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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Women Painters of the World [1]

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Women Painters of the World
by Walter Shaw Sparrow (1905)

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Before I start, I should say that in a volume from this period, "the World" is defined by Nineteenth Century values, and this is only one in a series dedicated to women painters. Presumably other volumes will be released in due course.

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If I were to ask practically any group of people to name ten famous European painters up to the twentieth century, they would probably have little trouble.

It would be very surprising, to me at least, if any of those painters were women. That's the nature of the societies from which they came. Men were the masters of public space, including the arts as well as most of the sciences, and the talents of women in the public world were ignored, unless they were extraordinary women, able to compete with males in a male world. (Many might ask these days, in particular male-dominant worlds, "So what's changed?) Most likely women kept their talents to themselves and a select group of friends, or as in the case with authors, often resorted to a male nom de plume in order to be taken seriously.

It would be ridiculous to say that women could be any less talented than men in these fields. There are other arts men did not consider appropriate to their gender that were the preserve of women, and which reinforce the axiom; that women's contributions have remained almost hidden and vastly under-appreciated for centuries.

This introduction isn't about why their contribution has been ignored and their talent belittled. I think it's obvious. One look at history, western history – no; all history – and it's clear how this has come about. Let me not waste our time spelling it out here.

Having said that, the next question is, what works of traditional art painted by Western women survive, and what are their characteristics? When I study each painting a little, much is revealed that answers the second part of that question. 

It's still a select group of women whose works survive. The chambermaid with a standard HB pencil or charcoal stick, a notepad and a wildflower on the kitchen table isn't going to have her drawing displayed anywhere. Not for posterity, anyway.

There's no doubt that what has been collected in this volume strongly shows national traits. As the cutting from the text of the book shows, the English contribution is strong on style and often weak on liveliness. Formality triumphs over spontaneity.

The kids being painted in one lot of surviving paintings are lively and full of fun. Others who are posing in their Sunday best with little enthusiasm have that look on their face that says they've been told, "Sit still now, Elizabeth. DON'T change your expression. Oh, do stop pouting!"

Continental women painters tend to show much more vivacity in their paintings, but this partly reflects the subject matter and the artist. Many were snapshots in the artist's memory, not something posed. There were no cameras handy to take a candid shot like that above. 

Women and children are, not surprisingly, the subjects where the real subtleties and talents of the women painters are revealed. "The Peacemaker" [above] illustrates this superbly.

The surviving paintings of Italian women were considered good enough if their subjects were highborn men, or the theme was Vatican-City-religious. Not so the Scandinavians, or Russians, or the French. The French, with the enthusiasm and spontaneity of impressionism driving them, produced masterpieces. Master piece? There's that word again. Something masterly. "Master chef; what power there is in that word "Master" and how neatly exclusive of women when it suits.

Given that few women could expect to be commissioned portrait painters, they looked beyond faith and nobility for their subjects, and found charming subjects in painting portraits of other women, a few notable but not noble men, and children.  Part 2 of this piece, which displays a range of examples, clearly illustrates this point.

There is less of landscape painting than I would have expected, but that may be due to other factors and not a lack of interest in painting them. There is evidence of great skill in animal painting and a superb appreciation for animal form and qualities. 

Some like the above show precursors to modern advertising and the postcard shot so reminiscent of those of World War 1.

The easiest arrangement is by nationality, and that adds a particular dimension. I didn't want to do that. You can go to the book and see it that way. I spent way too long arranging them differently, and chose by category instead, as that tells yet another story. Now I'm not sure if that's a good idea either.

I jumbled them a little, so you may see other patterns. Order is not always a good thing as it's another person's imposition, though human beings enamoured of rules tend to demand it. Most of the paintings in the book are there by individual right.

No. I wont be too rigid about it. Just see for yourself! The paintings will tell their own story, as they always do. Download the whole volume and view them on Kindle or Calibre.

This introduction isn't an art criticism as I have no qualifications whatever to do so. It's just personal observation of a scant selection of images that attracted me or revealed something of relevance to the subject of the book.

"The World," needless to say, is that of the West.

Please note that what you see in these two pieces is just a fraction of the paintings in the volume; ones that grabbed my attention or illustrate a point. What I chose is far from a random selection, but it is neither comprehensive nor truly representative.


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Text excerpt from the book:

Early British Women Painters

Everybody knows that it has fallen to England's lot to gem the remote seas with shining repetitions of herself. But everybody does not remember that she has done this quite at haphazard, just as the winds carry seeds from a garden to a waste ground. In herself, with fitful moments of purposeful energy, England has been self-critical and self-distrustful, disinclined to value her own doings or to take precautions when in the midst of dangers. But for the individual enterprise of her children, which she has often disowned and punished, her colonies would have been the Isle of Man and the Isle of Wight. And it is singular to note also that the history of England's genius in art has followed the traditional character of her devious makeshifts in commerce and in war.

Despite all inherent weaknesses, she has achieved at random a recognised greatness in art, and is so surprised at it that she hesitates always to encourage the gifts of her own craftsmen, preferring rather to have confidence in the work which she can buy from men of genius in other countries. From the time of Henry VIII. to the coming of the school of Reynolds, she allowed her own painters to starve in order that she might employ strangers; and to-day, as in the past, she butterflies from foreign school to foreign school and treats her own native arts to side-glances and half-friendly nods.

Now, as this has ever been England's disposition, it is not surprising to find that Englishwomen, as well as Englishmen, long hesitated to follow the arts professionally. At a time when Italy and France had scores of women painters, England had scarcely one. Perhaps the earliest of any note, if we except Susannah Penelope Gibson, a miniature painter, was Mrs. Mary Beale, daughter of a Suffolk clergyman named Cradock. She lived between the years 1632 and 1697. After modelling her style on that of Lely, she worked with great courage, showing much real talent, particularly in quiet portraiture. She painted broadly and well, drew with force and discrimination, and although she told the truth plainly at a time when other painters flattered and fawned, she yet achieved success, and was encouraged by the highest in the land, from King Charles the Second to Archbishop Tillotson. Time has robbed her colour of its first freshness, but the character remains, and the portraits on page 81 represent Mary Beale in a characteristic manner.

The next English women painters in order of merit were Lady Diana Beauclerk, an amateur with much untutored talent, and Catharine Read, a distinguished professional artist of the Reynolds period. That she was appreciated in her day is proved by the fact that her portraits were engraved, side by side with those of Reynolds and Gainsborough. To-day she is forgotten, and very little can be learnt about her life or about the present owners of her pictures. Catharine Read lived near St. James's and sent frequently to the exhibitions. In 1770 she went to the East Indies, but in a few years returned to London, where she died in or about the year 1786....

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[My important message is this: I have saved the BEST of my selected images for PART 2 of this piece, which is dedicated solely to presenting the paintings and not to comment. I hope that they will please you as much as the did me.]

Your download site:

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1 comment:

  1. Gutenblog is good!I picked up an 2nd generation Sony eReader about a month ago and I have been searching for gems at Gutenberg.org. Yesterday I downloaded the wonderful "Women Painters of the World" and I was so happy to have discovered it. Today I discovered your blog. Things are going swimmingly!


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