Gender and Art: Female Role in Visual Art

The females have played an important role in the artistic field and yet for a long period this significant contribution has been assumed. Females have contributed equally to the males in the development and enrichment of the field of art. However, the poor position of the women in the society led to less recognition of these significant contributions of the females. There has been a long-held assumption that all the artistic works of the prehistoric period were developed by male artists (Shubitz, n.d).

For a long time, it has been passed on to new generations that great arts were men’s products and females who managed to develop similar products were just replicating the artistic works that had been developed by the male artists before. In fact, several of good works by the female artists of this time were attributed to their male relatives or teachers as the females were considered incapable of developing the good works (Shubitz, n.d).

The visibility of the females in the field of art was evident throughout the Middle Ages but declined in the succeeding period. In the beginning of the period of Renaissance (1450-1600 A.D) a lot of restrictions were placed on the women that saw the Western society witness a decline and invisibility of female artists (Palmer, 2011).

However, despite these discouraging and blockading restrictions for female development in the field of art, a good proportion of the female artists managed to carve out professions in this male-dominated world.

This increasing trend was observed throughout the second half of the 17th century up to the end of the 18th century. Therefore, the 18th century saw female artistic works became of great interest in the society. The female artists overcame the baseless restrictions to contribute significantly to the cultural production of the Western Society.

The trend continued into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the increased fight for improved position of the women in the society. The feminist movements of the 1970s have contributed greatly to improving the position of the women in the society so that they could receive recognition of their artistic works (Shubitz, n.d). The women have yet another battle of improving their image and position as just artists to being considered as individuals of integrity and relative identities.

Furthermore, several female artists emerged between the mid 18th century and the early 19th century. Some of the female artists of these period include Adelaide Labille-Guiard (1749-1803) Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun (1755- 1842) and Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744- 1818). Adelaide Labille-Guiard concentrated on the development of miniatures, pastels, and oil paintings whereas Le Brun was recognized for her Rococo and portrait paintings. Anne Vallayer-Coster on her part was a still life painter.

This paper focuses on the contributions of these three artists to the history of art in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The works of these artists, their accomplishments, and the political images portrayed by their artistic works are considered in the paper. There is a comparative analysis (citing the similarities and differences) of the works of these three significant artists in the history of art.

Female Artists and Visual Art

It has to be noted that the females have played a significant role in the history of art that has shaped the culture in the Western Society. It has been reiterated by Hyde and Milam (2003) that, “History of female does not stand outside or even on the periphery of the Western tradition, but is integral to it” (p.3). Such a statement considers the profound position of women in the society and the roles that they played in molding the culture in the Western Society over a long period.

However, this reality had to be recognized much later after the beginning of female artists’ contribution to the field of art. In the earlier times, it was more likely that a piece of work would be reported with the artist being unknown than to disclose that the artist was a woman (Shubitz, n.d). This was particularly evident during the Renaissance period. During this period, the society had little recognition for the women artists who were considered to have less stature as artists than the men (Shubitz, n.d).

It was already evident and known to the society that the females were capable of developing good works just as their male counterparts. Nonetheless, few or no women artists were noted at this time. Besides, even those that were noted were considered to have artistic works of lower quality and value than the products developed by men artists.

The females’ contribution towards art was in particular visible in the development and the production of visual culture during the Enlightenment and Revolution periods. During this period (18th century), women are regarded to have played critical role in visual culture through representation, textual and pictorial, which became associated with women (Hyde and Milam, 2003).

The females recognized the role that their artistic works could play in helping improve their position in the society. They could give a visual impression of their feelings and emotions through the art works like paintings. The females could also express their political views or ideas through these artistic works. The females’ participation in the society improved significantly courtesy of their increased involvement in art.

Several individuals and activists supported women in this culture-developing initiative. Their contributions towards shaping the culture of the Western Society came from different directions. As a result, in one way or the other female became shapers of culture through avenues such as sponsorship, taking part in literary and philosophical salons, writing, patronage, painting, or some other means, described to be multifold and paradoxical as the individual women themselves (Hyde and Milam, 2003).

Unfortunately, the struggle to have a full recognition of women artists’ contribution to the field of art has been an ongoing issue that reemerges. This was evident in the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century when most men returned from the Second World War (Shubitz, n.d). Tired of being unappreciated by the male artists, women initiated movements to advocate for change.

