The Heatley Cliff Art History: The Ultimate Boys Club Amy Foster

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What do people mean when they say that something or someone needs “a woman’s touch”? I understand it to mean that the room, space or person in question needs the knowing eye and the subtle tweak that only a woman can offer. What do women see that men don’t? Is it color? Perspective? A good old fashioned rearranging? OF COURSE I’m generalizing here, but in this particular context, please indulge me. How old is the saying? It seems to me that throughout history, people have hinted at this reference. Why is it then that there are so few iconic female artists compared to men? It’s almost universally acknowledged that we have a way of seeing things that puts wrongs to rights. So with that logic, shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t there be more legendary female artists than male? Well, as in so many cases we are talking HIStory and that must be the only explanation. By all means we should rearrange the flowers, but to paint them? That apparently was a man’s job. Curious, no?

We often mention some of our favorite artists like Janet Hill and Emily Winfield Martin of Black Apple on our podcast. Vintage whimsy is a style we both are drawn to and one that is happily quite popular today. Jane Austen may well be the equivalent of Georgia O’Keefe in the art world and the same could be made between say, Isadora Duncan and Frieda Khalo.  Literature, dance, theatre, music – the greats are often men, but women are represented, too.  In the world of painting or sculpture however, women take the back, back seat.  Possibly even the trunk.

Name a great painter – Renoir, Monet, Rembrandt, Picasso, Degas, Pollack, Da Vinci, Gaughan, Michelangelo… the list goes on and on and on.

Now try to rattle off a list of women in that field. Not so easily done.

Back in the day, sketching and drawing was often part of a young lady’s “lady” type of education. We know, for example, that Amy from Little Women had a great deal of artistic talent.  The battle axe aunt even took her to Europe for the grand tour and to paint.  Why, then, did Amy not become a painter? Why did she marry Laurie and give it all up?  Because being a professional artist was the antithesis of being a lady.

What a shame this is! Yes it’s true, there is something decidedly masculine about painting, and sculpting, even more so. But just think of all the great work that went unseen! All the potential that was wasted because someone was born without the “right” bits down below.

Thankfully, there were some women that bucked convention and were amazing, groundbreaking artists that paved the way for women today.  We are talking about them this week on the Heatley Cliff. Of course we couldn’t cover all these artists, but here’s some names you should know so that the next time you are at a dinner party or art gallery and someone goes on and on about the way Vermeer used light or how Jackson Pollock’s splatters weren’t random, you can add a feminine perspective to the conversation.

Seraphine, Vigee Le Brun, Cassatt, Van Oosterwijk, Artemisia Gentileschi, Morisot, Dorthea Lang and De Lempicka. If you have never heard of these women, look them up – though chances are, you may have seen one of their works and simply not known it (especially in the case of photographer Dorthea Lang). Either way,  they deserve to be remembered right along with their male counterparts. And not just remembered by art history majors, but by every day women like me and you.

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  1. Art history is also sexist in the way women are portrayed- The chemise Marie Antoinette is wearing in that portrait was so scandalous in her time!

  2. I was an art history major as well and I have to say that women are very well respected in the art profession. There may not be as many female artists in the books as males, but there can be many reasons for that, other than the obvious that are generally stated. I had more female art history professors than male and these are incredibly educated women with Doctorate degrees and who conduct active research in the field. If you get a chance, read Vasari’s Lives(the biggest piece of primary source material on Italian Renaissance art) Especially his biography of Properzia de Rossi. In it you will get a Renaissance era male’s perspective on women in the arts, from the classical period up to the Renaissance… and to many’s surprise, it is incredibly positive. Not only that, but he flat out states that women are just as good, if not better, than men as artisans.

  3. Heatley I was an Art History major in college and you are totally right women artist are very much a minority. There is a group, which Im sure youve heard of called Guerrilla Girls they are activist who fight against the sexism in the art world among other things. They are awesome and don gorilla mask. I love them and hope to be like them when I grow up. And Artemisia Gentileschi is my favorite female artist! She had a pair in her!!!!!!