The art world has long been a male-dominated domain. Although the ratio has shifted in recent years, men were traditionally afforded far more access to artistic training. One of the most important aspects of this training, the study of the nude model, was generally altogether barred from female students.
As women have been incorporated into the art world and art history in recent decades, many issues have arisen concerning the handling of these changes. These have included the attribution, collection, display and analysis of works by female artists.
In 1917, Mlle Charlotte du Val d’Ognes1 “was bequeathed to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as of work of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) and hailed by critics as a remarkable portrait.”2 Since the Met’s acquisition of this painting, it has been reattributed to Marie-Denise Villers (1774-1821) as Young Woman Drawing. “Although little known today, Villers was a gifted pupil of Girodet (1767-1824) and exhibited in the salons, where her portraits attracted attention. This canvas, which was exhibited in the 1801 Salon, may be a self-portrait.”3
“When it was reattributed…[Young Woman Drawing] ‘suddenly acquired feminine attributes: Its poetry, literary rather than plastic, its very evident charms, and its cleverly concealed weakness, its ensemble made up from a thousand subtle attributes, all seem to reveal the feminine spirit.’ ”2 In other words, when attributed to a well-respected, male artist, Young Woman Drawing was simply a lovely painting to be enjoyed. However, once recognized as the work of a woman, the painting developed faults and innately feminine attributes that had never before been apparent.
Alfred Steiglitz (1864-1946), photographer and owner of the New York Gallery 291, believed that such innate differences between the art of men and women did exist. “He stated that ‘Woman feels the World differently than Man feels it…The Woman receives the World through her Womb…’”4 Of his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Steiglitz believed that she “was very definitely a ‘woman artist’—‘I’d know she was a woman—Look at that line,’ ” he declared in January 1916.5
However, O’Keeffe herself campaigned for her work to be considered in the same league as male artists throughout history. Her repeated refusals to take part in exhibitions of “women’s art,” at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1943 and the Brooklyn Museum in 1977,6 illustrate her unwillingness to label herself as a woman artist.
Is there an implication of inferiority in the term “woman artist”? Do shows of such work imply that the work of female artists cannot be shown alongside that of male artists? Do female artists need the “boost” into museums and history that such group shows of “women’s art” might afford?
O’Keeffe is best known for her close-up images of flowers. “Throughout the 1920s O’Keeffe fought against contemporary associations of her paintings and drawings with then fashionable psychoanalytic attention to sexuality.”6 To this day, the most popular reading of O’Keeffe’s imagery is that of the yonic symbol. “She even tried switching subject matter—to buildings instead of nature and sexually suggestive abstraction—in order to change her image.”6
Do you think that the artist’s intentions or the viewer’s interpretations are more important in the “reading” of a work of art? Do you think that the artist’s gender is apparent or important in a piece of artwork?
At the New Britain Museum of American Art, our galleries are a comprehensive blend of all artists from various time periods. We aim to show the American story from as many viewpoints as possible throughout the Museum. We are excited about the upcoming exhibition New Britain Collects Women, opening in December. This exhibition will feature highlights of the permanent collection done by female artists from the 1800s to the present.
1. Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition history for Young Woman Drawing (1801) by Marie-Denise Villers.
2. Laurie Schneider Adams, The Methodologies of Art: An Intrduction (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 81.
3. Metropolitan Museum of Art gallery label for Young Woman Drawing (1801) by Marie-Denise Villers.
4. Adams, 97.
5. Adams, 96.
6. Adams, 98.