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New Clark exhibit highlights hard-fought triumphs of women artists in Paris

  • Rosa Bonheur stopped formal education at the age of 13, and six years later, her paintings began to be exhibited at the exclusive Paris Salon. It was works such as “Plowing in Nivernais,” (1850) that brought the strident feminist international acclaim. Contributed photo/John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

  • Because women were forbidden to attend life drawing classes at prestigious Parisian schools, Elizabeth Gardner would disguise herself as a man to gain access to such venues. For 17 years, she was the fiancée of the well-known painter William Bouguereau prior to marriage. Her style so closely resembles his that some critics incorrectly argued that he had created all of them. Contributed photo/Georgia Museum of Art

  • Ellen Thesleff is considered to be one of Finland’s foremost Expressionistic painters. Finding classes at the Finnish Art Society to be outmoded, she traveled to Paris and was greatly influenced by the work of Édouard Manet. Her image is repeated on the cover of the Clark Art Institute exhibit’s companion catalogue and on street side banners. Contributed photo/Anders Wiklof Collection

  • According to Kathy Morris, curator of “The Art of Iron” exhibit at the Clark Art Institute, contemporary metalworkers have marveled at the detail and delicacy of the exhibit’s 36 examples of antique signs, grilles and ornaments. This 18th-century sign for a florist’s shop displays tiny flowers, roses and even blades of grass. Contributed photo/Reunion des Musees Metropolitains

  • Created 269 years ago, this coffee and spice grinder, made of wrought and rolled steel and turned brass, would be the proud possession of any contemporary Steampunk artist. It’s among the 36 handmade metalworks on display at the Clark Art Institute and is the work of the Frenchman Benoit Tivelier. Contributed photo/Reunion des Musees Metropolitains



For the Recorder
Wednesday, July 11, 2018

“The intrusion of women in the realm of art would be a disaster beyond remedy.” —Gustave Moreau, painter, 1891

A rare assemblage of works by 33 female artists, encompassing the years 1850 to 1900, can be viewed through Sept. 3 at Williamstown’s Clark Art Institute. Many of the paintings lived a life in storage before the show and several have never before been viewed in the United States. The exhibit, called “Women Artists in Paris, 1850—1900” and curated by Laurence Madeline, makes the point that for pioneering female artists, striving for respect and recognition in a harshly male-dominated climate was an uphill battle that quietly raged for decades.

Invisible chains

1801 was the best of times for Napoleon Bonaparte and the worst of times for French women. It was springtime for the general, having won a decisive battle with Austria. It was winter for most French women because the harshly regressive Napoleonic Codes removed most legal gains made in the past decade.

“A woman could have no responsibility at all, not having money, not having property, not having anything at all,” Madeline said during a press reception. She previously served as chief curator for Switzerland’s Museum of Art and History and performed similar duties at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

The Napoleonic Codes were misogyny on steroids. Women had virtually no legal rights in a courtroom and no property ownership. They could only work in trades or businesses with permission from their husbands, who received all of their wages. Upon a wife’s death, all valuables and holdings became the property of the husband’s side of the family.

The rendering of these codes was based upon the contemporary male logic that women were the weaker sex, requiring protection.

These repressive laws, however unjust, grasped the French Republic for most of the century.

There were social taboos as well.

“Society dictated that it was not appropriate for a woman to go out alone,” Esther Bell, the Clark’s senior curator of paintings and sculpture, said during the reception.

Publicly, women traveled in pairs or groups. A lone woman found painting outdoors would cause a scandal, as would a female seen smoking tobacco. This explains why many of the women’s paintings at the time are of domestic interiors and gardens, far from the madding crowd.

“There are a lot of paradoxes,” Madeline said. “Male artists started to be interested in the same subjects of interior life.”

Added to this imprisoning atmosphere, it was estimated that in this Victorian time, a woman might be wearing 20 pounds or more of clothing, even in the doldrums of summer.

The chauvinism, or male superiority, was rife in the educational system as well. The prestigious Académie de Beaux Arts, as well as several other Parisian institutions, forbade female enrollment.

Three women

“Women artists were meant to be good mothers, good wives,” Bell said. “That was one of the reasons that women were discouraged from becoming academics, that it would be a distraction.”

Nevertheless, Paris at the time was the magnetic epicenter of the art world, drawing women from Europe and the United States to be instructed at such institutions as the more liberal Académie Julian.

The biographies of the exhibited artists are outlined in a companion catalogue, “Women Artists in Paris, 1850—1900.” The painters’ lives range from the tragic to the triumphant.

