'Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900': A quiet, yet powerful, revolution

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The woman leans on the wooden table, as a thin curl of smoke escapes from her lips. She rests her chin in one hand, as she gazes off the canvas into the distance. She holds a cigarette in her other hand, a small coffee cup, a book of matches and a liquor pot are her only companions.

At first blush, "Into the Blue (Dans le blue)," is a simple moment of silence. We are voyeurs, stealing a glimpse of momentary solitude. But with this simple scene of silent solitude, the artist Amelie Beaury-Saurel, was being anything but silent.

"This is a woman asserting herself," said Esther Bell, Robert and Martha Berman Lipp Senior Curator at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. "Women smoking was not considered polite. It was not something 'nice' women did. But here, this woman is quietly smoking. She has a liquor pot near her elbow. This is a modern woman. The artist was a modern woman."

Beaury-Saurel was making a statement. And she was not alone. She was one woman of many who made a sort of pilgrimage to Paris to paint, to learn, to live.

Paris was the epicenter of the art world in the latter half of the 19th century, yet the doors of the finest art academy in the world, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts), remained closed to women until 1897.

That fact did not deter a determined group of women artists from descending upon the city, where, from 1850 to 1900, they would stage a quiet revolution; attending private academies, organizing their own exhibitions and forming their own organizations, such as the influential Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs.

"Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900," organized by the American Federation of Arts and curated by Laurence Madeline, celebrates the achievements of that international group of women, who overcame obstacles and societal rules to refine their talents and develop careers. The show, on view at the Clark through Sept. 3, brings together some 70 paintings, featuring works from well-known artists, such as Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt and Rosa Bonheur, as well as lesser-known figures, such as Kitty Kielland, Louise Breslau and Anna Ancher.

"There are many artists in this show our visitors will have never encountered before," Bell said of the show. "Every painting here tells a story of a struggle for equality. It's very poignant at this point in time."

The struggle for equality captured in the paintings can often be hard to see by today's modern viewer. The artists were in Paris at a time when a chaperon was a requirement for any woman who wanted to step outside her door.

Bonheur, known for her robust and hyper-naturalistic scenes from the fields and slaughterhouses of the French countryside, had to obtain special permission from the French police to wear pants in public, Bell said.

The confines of societal rules forced woman artists to paint in the spaces and subjects of their world, painting interiors and subjects they knew. But these common areas and themes did not keep them from making statements through their work as Beaury-Saurel did.

In "Woman at Her Toilette," Morisot presents a common scene, a woman getting ready in her private domain. But unlike most paintings of this variety, with the woman's back turned to the viewer, Morisot chooses not to show us the model's reflection in the mirror.

"In the toilette construct, by male artists, the woman's gaze is always reflected," Bell said. "We are given no access to this woman. She is not an object to be gazed upon."

Other paintings, such as Annie Stebler-Hopf's "Autopsy (Professor Poirer, Paris)" display how women found creative ways to study the male form, which was prohibited.

"Some of these artists have only ever been mentioned in literature in relation to a man — a husband, a father, a teacher. They deserve to be recognized for their achievements," Bell said.

One such artist is Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau, who is most often mentioned in relation to her husband, the famed painter and teacher William-Adolphe Bouguereau, whose work "Nymphs and Satyr," is part of the Clark's permanent collection.

Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau weathered accusations that her husband was the painter behind her works, when in truth, she had gone as far as disguising herself as a man to gain access to nude life drawing classes.

"Her work is of the same esteem as her husband's," Bell said. "And yet, our literature only mentions her in relation to her husband."

Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau's "La Confidence," hangs in a portion of the exhibition titled, "Jeunes Filles," which looks at works featuring young girls navigating the stage between childhood and adulthood.

A more dramatic work, "The Shepherd David," hangs besides "Nymphs and Satyr" in the Clark's permanent collection galleries, allowing her work to take its place, not as a footnote in relation to her husband's, but as an equal.


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