Exhibit of the week
Women Artists in Paris, 1850–1900
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., through Sept. 3
Women artists were not exactly welcome in late-19th-century Paris, said Judith Dobrzynski in The Wall Street Journal. But they came anyway. Shut out of the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and prohibited from even walking the city’s streets without a chaperone, women from all across Europe congregated in the world’s undisputed art capital and created an art scene of their own by working and selling where they could. “They were not making watercolor bouquets; they were artists, venturing where women rarely went”: Realist painter Rosa Bonheur even secured special permission from the police so she could wear trousers when she ventured into slaughterhouses and stables with her paints and brushes. Lady Elizabeth Butler “excelled at realistic military scenes,” and Annie Louisa Swynnerton’s “bold, sensuous, and brilliant” Mater Triumphalis (1892) proved that women could paint nudes despite their being barred from most life-drawing classes.
Elizabeth Nourse’s 1892 self-portrait makes “a fitting greeter” to the “Women Artists in Paris” exhibition now showing in northern Massachusetts, said Alexander Stevens in the Milford, Mass., Daily News. The American expat is standing at an easel with brush in hand. “Her jaw is set, her gaze is steady, and her message is clear: Do not dismiss me.” She’s just one of 37 women artists represented, including relative household names Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot plus dozens of others—from nearly a dozen countries—who deserve more attention. “A theme that runs through the exhibit is the lovely, touching insights you get when women portray women.” The subjects, relaxed in the company of the women who are painting them, “sit casually on the floor, share a sisterhood during chores, or are sublimely content with a child sprawled in their arms.” The show’s very last painting, Ellen Thesloff’s Echo, depicts a girl shouting in an open field—“a young woman discovering the power of her voice.”
“For me, the greatest revelation of ‘Women in Paris’ is the shock of recognition,” said Cate McQuaid in The Boston Globe. The women in these images are “nothing like the kittenish young things Renoir painted,” nor the bold but cipher-like nude of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. “They are conflicted, complicated, compelling people.” Louise-Catherine Breslau’s 1881 painting The Friends features three: the Swiss artist herself and two roommates gathered at a table. “One cups her hand in her chin; the other watches, brow slightly knitted.” They are not the glamorous muses favored by the great male painters of the day. But I know these women; “I have shared their table.”