Friday, December 11, 2009

A Revelation on Regency Women Artists

Above: An engraving from a painting "The Hours" by Maria Cosway

I have had a revelation of how miserably neglected women artists and poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries have been. A book led to this realization, and I will tell you about it in a later post. Suffice to say that I have been guilty of not thinking outside the box, and I intend to change my ways.

Since my epiphany, I have been reflecting on the lack of publicity and honour given to the female artists of the Regency period. Such was the paternalistic society of the time that women's efforts in the field of art were largely discounted and regarded as of lesser value than their male peers. Thus, we all know the names of Turner, Constable, Lawrence and Rowlandson, but few of us have ever heard of Maria Cosway, Clara Wheatley Pope or Mary Moser or the host of well-educated ladies of rank and fashion who produced a great deal of memorable and vaulable art. I must admit with some shame that my own Regency World Art page contains no female artists. I will do what I can to change that, but there are only a few 'out of copyright' versions of their artwork available to me.

Above right: A painting OF Mary Moser

In researching this blog on the Internet, I have found very little information on the women artists of the late 18th and early 19th century compared with the vast reams of material on male artists. There is one excellent article at GadflyOnline that is well worth reading, and discusses the problem that I have only just discovered.

The issue of female artists is complicated in that, during the Regency, sketching, watercolour painting, and drawing were considered necessary accomplishments for ladies to acquire. This fact alone led to any talent they might have had being discounted by the masculine dominated art world. Oil painting was frowned upon for 'ladies' but nevertheless those serious artists among women undertook that discipline as well.

Some facts make plain the difficulties that female artists faced:
- women were not admitted in the Academies of Art or their schools that dominated the art world in European countries
- women were not permitted to study in 'life' classes, that is study the human form via nude models
- therefore, they could not undertake the historical paintings which were in vogue and consisted of classical subjects ie nudes

The Gadfly article noted above calls the female artists that challenged these rules 'heroes' and I must agree. Despite the difficulties they faced, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser began the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. Maria Cosway gained recognition as a painter of mythological scenes, Clara Wheatley Pope exhibited miniatures at the Royal Academy and eventually was renowned as a portraitist. She is particularly remembered today for her botanical art, especially the plates for a monograph on camellias.

On the left below: Young Woman Drawing by Marie-Denise Villers and on the Right: Self-Portrait by Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun

The number of professional female artists in Britain was small during the early 1800s, and in discussing the subject, we cannot ignore the continent--German Anna-Marie Ellenrider, Frenchwomen Marie-Denise Villers and Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-LeBrun. The portrait work of these women illustrates the Regency world with precision and beauty. I offer what reproductions I can of their work, and urge you to search on their names in Google to visit gallery sites to see more of their art. We have done their work a disservice and I, for one, will campaign for their visibility in the future!

'Til next time,



Janet said...

This is very interesting, Lesley-Anne. I have recently met an artist down here, Shelley Mitchell, who is a part of a book club I have joined. She is such an advocate of women painters, women's rights actually, and has led many thought provoking discussions on the suppression of women painters in the past.

A book was recommended at the last book club - not sure if you'll be able to find it, or if it would be something you'd be interested in - A world of Our Own, Women Artists since the Renaissance.

Males are a very paranoid gender - I believe they know the power women possess and find ways to contain it :)

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thanks for the book recommendation Janet! It sounds great; I will look it up. So interesting about your new artist friend. You know I was aware of all this on the periphery of my mind, but now it's front and centre--where it should be. Such suppression is a disgrace, and thank God we live in an era where it is lessening and/or we can fight it!
Right on, sister!

Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Jo Manning said...

Hello, Lesley-Anne! Just came across your wonderful blog. Female artists of the Regency period are a special interest of mine -- and I even have a manuscript languishing in my hard drive!

Shelley Mosley just wrote an article called Brushed Off, for Ebsco Host, on female artists.

Emiko said...

I appreciate this article a lot, because women in art history have been grossly overlooked. Artists like Plautilla Nelli, Edmonia Lewis, Galizia, Ghirlandaio, Robusti, Gentileschi, Teerlinc, Van Hemessen, Katsushika, Carriera, etc. all deserve far more recognition. However, it's important when highlighting the work of artists such as these that we not exaggerate their prowess and give a false perception of them or the societal obstacles they faced.

Your claim that, "Despite the difficulties they faced, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser began the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768" is not the full story. Kauffman and Moser are founding members of the London Royal Academy. They were two out of 34 members, all the rest of which were men. The way you worded this, it gives the impression that two women alone founded the RA, which was a deeply patriarchal society for the vast majority of its existence, and has only recently begun to make an effort to become more inclusive. Had Kauffman and Moser been the only founders, the academy would have likely died in a drawing room or parlor, and never become a venerable institution that still exists to this day. I'm not saying that it is insignificant that they were founding members --truly, for the time period it was revolutionary--, but it would be erroneous to say that the two of them began it.

Take this painting by Johan Joseph Zoffany: He depicts the Academicians preparing for a life-drawing class with a nude model. All the men are present, while the women members are relegated to portraits on the wall, for even though they were founding members and Academicians in their own rights, it was unthinkable that they would attend a session with a live nude and exercise similar privileges to their male counterparts.

So, thank you for promoting awareness of their accomplishments. I just wanted to clarify this point because there's little enough information out there that I hope to minimize any misinformation.