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The story of women and art

11 May 2014

RoslinSAmanda Vickery’s The Story of Women and Art is shortly to be broadcast on BBC television, but you can see it already on the iPlayer for some reason I don’t quite understand. Some of you may like her style: I leave you to guess whether I would vote for Vickery to succeed Lord Clark to present the sequel to his famous series, but you might assume that she would at least give you “herstory” in full.

But is even that right? I watched episode 2 with some disbelief. Here was the eighteenth century, presented with enthusiasm and some nice surprises: not everyone is familiar with the work of Elizabeth Ratcliffe, but six minutes in, you can see her black chalk copy of a print by Melini after François-Hubert Drouais’s Enfants du duc de Bouillon (although you have to work out what it is for yourself: it’s of interest because it puts a terminus ante quem on the rare Melini print). And not only did we get a trip to Paris, but we even had a proper French curator (Juliette Trey) to explain one of Vigée Le Brun’s royal portraits.

But how many viewers know that Vigée Le Brun also worked in pastel? Or indeed that her subject, Marie-Antoinette, herself did so (not as well, admittedly, but she was taught by Mme Beyer-Bertrand, and an obituary that appeared just after her execution in the London packet recalled that “She drew in crayons with infinite taste”). The p-word was not mentioned once in the programme. Although Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser were discussed, not a whisper of Rosalba Carriera, the most famous woman artist of the century, nor of Suzanne Roslin or Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, two more female members of the Académie royale in Paris.

In fact, as you can see throughout my Dictionary of pastellists before 1800, pastel was a field offering women far greater opportunity than most areas of the arts. There were a number of reasons for this. From a purely practical point of view, pastel portraiture is an essentially solo activity requiring no large studio with an army of assistants to manage the large canvases used in history painting. It could be practised without lengthy training in life drawing (all but impossible under the prudish restrictions imposed in the eighteenth century).

Some 17% of known pastellists (i.e. those recorded in my Dictionary) were female overall, but this figure also varies considerably among different cohorts. Women made up less than 10% of the “significant” artists (chose with a surviving œuvre in at least double digits), while accounting for 45% of amateurs. They represented half the recorded Spanish artists but only an eighth of the Dutch and just over a fifth of the English and French schools. There are of course inevitable biases in such data, which reflect varying cultural traditions, for example, in relation to the admission and recording of honorary members in academies.

Women in art in the eighteenth century have now for some years been given considerable attention, from various perspectives and at widely differing levels of scholarship. Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin’s 1976 Los Angeles exhibition Women artists: 1500–1950 was widely influential, as was Germaine Greer’s The obstacle race, published in 1979 and still in print. Both gave good coverage to female pastellists.

But while the unfairness of the suppression of women is by now universally acknowledged, the second class status of pastel is still in need of its revolution. There is nothing to patronise in Suzanne Roslin’s magnificent portrait of Pigalle in the Louvre (above).

Postscript, 12-14 May 2014

There is a pastel in Episode 1, about 1 min 06 into the programme. It’s Rosalba’s self-portrait, but the presenter ignores it – using the opportunity of her tour of the Vasari corridor merely to tell us that only 7% of the artists represented there were women. And the p-word does make an appearance: in Episode 3, where Professor Vickery is talking about “pastel pink” in a Gertrude Jekyll herbaceous border: just the sort of use I blogged about before.

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From → Art history

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