Portrait of Mademoiselle Charlotte du Val d'Ognes (c. 1801)

When you look at the History of Art, you might wonder why there aren’t as many women in the books as there are men. Why is it that the grand, romantic notion of the solo artist, imparting brilliance and genius upon the sorry masses, is always associated with a male figure? Who says that this is really what an artist is?

It is a complex and intertwined mix of reasons why we often make these assumptions about art and artists. Societal power structures, misogyny, the fact that women and their works have been regarded as “lesser” than equal compared to the works of their male counterparts… all this and much more has kept women out of the books.

Much like what happened to my Grandmother in the early/mid 1900’s (when she married she was forced to leave her job as a teacher to stay at home), European women artists, upon marriage, would normally have to leave their careers behind. Those who didn’t and continued to paint were not only exceptions, but they were unable to maintain a decent amount of work.

You might think “well, yes, society has made it difficult for women artists to develop, to become great artists” and you would be correct. However, there have been absolutely outstanding female artists throughout Western Art History who have been respected as Masters (Mistresses?) in their time. However, when it comes to reading modern and mainstream texts about their work, words such as delicate, gentle, light, and feminine are used.

Even paintings that were once regarded as Master works are re-described once it is discovered that a woman actually painted it. A former Master Piece is now a Fraudulent Disappointment… but it’s the same painting! An anecdotal example is of a Jacques-Louis David that was purchased in the early 20th Century by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1951, Charlotte du Val d’Ognes was attributed to possibly Constance Marie Charpentier, another female artist who was David’s student. What was once described using words like austere, perfect, unforgettable, tasteful, and exemplary was re-described as gentle, lacking correctness and concealing weaknesses, subtle artifices and feminine spirit. It should be noted that women artists were finally allowed to enter the Salon after the French Revolution. Jacques-Louis David accepted many female students, encouraging them to not only enter the Salon, but to paint both historical and portrait works. Essentially, he treated them as equals.

When people ask “who wrote the text” with regard to power structures, it’s about more than the textbooks. This is about society and its structures, how we exist in our time in relation to history and what we know about it. Which philosophers guided us, what art do we value and think is important, what defines people, what defines a family, how does one identify themselves within their time and place and how one survives. A big question in the midst of all this is: How Can We Change? Through persistent, hard work, we can change. This is why I truly admire artists who have forged ahead and made strides for female artists and equality.

I recommend the book Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick.

Over the next few days, in celebration of International Women’s Day this week, I will highlight a few Canadian artists who I feel have made some strides for an improved society, and whose work I admire.

Natasha Henderson, Montreal

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