Such movements were witnessed in the 1970s. The women vowed that if the society, and in particular, the male artists, could not support their works then they would unite in order to support each other (Shubitz, n.d). Several associations were developed that could enable the works of female artists to be seen on the global scene. An example was the Women’s Caucus for Art, an association that would see female artworks feature in museums and various exhibitions (Shubitz, n.d).

Three Women and Visual Artistic Culture

It must be mentioned, that the 18th century is a period in which the position of the women in the society had significant developments. During the period, feminine beauty gained much power and the individuals who had the beauty or could develop it were greatly valued in the society (Shubitz, n.d). Some three female artists of this period developed what remain as some of the celebrated pieces of visual culture that for a long time has revolutionalized the aspect of gender and art (Tierney, 1999).

The artistic works of Adelaide Labille-Guiard, Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, and Anne Vallayer-Coster, had significant contribution to the 18th century art. Nonetheless, in spite of the significant contributions that the female artists made to the field of visual art, few records of the developments are provided. It is evident that this particular area of concern has not been explored to its fullest by the scholars in the history of arts and related disciplines. This part of the paper will compare and contrast the works of these three female artists.

The works of these three historical painters

Adelaide Labille-Guiard was born in 1749 in Paris, France, and was brought up here. Her participating in the field of art during this period was just as “abnormal” as was expected since the Paris of the late eighteenth century did not recognize women in the art world at that time (Auricchio and Museum, 2009, p.1).

A lot of literature that focus on the artworks before the period of revolution have emphasized on the works of male artists like Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). The artwork of this female was largely depicted through miniatures, pastels, and oil paints through which, Labille-Guiard was able to express and redefine the gender politics in art history (Auricchio and Museum, 2009; Greer, 2001).

The artists of this period concentrated on the genres like portraiture, still life, landscapes, and scenes ordinary life (Auricchio and Museum, 2009,). Later on, after getting married, she was trained on different other areas by different instructors. She was instructed on the pastel techniques by Maurice Quentin de la Tour.

She continued her perfection in the field and turned to the other professionals around her who could provide proper instructions and support for her work. She was later instructed (in 1977) on the art of oil painting by Francois Andre-Vincent, the son of her first teacher in miniature (Auricchio and Museum, 2009, p.11; Claudia, 2011). The early works of the artist were exhibited at the Academy of St Luke where she was admitted in 1969.

She studied and practiced at the institution until it was dissolved in 1776. The artist showed much effort in portraits. Among the earlier works of this painter is Portrait of the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre. This was her self-portrait that was dressed in a costume that had a mixture of textures.

Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun was another famous French artist of the 18th century. On her part, Le Brun is regarded as one of the few female artists who influenced the visual culture through her artwork mainly reflected in Rococo and portrait paint art (Milam, 2011; Norman, 1978).

Rococo art has its origin in the French art of the 18th century. The name was derived from the French term rocailles, which was used in the early 18th century by the artists to categorize the wide range of ornamentals that form the current Rococo art (Milam, 2011).

Le Brun used the styles and coloring that was used by the French rococo artists in developing the portraits of women in a neoclassical dress. She had little focus on history paintings. Again, concentrating in these main forms of visual art, Le Brun was able to define and re-create new thinking and perception about female gender in art history.

Le Brun started showing interest in art at an early age most likely because her father was an artist who instructed her at the early stages (Norman, 1978). She also learned by herself much about art (Rafter, 2005). Her artworks ranged from history paintings to landscapes even though most of her works were colored portraits of the renowned politicians in a given country (Rafter, 2005).

The artist was mainly successful in developing portraits for women and some of her historical portraits are Mlle Porparati 1792, Elizabeth Alexcyevna 1792, and Mme de Stael 1808)(Norman, 1978). She also developed her self-portrait on several occasions. Her use of the rococo style of the French art appealed so much to the women who were in turn attracted to her works.

Other works included a portrait of Mrs. Charles de Gaulle and two pastels of Queen Louise of Prussia. She had an exceptional talent in art and pleased several people with her artwork. As a result, she was summoned to royal family to become the official portraitist of the queen in 1778. She painted several portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette (Norman, 1978; Rafter, 2005).

Excelling in the field of art had several challenges for Le Brun. Just like the other female artists in the eighteenth century, Elisabeth had to deal with the difficulties of being a woman. The men and society in general had no support for their artistic efforts. Besides, the artist was a royalist and yet this period was characterized by a heightened French Revolution.