Marie Bracquemond was known as one of the three “grand dames” of Impressionism along with Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, whose works are also shown.

The Frenchwoman studied with Jean Ingres and was one of four female artists whose work was often displayed at the Impressionist exhibitions. Her exquisite work was encouraged by colleagues such as Edgar Degas and Claude Monet, yet her husband was critical of her technique and was a frictional impediment to her career. In her final years, she abandoned painting.

When the wealthy New Hampshire expatriate Elizabeth Gardner studied with the studio artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau in Paris, they began a years-long courtship before marriage. She adapted to his classical painting methods and virtually mirrored his technique.

She once said “I’d rather be known as the best imitator of Bouguereau than to be nobody at all.”

As Bell noted, even today, women’s art often “is put in perspective to a man’s or to a male teacher. In her case, she was very aware that William Bouguereau’s style and fame overshadowed her own accomplishments.”

But no one overshadowed Rosa Bonheur, and the dust didn’t settle for years following her passing in 1899.

Bell described the cigar-smoking French painter and sculptor as “one of the great feminist champions of woman artists in the 19th century.”

Her large canvases are highly detailed and almost photographic. She often depicted animals. She kept a menagerie at her studio, including a lion, and received a special permit from the Paris police to wear slacks while visiting slaughterhouses to study animal anatomy. (The French did not technically rescind the no-slacks-for-women law until 2013.)

At the age of 27, the French government purchased one of her canvases, the beginning of a lifetime of success. A few years later, Queen Victoria held a private showing for Bonheur when she presented a painting to the Royal. She was a cult figure, a doll in her likeness was marketed and she counted “Buffalo Bill” Cody among her friends. Bonheur was also the first woman to be awarded the French Légion d’Honneur.

Madeline said that upon her death, critics wrote that “she was marvelous, but she was not a mother ... At this time, the main creation for a woman was not to be an artist, but to raise children.”

The “Women Artists in Paris, 1850—1900” exhibit’s symbolic image is of a young, pigtailed girl experiencing an epiphany upon hearing her shout reverberating from the woodlands. “Echo” was painted by the Parisian-schooled Ellen Thesleff in 1891.

“It’s just like she is discovering the world and discovering her own power,” Bell said.

Madeline agreed, saying that the portrait of the young girl approaching adulthood displays the power and ability to transform.

“Whatever happens,” she said, “the strength is with women.”

Heavy metal

Direct from an unusual museum in Rouen, France, 36 art objects, some dating to the 18th century and earlier and finely crafted from wrought iron, are on display in the glass-walled Conforti Pavilion as part of an exhibit called “The Art of Iron.”

The signs, strongboxes and ornamental grilles are a fractional aspect of a former 13th-century Gothic church, now a museum, overflowing with some 16,000 artistic works. The collection began in the mid-1800s by the painter Jean-Louis-Henri Le Secq des Tournelles, who was also one of the country’s first photographers.

Commissioned by the state to document its memorials with his camera, he became aware that, with urban renewal, the country’s heritage of ornamental iron was vanishing.

“This stuff was literally being thrown away,” the show’s curator Kathy Morris said during the press reception. She’s also the Clark’s curator of decorative arts and a contributor to the exhibit’s companion catalogue, “The Art of Iron.”

While des Tournelles was a collector, his son became a hoarder, acquiring thousands and thousands more of the complex iron works.

“He’s bitten really hard by it,” Morris said. “He becomes a collecting nut.”

He then gifted his collection to what is now the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles.

Morris explained that in a time of illiteracy and no street numbers, shopkeepers used symbols instead. Iron carp attached to a bracket indicated a fishmonger’s store. An elegant shape suggesting the legendary “dry tree,” a median point of the Silk Road, signaled a fabric store.

There’s a strongbox with a lock hidden beneath an eagle’s talon and another that shoots a pistol off as an alarm.

Few of these artists are known, however, a detailed bracket featuring a dragon displays the name of Pierre Boulanger. Morris explained that he was well-known and created the restorative ornamental ironwork on the portals of Notre Dame Cathedral.

The exhibit of women painters previously traveled to Denver and Louisville, Ky. The show of iron, though, is unique to the Clark.

“Women Artists in Paris, 1850—1900” continues through Sept. 3; “The Art of Iron” continues through Sept. 16. Abstract art by Jennifer Steinkamp and photos of early Paris are also featured.

The Clark Art Institute is open daily during July and August from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $20; those under 18 and students with valid ID are admitted for free.

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for the Greenfield Recorder since 1994.