The Male Presence in The Clark’s "Women Artists in Paris" Show
By Sophie Bartholomew
Exhibiting over eighty paintings all by women, Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 at the Clark Art Institute (June 9 to September 3) made clear strides to emphasize the legacy of women in the history of art. The show was expansive, displaying works by thirty-seven artists from eleven different countries, and including some of the most widely recognized painters of the nineteenth century, among them Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot. While the exhibition lived up to its name in its pictorial content, the text accompanying the paintings revealed inconsistencies in the curators’ priorities and undermined the explicit goal of celebrating women artists. These curatorial contradictions are notable when considering the narrative that shows like this construct about the history of women participating in the production of art.
The most troubling element of the exhibition was the amount of attention paid to men in a show which claimed to focus on women. Much of the wall text detailed the women artists’ relationships with notable men involved in the Paris art scene. Next to Lilla Cabot Perry’s painting Open Air Concert (1890) was a plaque describing the artist’s “formative encounter” with Claude Monet and his influence on her artistic career. Cecilia Beaux’s Sita and Sarita (Woman with a Cat) (1893-94) was accompanied by an account of the praise artist William Merritt Chase graciously bequeathed upon Beaux, saying “Miss Beaux is not only the greatest living woman painter, but the best that has ever lived.”
Sita and Sarita is a relatively conventional portrait in its composition, but another nearby Beaux painting is notable for its unusual composition; Ernesta (Child with Nurse) (1894) focuses on Beaux’s young niece, Ernesta Drinker, holding the hand of a nurse whose upper body is out of frame. In the wall text the curators note that this cropping is “unprecedented” in Beaux’s work, and speculate that it may have been influenced by the development of photography or, perhaps, the artwork of Edgar Degas. Here Beaux’s compositional creativity is attributed to the possible influence of a male artist.
Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau’s La Confidence (1880) was accompanied by an account of the artist’s attachment to and adoration of her husband, the acclaimed artist William Adolphe Bouguereau. She is quoted saying “I know I am censured for not more boldly asserting my individuality, but I would rather be known as the best imitator of Bouguereau than be nobody!” What’s more, the painting, depicting one woman whispering in another’s ear, has substantial potential for queer interpretation. The text dismisses any such meaning in its assertion of the artist’s commitment to her husband artistically and otherwise.
These texts which highlight the women artists’ relationships to famous men artists are not anomalous. Instead they are indicative of a consistent investment in a male-supremacist framework of evaluation applied to art made by women. The extent to which these artists are considered successful is tied to their proximity to men. The show’s introductory wall text explained the exclusion women experienced from educational institutions like the École des Beaux-Arts and its exhibitions in the Salon. Yet in carefully mapping these women artists’ interactions with famous male artists, and the praise they received from them, the show tracks a different form of institutional recognition: male praise.
Ultimately an exhibition that was meant to promote women framed their artwork and careers in the context of men. Rather than asserting their innovations as independent of men, they reaffirm a male-centered framework of evaluation. In addition to being inconsistent with the stated intent of the exhibition, this return to men as the arbiters of artistic success neglects the individual accomplishments of the artists on display. Instead, it promotes an art historical narrative in which men and their institutions will always be the primary measures of success.