While continuing with her work to support herself and the family, Le Brun also had to run off the dangers that followed the revolutionist movements (Rafter, 2005). The situation worsened when the royal family was finally arrested in the revolution. The artist who had had a close relationship with the court had to flee the country for her safety. She was enlisted as one of the individuals who stood on the way of reforms by supporting the leadership of the royal family (Rafter, 2005).

Her loyalty to the royal family would be evident even several years later after her exile when she finally resettled in the country. She was still opposed to the rule of Napoleon. She fled to countries like Russia, Italy, and Austria. While in her exile in the European countries, Elisabeth had the opportunity to join different institutions, interact with different artists, and meet different aristocrats.

She joined the Academies of Rome, Florence, Bologna, St Petersburg, and Berlin while traversing the European countries (Norman 1978; Rafter, 2005). In these institutions, she had the opportunity to paint renowned individuals like heads and queens of states in order to support herself and her family. She visited several other countries as well before later settling back in Paris, France until her death.

Anne Vallayer-Coster is another female artist who overcame the masculine restrictions in art world to define the role of female in artwork through her famous still life painting. Just like the other female artists of the 18th century, Anne suffered the little attention given to them by the society.

She also suffered the refutation of being close to the royal family (National Gallery of art, 2002). Still life painting is an art that excludes the human form and has no narrative nature like history painting Bryson, 2001, p.60). This was an area where Anne vividly defined the role of female in artwork. This earned her respect, and to great extent, she became an influential figure in visual art history (Bryson, 2001). Little literature is available about her early training in the field of art.

It is thought that the role models who influenced her into the field of art was her mother who was a painter of miniatures and some great landscape painter, Claude-Joseph Vernet (National Gallery of Art, 2002). Just like the other two female artists, Anne also had the slim opportunity to be absorbed into the art academies of that time. The artist had well developed skills in depiction of flowers, an ability that drew the attention of several collectors and artists in the 18th century in France.

She would receive enthusiastic reviews during various exhibitions. This drew the attention of the court and Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was attracted to her still life paintings, summoned her to be the court painter (National Gallery of Art, 2002). Vallayer-Coster stayed with the royal family as a court painter for several years. She later developed interest and was able to produce not only still life paintings but portraits as well.

The artist left a legacy of over 120 still life paintings made with beautiful coloration. Some of her flower still life paintings were Bouquet of Flowers in a Blue Porcelain Vase (1776) and A Vase of Flowers and Two Plums on a Marble Tabletop (1781) (National Gallery of Art,2002). The latter would later be used as a model in the Gobelins tapestry. The other works by the artist include Still Life with Seashells and Coral (1769), and Still Life with Lobster (1817).

To this end, it is evident that the three artists had varied interests in the field of art. A comparative cross-examination of the artworks shows that their works had certain similarities and differences. Labille-Guiard had special interest in portraiture. She had a vast mastery of the art of oil painting and yet she continued to produce artistic works in pastel and miniatures as well. One of her famous works was Self-portrait with two pupils, a painting that was first shown in the 1785 exhibition.

The painting was 210.8cm by 151.1cm. In this work, the artist painted herself dressed in some fashionable attire with together with two other female pupils, Mlle Marie Capet and Mlle Carreaux de Rosemond, who were her students at the time. The material and technique used in developing this painting was oil on canvas. This technique was also used by Anne and Le Brun in developing some of their paintings as described here below. The painting has fine details and characterized by rich palette.

Source: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/53.225.5

Most of the works of this artist were characterized by masculine like crisp handling, muted tones, and truth to nature (Auricchio, 2011). However, this picture is dominated with the females and is filled with feminine pride and energy. The presence of these two pupils showed her femininity.

The only masculine appearance in the picture is the image of the artist’s father that she opted to include in the picture background. Due to this feminine dominance, the work was challenged by some of the reviews as propaganda to advocate for the position of women in the society (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011). Nonetheless, this was seemingly one of her only few works that appeared to support revolution.

Self-portrait in a straw hat is one of the outstanding artworks by Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. This is self-portrait of the artist and measures about 97.8 by 70.5 cm. The portrait is colorfully designed with a blend of bright and dull coloration.

