“Elles”: The Impact of French Women Artists


December 17, 2013
Rosa Bonheur: Study of a Cow. Courtesy en:Figge Art Museum, oil painting, c.1840

Rosa Bonheur: Study of a Cow. Courtesy en:Figge Art Museum, oil painting, c.1840

In Dr. Anna Tahinci’s upcoming class, “”Elles”: French Women Artists”, French women’s contributions to the visual arts from the 18th century until today will be examined. According to Tahinci, “the class emphasis will include not only stylistic developments, but also the way French women artists interacted with the ideas and values of their time and culture”. Recently we visited with Tahinci to find out more.

WIH Reporter: What things would surprise us to know about the French women artists?

Tahinci: It was extremely difficult for a woman in France until the very end of the 19th century to receive proper artistic training because of the impossibility to have access to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the official School of Fine Arts. It was only in 1897 that a special section for women was created (separated from the male section) at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, thanks to a battle organized by sculptress Hélène Bertaux. Women had to wait until 1900 to have access to the study of nude male models and 1903 to be allowed to be part of the special exam for the prestigious Prix de Rome, that allowed them to study in Rome and obtain official commissions. As a result, only women who were daughters, sisters, wives or family members of artists could receive proper artistic training. Women were considered as “muses” and “models” of male artists, excelling mostly in the decorative arts and crafts.

Marie-Antoinette with the Rose, 1783

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Marie-Antoinette with the Rose, 1783

WIH Reporter: What is the biggest misconception we have about women artists of that time?

Tahinci: “Women’s Art” is not the same as “feminine” or “feminist Art”. One could argue that thought-provoking art is (and should be) genderless and that gender is a mere social construct, reminding us of the iconic quote by French feminist, social theorist and existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex (published in Paris in 1949): “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” The transformation of the condition of women is a major economic, social and cultural fact of our 21st century (although there is still room for improvement). This mutation is also represented in the history of art and we will study how French female artists played a central role in this revolution and why their life and work made a lasting impact on modern and contemporary art.

WIH Reporter: What media will you use in your class?

Tahinci: We will increase our visual literacy and will deepen our awareness and appreciation of the cultural and conceptual framework in which French artworks were created by women. We will study and interpret a wide range of artworks by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Rosa Bonheur, Séraphine Louis, Berthe Morisot, Marie Bracquemond, Camille Claudel, Suzanne Valadon, Marie Laurencin, Sonia Delaunay, Niki de Saint Phalle, Annette Messager, Orlan, Louise Bourgeois, and Sophie Calle, and examine their relationship to the society that produced them: patrons, viewers, the cultural and artistic contexts of these works. French women fashion designers (Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Grès, Sonia Rykiel, Agnès b, Isabel Marant) and recent exhibitions, like the “Elles” exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou (when the Centre Georges Pompidou decided to consign in storage all artworks created by male artists in order to exhibit for the first time in the world the feminine side of its permanent collection) will be special highlight of the class.

For more information about Anna Tahinci’s 10-week class, which starts on February 3, 2014, at 10:00 am, click here.