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|Academy of Women
by Ellen McBreen
|"Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian," Jan. 18-May 13, 2000, at the Dahesh Museum, 601 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017.
An ideal oasis for a midtown lunch hour, New York's Dahesh Museum is currently dressed up as an intimate European salon, showing work by an international group of 19th-century women artists in an exhibition called "Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Academie Julian."
What are the "obstacles" to which the show's unfortunate title refers? As curators Gabriel Weiberg and Jane R. Becker make clear, the French art establishment did not exactly roll out the red carpet for these women. In fact, it didn't even open the door. Women were denied entry into the career-making Ecole des Beaux-Arts until 1897.
Painter Rodolphe Julian, who also did a little wrestling promotion in his spare time, recognized a sound opportunity when he saw one. He surmised that women could withstand the kind of disciplined fine arts training traditionally reserved exclusively for men. This was a progressive cause for Julian, but welcoming well-off, mostly foreign women into his Académie was also very good business. His co-ed art studios followed the regimen of the Ecole de Beaux-Arts, and even borrowed some of its well-connected professors. Matisse became one of the Académie's better known grads, but the women trained here were also stars, many of them returning to their own countries as successful portraitists (then considered the most appropriate genre for a serious female painter).
In several vivid self-portraits the Julian women brandish the tools of their trade. You can almost see them battling the improbability of their existence, and these intriguing works are badges of professional identity. No one looks more empowered by palette and brushes than the Polish-born Anna Bilinska. In her Self-Portrait with Apron and Brushes (1887) she bestrides a studio chair, confronting the viewer as intensely as she would a canvas. Bilinska is clearly a woman used to honest self-assessment (and this was before Frida Kahlo made facial hair cool). Most of Bilinska's works on view here have traveled from Cracow and Warsaw. The chance to discover them here in New York alone makes the show worth the trip.
Another highlight is In the Studio (1881) by the Ukrainian Marie Bashkirtseff. Following founder Julian's savvy suggestion, Bashkirtseff painted her fellow students in a life class at the Académie Julian -- a great advertisement for the school when the painting eventually hung at the Salon. Although drawing from the live model was the holy grail of academic training, these industrious women seem shortchanged by the Académie's choice of model -- a slack, bored little boy, indifferently posed as a shepherd.
Bashkirsteff's ode to the Académie is by far her best work in the show. After leaving Julian, she eventually made a name for herself painting street urchins, who look like refugees from the cast of Little Rascals set in 19th-century Paris. She professed to be an ardent admirer of Balzac, but gritty realism is about the last thing this Russian aristocrat's take on poverty suggests. Her Jean et Jacques (1883) -- a pair of healthy workhouse boys with unkempt hair and perfectly holed smocks -- borders on kitsch. Picturesque Paris seems so beautiful that even its street children are charming!
Bashkirtseff's In the Studio hangs next to the American Elizabeth Gardner's The Shepherd David (ca. 1895), the kind of picture that the students in the life class were learning to make. In this smart pairing, 19th-century academic process and product are seen side by side. Thanks to the saccharine goodness of Gardner's milky David, here rescuing an even sweeter lamb, the work looks like a Bouguereau knock-off. Bouguereau, an academic giant, was Gardner's professor at Julian, and one of his works is on view for comparison. Gardner painted exactly like him (his male students emulated his ubiquitous style too) -- until she married him and stopped painting altogether.
Julian students were encouraged to keep up with the latest trends, and the real stars of this show are works that subtly break with academic norms. For Swiss artist Louise Breslau, this meant experimenting with Impressionism. Her lively portrait of fellow artist Henry Davison (1880) depicts the lanky British bohemian, his hat playfully tossed over an antique bust in a cluttered studio. We are often led to believe that only men shared this kind of artistic camaraderie immortalized in portraits of each other, such as Manet's Portrait of Emile Zola, which also belongs to the d'Orsay, but hangs more frequently and prominently than Breslau's portrait of Davison. (Zola is, after all, more of a star in demand.)
The character of the roving flaneur, which Breslau captures in Davison, was off-limits to Breslau herself. She had to paint the arenas of life to which a bourgeois lady had access in the late 19th century -- the sitting room instead of the café-concert, for instance. A palpable sense of domestic confinement is evoked in Breslau's At Home (1885), a portrait of the artist's mother and sister (perhaps the most beautifully painted work in the exhibition). Both stare idly off into space, pausing indefinitely from the lady-like pursuits of letter writing and embroidery (ho hum). A drooping flower suggests the airlessness of this room. Even the family dog, cornered claustrophobically in the bottom of the picture, pleads for rescue. As the accompanying catalogue explains, a contemporary critic (someone who never spent the afternoon embroidering) read this painting as a touching scene of feminine meditation, but the mood Breslau creates here is far more complex.
Anna Bilinska also looked at the Impressionists. She said she was disgusted by their lazy sketchiness, but her own atmospheric rendering of Unter der Linden Street in Berlin (1890) buzzes with such spontaneity that it makes Monet's street scenes look labored by comparison.
The most provocative image in the show is Bilinska's Male Semi-Nude Study (1885). The demure, downward gaze of the male model contrasts brilliantly with the powerful self-possession of the artist's own self-portrait, which hangs beside it. Male Semi-Nude Study is unusual not just because it's one of the few male nudes in the show -- most depict female models -- but because the model wears an odd pair of brown hip-hugging underpants. Even the relatively liberal Académie Julian had to follow codes of appropriate behavior -- drawing sessions for men and women were segregated, for example, and Julian referred to the women's studios as "little convents."
These brown skivvies get to the heart of why gender was such a defining factor in art careers. Learning from the male nude was essential training for the large, epic history paintings that literally made an artist's career in the Salons -- no male nudes, no male career.
Exclusions are institutional but also personal, and Bilinska seemed to understand it that way. Set in the margins of her studious semi-nude male are three incisive caricatures. At left is a sketch in which the painter has drawn herself as some kind of Cruella DeVil before an easel, wielding a massive palette that threatens to engulf her. At the right are two unwelcome gentlemen. One is satyr-like, with pointy ears and a tail and hooves peeking out from behind his painter's smock. He claps, as if to mock her artistic efforts. The other is just a wild, angry profile, fuming in her direction. Bilinska's wry little sketches may poke fun at these male intruders, but they also convey frustration that the art world she is training for still very much belongs to men.
ELLEN McBREEN is an art historian, critic and Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.
In the bookstore:
Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Academie Julian
Sisters of the Brush: Women's Artistic Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris by Tamar Garb
Women in the Nineteenth Century: Categories and Contradictions by Linda Nochlin