By Drēma Drudge
Women have surely wanted to paint as long as men have. They, in childhood, were perhaps supplied with paper and ink, with some chalk, if lucky, the same as their male siblings. But while men who showed artistic longings and promise might be encouraged to go to art school, women with similar desires in mid-19th century Paris were ridiculed, discouraged, and downright forbidden by the art world and their own families.
One of the best-known Impressionists of the Impressionism movement of the time is Berthe Morisot. What we forget, however, is her becoming a painter of note was nearly impossible at the time she achieved it.
Morisot’s case is emblematic of those of other women with artistic ambitions of her time, and in this case, her family’s money and position were detriments to her desire to paint. In fact, the art instructor that her mother hired for her children (meant to help them become “accomplished,” a desirable trait in women at the time), warned the mother of his charges, Berthe and Edma, that “Considering the characters of your daughters, my teaching will not endow them with minor drawing room accomplishments, they will become painters. Do you realize what this means? In the upper-class milieu to which you belong, this will be revolutionary, I might say almost catastrophic.”
Surely he meant that as a kindly warning to a caring mother, not to discourage what would becoming a leading artist in the Impressionist period. Sadly, women of any class weren’t encouraged to be fine artists. Mercifully, the girls’ mother remained supportive of their painting.
Life for women who wanted to paint in France in the 18th century wasn’t easy. Of course women who painted as a hobby, who painted sweet little watercolors was acceptable at home, sure. A woman should know how to embroider, paint, play a little piano, sing sweetly, but anything beyond that was “masculine” and an obstacle to what was supposed to be a woman’s main aim: catching a husband.
The problem was, women were not welcomed into traditional art classes in Paris. Until 1897, women were not admitted to the official art school, École des Beaux-Arts. Instead, they had to turn to private instructors or the studios of other artists who didn’t teach them nearly as much and often charged them much more than males were charged. And yet, some women were desperate enough to accept these terms in order to paint. When women were accepted into the École des Beaux-Arts, they were excluded from both life study and painting classes initially. They weren’t allowed to take classes with their male counterparts.
The biggest objection to admitting women to the official art school of France? Women would be corrupted, it was feared, by beholding the naked form in classes, which, alas, was considered to be crucial to doing the most esteemed (and best-paying) category of paintings: historic scenes which featured partially clothed or nude bodies. So women painted in the other, less esteemed genres. “Acceptable” subject matter was anything domestic, such as home scenes and those of the commonplace: washing day, reading, children, pets, portraits and still life.
The Morisot sisters were blessed to have a sympathetic mother, which was key to those few women who furthered themselves as artists. Their mother, in response to their instructor’s warning, sent her children to work with artist Joseph-Benoît Guichard, who had been a pupil of Ingres and Delacroix, and thus came highly recommended. History bears witness to the effectiveness of this approach in the case of Berthe; marriage caused Erma to sideline her own work. It would have been intriguing to see how her work might have developed in comparison with her sister’s.
If women of the upper class found it almost impossible to be accepted into the art world of Paris, those without money were nearly completely shut out. Victorine Meurent, the well-known model in her time of most notably Edouard Manet (she sat for Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass) as well as others, had to wait until nearly a decade after she had posed for all of those other painters to get into art school herself. One supposes that, having come from poverty, she had to save up to earn her way in.
Sometimes women with painterly ambitions simply refused to marry. That tended to be the surest way to ensure a woman could continue to devote herself exclusively to art, a luxury rarely afforded those who married and had children. Painters Rosa Bonheur and the well-known Impressionist Mary Cassatt both didn’t marry at all, opting instead to immerse themselves in their art. Women were meant to be wives and mothers, society said. All too often if a woman did paint, once she married, she would give it up to take care of her family. When artist Marie Bracquemond’s marriage developed tension due to her rivalry with her husband, Félix Bracquemond, who was also a painter, she stopped painting.
Some women, such as Berthe Morisot, had ties to established artists, which gave them as well a kind of entre into the art world to which they would otherwise not have been accepted. In Morisot’s case, that artist was the man who would eventually become her brother-in-law, Edouard Manet. Manet also took on Eva Gonzales as a student, helping her development her work until she decided to marry, dying just after the birth of her first child.
Although these women artists of the mid-19th century faced challenges women artists today do not, women still struggle to have their work valued and exhibited equally with that of their male counterparts.
By Drēma Drudge
In 1863, Civil War is raging in the United States. Victorine Meurent is posing nude, in Paris, for paintings that will be heralded as the beginning of modern art:
Manet's Olympia and Picnic on the Grass.
However, Victorine's persistent desire is not to be a model but to be a painter herself. In order to live authentically, she finds the strength to flout the expectations of her parents, bourgeois society, and the dominant male artists (whom she knows personally) while never losing her capacity for affection, kindness, and loyalty. Possessing both the incisive mind of a critic and the intuitive and unconventional impulses of an artist, Victorine and her survival instincts are tested in 1870, when the Prussian army lays siege to Paris and rat becomes a culinary delicacy.
Drema Drudge's powerful first novel Victorine not only gives this determined and gifted artist back to us but also recreates an era of important transition into the modern world.
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Drēma Drudge suffers from Stendhal’s Syndrome, the condition in which one becomes overwhelmed in the presence of great art. She attended Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program where she learned to transform that intensity into fiction.
Drēma has been writing in one capacity or another since she was nine, starting with terrible poems and graduating to melodramatic stories in junior high that her classmates passed around literature class.
She and her husband, musician and writer Barry Drudge, live in Indiana where they record their biweekly podcast, Writing All the Things, when not traveling. Her first novel, Victorine, was literally written in five countries while she and her husband wandered the globe. The pair has two grown children.
In addition to writing fiction, Drēma has served as a writing coach, freelance writer, and educator. She’s represented by literary agent Lisa Gallagher of Defiore and Company.