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Paris, Impressionism, and the Rise of the Female Artist

Paris at the turn of the nineteenth century was a busheling hub of life, culture, and, most of all, art. Artists from all over the world were flocking to Paris to study painting in one of Paris’ renowned académies. Paris was more than willing to fulfill its duties as a “hub” by opening its art expertise to all artists, regardless of nationality or gender. Though still a highly male-dominated profession, female artists were pushing to secure their place and influence in the art world by moving to Paris.

The art world was in a state of metamorphosis at the end of the nineteenth century, going from formal enlightened discussion in the privacy of the salons, to a more informal and independent debate in public cafés, thus creating a new form of gender segregation. Then a thing of the past, having work displayed in a salon no longer held the same prestige as it once had earlier in the nineteenth century. The impressionism style of art resulted from this more public and relaxed social setting and atmosphere. Its experimentation with lighting, wider range of colors, and subjects of contemporary life perfectly depicted the informal and “en plein air” (outside) atmosphere. Due to Paris’ openness and high influence, and impressionism’s new lax point of view, foreign female impressionist artists, such as Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès, and Marie Bashkirtseff, who were not taken seriously in their home countries, became extremely influential and respected artists in Paris, and then the world.

Paris’ sphere of influence advanced three factors that contributed to the rising female art world: social setting, schooling, and studios. The end of the nineteenth century held Bohemian values, such as love, freedom, and beauty, in high regard. These relaxed values “helped create a space for the women artists who flocked to Paris,” (Borzello, 2000). Feminism made this space even bigger. Female networks were emerging and encouraging their fellow sisters to pursue art. L’Union des Peintures et Sculpteurs had an annual female art show, which was enormously popular, so much so that it received funding from the government.

The more liberated social setting that Paris was developing brought on more art schools accepting female pupils. Foreigners, especially women, were not welcomed into France’s most famous art school L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts. L’Académie Colarossi and L’Académie Julian were among the académies established. These academes had mixed and single-sex classrooms and a student ranking system; both fostered a healthy competitive drive in the female artists to rapidly develop their artistic abilities. Seventeen-year-old Marie Bashkirtseff came to L’Académie Julian from the Ukraine and honed her skills under two influential Parisian male artists, giving her the attention and teaching necessary to become a highly respected artist, so much so that her journal, entitled Journal, was published in three different languages. Bashkirtseff immortalized the large affect L’Académie Julian had on her artistic career in her most famous work, In the Studio (see right), depicting the artistic freedom women had at the académie.

The growing number of Parisian art schools accepting women led to a growing number of female artists in Paris. Paris’ accepting society allowed women to rent their own studios. These ateliers became the female artist’s symbol of freedom. They also served as evidence that female artists were taken more seriously, closing the segregation gap between male and female art.

Paris’ open atmosphere at the turn of the nineteenth century manifested itself in a growing art genre: Impressionism. The increasing popularity of Impressionism’s informal style, female subjects, and well-known male tutors, such as Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas, greatly contributed to the new tier of acceptance, respect, and prestige on which female artists were placed. Impressionism has a “snapshot” composition, in other words, it captures a moment in time (Heller, 1987). This was completely different from the previous formal posed portrait style. The new techniques ushered in by Impressionism were soft and loose brush strokes, use of bright colors, and polite settings. These techniques were perfect for aspiring female artists, because they were already the accepted techniques for women. However, Impressionism popularized these techniques for both genders, equalizing the sexes in the art world.

Female subjects frequented paintings in a new form. Previously, a female was an ornament in a setting. However, Impressionism made female subjects the reason for the piece’s creation. Male and female artists were painting women as authentic members of the art world. Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas, two of the most influential Impressionist painters, both painted women in their artistic surroundings. Manet’s Eva Gonzalèz in Manet’s Studio and Eva Gonzalèz (see right) depict Eva Gonzalèz in the process of painting. Degas’ At the Louvre (Mary Cassatt) and Mary Cassatt depict Mary Cassatt as a serious artist. Many female artists studying in Paris were painting women in their ateliers holding large palettes as a symbol of ambition, achievement, and pride, such as Norwegian Asta Nørregaard’s In the Studio.

Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas not only painted female artists, they also lent their names and artistic talents to several female artists. Eva Gonzalèz had a few different mentors, but the most influential to her work was Manet. Eva met Edouard in 1869 and was his student, model, and friend. Her works “resemble Manet’s earlier ‘Spanish’ paintings, featuring a dark, restricted palette; strong contrasts of dark and light; a creamy quality to the pigment; solid, clearly defined forms; and a hint of mystery tingeing the relationship among many of her figures,” (Heller, 1987), as seen in The Italian Music Hall Box. As a result of Manet’s influence, Gonzalèz’s pieces received good reviews and her reputation extended throughout Europe.

American Mary Cassatt spent four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before moving to Paris to continue studying art. She met Edgar Degas in 1879 when he invited her to join the Impressionist group exhibition. Degas influenced her work in terms of subject and composition, as seen in Lydia in a Loge, Wearing a Pearl Necklace’s (see right) depiction of an evening at the theater, one of Degas’ favorite themes (Heller,1987). In 1904, Cassatt’s pieces were honored when she was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government, an honor rarely bestowed upon a foreigner.

The progressively acceptable atmosphere and increasing number of art schools accepting female students and female-run studios changed gender roles in the Paris art world at the turn of the nineteenth century. Women were becoming more socially and artistically equal to men. Women from around the world were moving to Paris for its gender equality and largely influential art scene. Impressionism’s female-friendly informal style, largely female-dominated subject focus, and highly influential male tutors helped to push and strengthen gender equality. Foreigners studying Impressionist art in Paris, such as Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalèz, and Marie Bashkirtseff became extremely well-respected and praised members of the art community in Paris, which then spread to their respective home countries. Thus taking the success of female artists out of French isolation and spreading it internationally.

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