How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

Tag: 1800s

“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”: A Case Study

five female artists 2

This post is a collaboration with Jennifer Dasal from the ArtCurious Podcast, in which we’ve both taken art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and talked about it from new, contemporary perspectives. Go check out Jennifer’s episode here!

It’s easy for the average person to name one or two famous artists throughout history. Most can probably even manage nine or ten. But specify female artists, and things get a lot more difficult.

Even when people can name a few female artists, there’s usually only a small repertoire that gets repeated over and over: Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Cassatt, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marina Abramović. Only a handful of female artists have become famous enough to become (somewhat) household names. Why is that? Why have there been no great women artists? That’s the famous art historical question I’ll be answering today, by looking at five specific women artists – along with five gender-related reasons for why they’ve been left out of art history.

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Artist Feature: Who Was Osman Hamdi Bey?

An old-fashioned, black and white photograph of Osman Hamdi Bey from the nineteenth century. The photograph depicts an older bearded man wearing a suit, glasses and a fez.

Movement/Style: Academic art

Country: Turkey (Ottoman Empire)

Years: 1842 – 1910

Well, who was he?

Osman Hamdi Bey had many roles – museum director/curator, academician, archaeologist, administrator – but here, I want to focus on his art. Hamdi Bey came from Istanbul (part of the Ottoman Empire at the time) and studied art in Paris, adopting a European academic art style.

What’s important about Hamdi Bey’s work is that it shows a very different version of Islam, the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East than what was portrayed in European Orientalist paintings at the time. While European painters were fascinated with Islam and the Middle East, falsely depicting it as a world of unbridled eroticism, savagery and exoticism, Hamdi Bey painted scenes that were more in line with reality. A common line of thinking among art historians is that Hamdi Bey was in some ways “speaking back to” or subverting European Orientalist paintings.

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Academic Art in the 19th Century: What Exactly Were the Impressionists Rebelling Against?

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Odalisque (1874), Jules Joseph Lefebvre. Lefebvre frequently exhibited his works at the Paris Salon, and is a good example of 19th century Academic art.

Reader Question: “It has always struck me that the Impressionists were in their time not considered as what you could call “officially acceptable painters”, and that for instance the yearly Salon in Paris consecrating the best painters of the year regularly refused their paintings (hence the “Salon des Refusés). Could you enlighten us about who were the official painters of the time and give some examples of their works?” – asked by Myriam

Thanks for this question, because it’s one of my favourite topics! It’s fascinating how the Impressionists, who were initially excluded by the institutional art world, are now much more famous than any of the artists that exhibited regularly in the Salon. These artists really reflect the most widespread tastes, aesthetics and ideas of their time. Despite this popularity, however, most of them have now drifted into obscurity.

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A Brief History of Hairless Vulvas in Art (NSFW)

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Object (Le déjeuner en fourrure), 1936, Méret Oppenheim. A Surrealist sculpture often interpreted as a visual pun referencing a hairy vagina, as the tea set is traditionally feminine.

Reader question: “I loved your post about penises, but what about vaginas? We think hairless vaginas started with porn, but I’ve definitely seen paintings in museums with hairless vaginas. What’s the deal? When did it all start?”

Aah, nudity in art, a subject dear to my heart. Vaginas and vulvas (with vulva referring specifically to the external genital region) in art have a quite different history than penises do, ranging from being symbols of fertility and life to being symbols of shame and impurity. As I wrote in my post on the Female Nude, hairless vulvas have been around in art for a long time. How long? At least 2,000 – 3,000 years, and maybe even since the beginning of art as we know it.

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Art History 101: The Female Nude (NSFW)

Art in Island's reimagined version of Francois Boucher's Nude on a Sofa, complete with two young boys sneaking a peek at her butt to truly emphasize that

Art in Island‘s reimagined version of Francois Boucher’s Nude on a Sofa, complete with two children sneaking a peek at her butt. Photo by me.

I recently visited the interactive art museum Art In Island in Manila, where visitors are encouraged to take photographs with large murals painted on the walls. Some of these murals are inspired by famous works of art, and some are inspired by famous works of art featuring naked women. Seeing the way that these female bodies had been recontextualised, into a space where visitors were encouraged to interact with them, made me realize something: it’s time to talk about the Female Nude in art history.

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Artist Feature: Who was Odilon Redon?

Self-Portrait, 1880

Self-Portrait, 1880, Odilon Redon

Movement/Style: Symbolism

Country: Odilon Redon spent his life in France, growing up in Bordeaux and later living and working in Paris.

Years: 1840 – 1916

Well, who was he?

Odilon Redon was part of the Symbolism movement, a European movement at the end of the nineteenth century. Symbolist art is similar to Surrealism in that it doesn’t seem to make any sense. However, there is one big difference between Symbolism and Surrealism: In Surrealism, it’s not supposed to make any sense. But in Symbolism, everything means something.

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“How can I love artists like Gauguin when I know so much of his work was exploitative and racist?”

Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch) (1892)

Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch) (1892)

Reader question: “How can I love artists like Gauguin when I know so much of his work was exploitative and racist? How can we look past the artist and appreciate the art? Should we?”

That’s a great question! This is something that a lot of people struggle with. It’s sometimes hard to admit that beautiful and famous art can also be based on racist and sexist attitudes.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Paul Gauguin, he was a French Post-Impressionist/Symbolist artist who famously moved to Tahiti in the late 19th century and painted the people (more specifically, the women) that he met there.

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Artist Feature: Who was Anna Ancher?

Anna Ancher, Denmark’s most famous female artist

Anna Ancher, Denmark’s most famous female artist

Anna Ancher is famous in Scandinavia, but basically unknown in the rest of the world. Which is a shame because we always need more discussion on awesome female artists in art history.

Movement/Style: Part of the Skagen artists’ colony. She’s usually associated with Naturalism, and sometimes with Realism and Impressionism.

Country: She traveled a bit around Europe, but lived, worked and died in the small town of Skagen in Denmark.

Years: 1859 – 1935

Well, who was she?

Anna Ancher (1859 – 1935) was a Danish painter active in the late 19th and early 20th century. She was part of a group of artists and other creative people who briefly lived and worked in the small fisherfolk village of Skagen in Northern Denmark, known as the Skagen colony.

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