be familiar with - hopefully this article arouses your own curiosity and encourages further reading!

Rose Valland

Might one begin by recognising the Herculean effort of Rose Valland during the Nazi occupation of France throughout World War II. Thanks to this heroine, her tedious record keeping and four long years spying on the Nazis, countless art treasures were recovered after having been plundered. Her fluency in German allowed her to quietly eavesdrop and record the inventory of numerous works of art which later enabled her to aid in their restitution. Hitler intended to orchestrate the largest art heist in history to fill his Führermuseum. Valland, who was working as an assistant curator in the Jeu de Paume Museum, tracked and recorded the destination of train shipments containing the looted art. Working closely alongside the Monuments Men and Women, Valland offered her relentless support and invaluable knowledge of the whereabouts of looted art. She dedicated her life to the restitution of Nazi looted art, among which, was the discovery of over 20,000 pieces of stolen art in Neuschwanstein Castle. Her bravery proved instrumental in the safe recovery of countless culturally important objects which were stolen by the Nazis during their occupation of France.

Artemisia Gentileschi

Often considered to have out shone her father, Orazio Gentileschi, the 16th century Caravaggista (An adaptation of the word ‘Caravaggisti’ referring to the followers of Caravaggio) is perhaps unfairly remembered for the inhuman interrogation which she endured during her rape trail. Of which, some trial documents still survive – noting how the 18 year old underwent torture to her non-dominant hand (The hand she did not use to paint) through the use of thumbscrews. This brutal torture involved ropes wrapped around her fingers and tightly pulled and was intended to decipher if her testimony of rape against her tutor was true. She is recorded to have repeatedly shouted “It’s true, it’s true, it’s true!” as the torture was inflicted on her. Some art historians and scholars believe the subject matter in her art appears in direct reaction to her traumatic life experience. This is especially agreeable when examining her depiction of Judith beheading the Assyrian general, Holofernes. Although, I think it is unfair to only associate autobiographical vengeance and revenge with her work. In my humble opinion, Artemisia skillfully exceeds the revered Caravaggio, in terms of the realism and control in her handling of the paint. Artemisia is often grouped together with the Caravaggisti, but as you can see through the execution of her work and the way she masterfully captivates the viewer in the moment of action – she far exceeds even the master himself.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1614–1620, Uffizi, Florence.

From Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun to Louise Bourgeois

Excellent female artists are in abundance throughout art history. So why is it that we are not aware of their presence, of the magnitude and significance of their work? You may or may not have known that the favourite portraitist of Marie-Antoinette was Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. By the age of 15, she was already painting aristocracy and by her 20s, was painting royalty. Her initial recognition was hindered due to the fact that she was a woman, however she managed to accumulate a modest clientele who favoured her portraiture, and at the time when very few women were accepted, she was admitted to Académie de St Luc – the guild of painters and sculptors in Paris. What you perhaps did not know, was Le Brun had a rival - Adélaïde Labille-Guiard. Both women were admitted to the well-respected Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture on the same day, 31st of May 1783. Moreover, the women were only 2 of the 15 women accepted into the academy between 1648 and 1793. Labille-Guiard was a known teacher of young, aspiring female artists and arguably her most important work is a life-size, self-portrait with two female students. This work was a statement piece, it was exhibited in the 1785 Salon – construed as representing the artist’s intention to promote women in arts – she intended to elevate their standing within the male dominated academy.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Marie Capet and Marie-Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond, 1785.

Subsequent art movements are often dotted with the names of prominent male contributors. But there is almost always eminent female figures who also play part. Take Impressionism for example, who is the first artist you envision? Monet, Renoir, Degas? Well, I’d like to introduce you to Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassat. Morisot’s work was well respected even before she joined the rebellious Impressionists in 1874. Her art was accepted multiple times into the highly academic Paris Salon which served as Paris’ premier art exhibition. Across the Atlantic, Cassat – American born – eventually decided to settle in Paris in 1874. Casssat is the only American artist officially associated with the Impressionist movement – similarly to Degas she was interested in the human form and figure compositions.

Mary Cassatt, Summertime, c. 1894, oil on canvas, Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago.

There are so many inspirational female artists who have greatly contributed to the arts – each deserving of individual recognition. Some of the greats include the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe known as the “Mother of American Modernism” and of course Louise Bourgeois – known for her contribution to modern and contemporary art with her large-scale sculptures and installations. Great female artists of our time are certainly obtaining more recognition than that of their predecessors. Some notable names include Yayoi Kusama, Tracey Emin, Kara Walker and Jenny Saville – known for her raw and largescale depictions of the female nude which defy the tradition notions of aesthetic beauty.

Jenny Saville, Propped, 1992.

Betty Beaumont

Environmental artists such as Beaumont strive to work in harmony with the natural environment. This Canadian-American artist works site-specifically and is described as a conceptual installation artist, sculptor and photographer. Beaumont has described art as central to shaping the world stating that it “Asks questions, provokes imagination and presents new paradigms for thought and meaning. The flow from the specific, concrete, and technical, to the abstract, meditative and lyrical characterises my work." Her artistic output and large-scale work directly intervenes with specific environmental processes. The 1970s saw her begin her series of site specific external installations including a 1977 piece entitled Cable Piece - which resulted in the transformation of a giant metal ring (4,000 ft) into a luscious grass circle as the rust from the metal altered the growth pattern of the surrounding soil. Similarly, in 1978, Beaumont liaised with a team of scientists to create an underwater habitat from 500 tons of processed coal waste. The 17,000 blocks have since been listed as a ‘fish haven’ by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Ultimately, Beaumont’s deeply socially conscious work has raised awareness to issues impacting our surrounding environment through embedding her artistic practice within it.

Peggy Guggenheim

I cannot conclude this piece without mentioning the innovative and daring collector Peggy Guggenheim. Pushing the boundaries of modern art at the time, her museum takes the form of a one-storey Venetian palazzo on the Grand Canal, located in the heart of Venice. Her collection is described as one of the most important, housing European and American art from the twentieth century. She was one of the first to recognise the value of Jackson Pollock’s oeuvre and actively promoted and sold his art. Moreover, she organised two important exhibitions dedicated to female artists, as well as, solo exhibitions of Irene Rice Pereira and Janet Sobel. Her ambition crafted the development of the America’s first art movement which gained traction and international importance. Alongside Betty Parsons (Whose gallery opened in 1946 and did much to promote the works of gay, lesbian and bisexual artists) and Katherine Dreier, the three woman paved the way for the popularisation of modernism in American art.

Peggy Guggenheim, c.1930, Paris, photograph Rogi André (Rozsa Klein). In the background, Notre-Dame de Paris, and on the right, Joan Miró, Dutch Interior II (1928).

As we welcome a new generation of collectors, artists, curators and art historians, let’s continue the recognition of those who may still be marginalised. The Black Lives Matter movement has paved the way by highlighting the inherent and deep-rooted discrimination still apparent in our society today. There is always more that we can do to listen, support and recognise greatness.

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