Source: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/rococo/images/ElisabethVigeeLebrun-Self-Portrait-1782.jpg

The portrait depicts Le Brun in a serious mood charging at the audience boldly and frankly. She is holding a painting palette loosely in her hands. It can be observed that she has not made her hair and yet she has put on seemingly expensive hearings. The medium used in the portrait is oil on canvas.

Among the famous still life paintings by Anne is Bouquet of flowers in a Blue Porcelain vase. This is a relatively large painting of this type (approximately 122.6 by 113.03 cm). The painting has varied coloration in the forefront and a dull background. The medium and technique used for this painting were oil on canvas.

Source: http://popartmachine.com/item/pop_art/2012-DMA_.1998.52.FA/ANNE-VALLAYER-COSTER-BOUQUET-OF-FLOWERS-IN-A-BLUE-PORCELAIN-VASE-1776

All these three works by the different artists have applied a similar technique of painting; oil on canvas. The three artworks also have beautiful colorations that are appealing to the women mostly. On the other hand, the works of Labille-Guiard and Le Brun are human portraits whereas this work by Anne is a still life composition. Similarly, Anne’s still life painting has no political impression as compared to the works of the other two artists.

In her work, Self-portrait with two pupils, Labille-Guiard portrays support for feminist movement by dominating the painting by females. In her painting, Self-portrait in a straw hat, Le Brun also expresses her hidden political feelings that women should be given be given better position in the society. The boldness in the face indicates the courage that the artist has in the power of women. However, this political view appears to be not outstanding and the artist remained faithful to the royal family throughout.

The other works of the artists followed similar trends in the painting techniques and the field of art. The different works by the artists portrayed their divergent views and abilities. The works of Adelaide Labille-Guiard portray her as a woman with defined ambitions and strong determination. While at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, the works of this artist were often compared with that of Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, who was also at the Academy.

Anne was also at the academy but her artistic works were mainly in a different genre; a direct comparison was often irrelevant. Thus, to this end, Labille-Guiard and Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun had certain aspects in common in relation to art field. They had a common interest in portraiture as several of their products were of this type. Most of their works were portraiture with varied coloration.

However, the two artists also had differences. They were mainly considered as rivals in this field of art by the academicians and their patrons at the court (Milam, 2011, p.157) even though the rivalry could also be attributed to the influence of the male artists. They also had different political views. The political position of the Labille-Guiard was contrary to most of her work. While most of her work concentrated on portraits of the conservative individuals in the royal family, the artist supported the French Revolution (Claudia, 2011).

This contrasts the position of Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, another artist of this time who was loyal to the conservatives and did not push much for reforms. Labille-Guiard was a strong women activist struggling to defend the rights of women artists against the conservative institutions of the Royal Academy of Paris. As she worked on the large portraits of the members of the royal family at the academy, the artist pushed for various reforms in the academy (Claudia, 2011).

The works of Anne remained a little different from the works of the other two artists. On her side, this work by Anne and the other works by the artist had no political depiction. Unlike, Labille-Guiard who supported feminist movements while serving at the Royal family, Anne did come out pronounced to support the movements.

Her still life composition and even the subsequent portraits were not in any way in support of, or against, the feminist and reform movements that were rocking the nations. She remained a royalist just like Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. There are not records indicating that Anne Vallayer-Coster participated in, or supported, the revolutionists during the French Revolution.

Conclusion

It has to be acknowledged that the female artists played an important role in defining and creating visual culture that in essence influenced Western society. The heights female artists reached were not easy as many obstacles presented in the way. The position of the women was low in the society and the female artists had limited access to opportunities that could help them develop the abilities.

Nevertheless, despite the challenges encountered, a number of female artists of the 18th century exerted energy and power that made them to be visible in the artistic history. Three of the early female artists had immense influence in the artistic world of the 18th and 19th centuries.

There were certain similarities as well as differences in the works of Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Anne Vallayer-Coster, and Adelaide Labille-Guiard. All of them suffered the harsh treatment of female artists. Some were accused of presenting, in the exhibitions, works that had been developed earlier by the males- e.g. their tutors. Similarly, even though they had interests in different genres of art, all produced, at least in some point in life, portraits.

The three artists applied a common technique, oil on a canvas, in some of their artworks. Besides, all the three artists were admitted into the academy of art that was mainly set aside for male artists of that time. However, of the three female artists, only Labille-Guiard strongly supported the revolutionist movement that was prevailing in the country then. She used her artistic works to fight for the social recognition of women in the society.

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