|In a Park, 1874, Berthe Morisot|
Thérèse Schwartze, Anna Ancher, Sophie Pemberton, Judith Leyster, Anna Bilinska - we’ve all heard of them, haven’t we? No? Well, probably not. All right, let’s try Berthe Morisot, Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun, Suzanne Valadon, Sofonisba Anguissola and Hildegarde of Bingen. Ringing any bells?
All these women were artists at a time when women simply didn’t do such things. Although, as a matter of fact, they did, and many of them could rival their male counterparts with work that would have been indistinguishable from that of the most celebrated artists of their day.
Figuration Féminine (figurationfeminine.blogspot.com) is a labour of love by the French artist Myrtille Henrion Picco, and long over-due. My delight at discovering a website devoted to the neglected works of these neglected women was rapidly followed by indignation. The list is immense. With some difficulty, I managed to count about 270 recorded women artists from Mathilde de Flandre, born in 1031, wife of William the Conqueror and instigator of the Bayeux Tapestry, to ones born in the late 20th century. These women lived their artistic lives at best indulged, but mainly overshadowed and discounted by men, and remaining unknown to all but a few specialists. Everyone has heard of Monet, Lautrec, Gauguin, Renoir, Sisley, Dégas, van Gogh, Picasso, etc. Their paintings hang in the great galleries of the world. Who has heard of Louise Breslau, Agnes Goodsir, Lee Lufkin Kaula, Eva Bonnier, or still less seen their pictures? Hence my indignation.
It wasn’t all bad news. Some received training, which suggests sympathetic fathers, and their work seems to have survived, which suggests some kind of curating going on, but why have they not made it to the big art books? Why was I, in my three years of training at art school, never told about them? I heard of Berthe Morisot in lectures, but assumed she was one of the lads. I met Suzanne Valadon, mother of Maurice Utrillo, in a book of my father’s, I saw a silk picture of Madame Vigée-LeBrun on some kind of ornament, and heard of Hildegarde, Sofonisba and Artemisia on television when I grew older, but that was the extent of my knowledge of female painters. To all intents and purposes, there weren’t any.
Figuration Féminine is a revelation. These are remarkable women and, with one or two exceptions, highly skilled. Their subjects appear to be chiefly women - although the website may be a bit slanted - but how they paint them. Look at Anna Ancher, Jane Peterson, Sophie Pemberton and Eva Bonnier for use of light, at Therese Schwartze and Louise Breslau’s photorealistic portraits, at Eurilda Loomis France’s delicate flower gardens, Agnes Goodsir’s cool, calm sitters, Lee Lufkin Kaula’s beautifully detailed women, and the sheer joy of Judith Leyster. I particularly like their self portraits. I find them more human and interesting than the rather routine male self-portraits we are accustomed to. They come across as strong, realistic and capable; I feel I know and would like them.
Once into the 20th century, the work of these artists suddenly becomes playful, surreal and alive with colour, as if they have somehow been let off a leash. These women are well aware of trends and new movements and embrace them with gusto. Until recently, women's paintings seem to have been largely straightforward depictions of religious subjects or the world they knew, but all at once, they are branching out and experimenting. Ethnic influences have crept in, with explosions of colour; artists are appearing from all parts of the world, bringing their own influences, and, rather importantly, most seem to have received training almost as a matter of course.
It’s hard to imagine, when women nowadays are winning Turner prizes, a time when art was for men and women artists were a curiosity and something one wouldn’t really want to encourage. This website doesn’t need to point it out. Simply realising how many women artists you’ve never heard of says it all.