• Candelabra with street signs, Avenue de l’Opéra; photo by Charles Marville. Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • Rue de Sept-Voies, an old section of Paris that was razed in the 19th  century; photo by Charles Marville. Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “Stokkavannet,” 1890, oil on canvas by Kitty Kielland. Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “Plowing in Nivernais,” 1850, oil on canvas by Rosa Bonheur.  Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “The Cherry Tree,” 1891, oil on canvas by Berthe Morisot. Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “The Harvesters,” 1905, oil on canvas by Anna Archer. Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “The Friends” (Les Aimes), 1881, oil on canvas by Louise Catherine Breslau. Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “Children Playing on the Beach,” 1884, oil on canvas by Mary Cassatt. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • Wrought and rolled iron bracket and florist’s shop sign from France, 18th century. Image courtesy of Clark Art Museum

  • Pont d’Arcole and the Hôtel de Ville, Paris; photo by Édouard Baldus.  Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “In the Studio,” 1881, oil on canvas by Maria Bashkirtseva. Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2018

Art, like so much of life, was a man’s world for centuries. Even in France in the 19th century, when new styles of painting cropped up regularly, and artists flocked to Paris to find inspiration, women painters found themselves barred from most formal art schools; their efforts were regularly belittled by male critics.

“What will become of us,” said Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau in 1891, “when creatures so lacking in the true gifts of the imagination, proffer their horrible artistic common sense … the large-scale intrusion of women in the realm of art would be a disaster beyond remedy.”

A new exhibit at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown throws those kinds of comments back in the critics’ faces. “Women Artists in Paris: 1850-1900” features the work of 37 female painters who followed their muse to the City of Light, where they found their way to private studios and salons to develop their craft.

Alongside the work of some of the better-known women artists of this period — Rosa Bonheur of France, Mary Cassatt of the U.S. (and later of France), and Berthe Morisot of France — are paintings by women from 11 countries, including Denmark, Germany, Great Britain and Norway.

It’s an intimate show in one sense. Among the limitations they faced, female painters were expected in those days to concentrate on domestic scenes and “leisure activities,” as exhibit notes put it, and there are many portraits — sometimes the artists painted each other — and profiles of women with their children or friends.

But the artists also painted landscapes, battle scenes, farm laborers and other topics long considered the domain of men. Bonheur even convinced the police to allow her to wear “masculine” clothes, like pants and boots, so that she could go into places like slaughterhouses or into the fields to create canvases such as “Plowing the Nivernais,” a scene depicting two farmers with their team of oxen.

The Clark has opened two other exhibits that complement “Women Artists in Paris” directly and indirectly, giving the museum’s summer shows a decidedly French accent.

“A City Transformed” features black-and-white photos from Paris in the second half of the 19th century that mark the city’s changing face, as older neighborhoods, some dating to medieval times, were razed to create the open space and wide boulevards, like the Avenue de l’Opéra, that Paris is known for today. 

In addition, “The Art of Iron: Objects from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen, Normandy,”offers intricate and sometimes humorous iron grillwork from France that dates back to the 17th century, including balcony sidings, shop signs and dog collars.

Among a range of work, there’s a 19th-century cabaret sign made up of an iron bat, its wings spread and its “belly” fitted with a small cage that includes a tiny rounded lamp, about the size of a light bulb. Also of note: a 19th-century sign for an inn (“A l’Hermitage”) that consists of a facade of a small cottage and a weary-looking traveler, barefoot and dressed in a cloak, a small bag slung from a stick that he carries over his shoulder. 

‘I’m with them’

“Women Artists in Paris,” which has appeared in two other museums, was organized by the American Federation of Arts and marks a collaboration between U.S. and French museum officials and a number of other European organizations; the nearly 90 paintings come from 68 lending institutions in 10 different countries.

The paintings cover a variety of styles — modernism, impressionism, classical and realism — and if there’s an overall theme, it’s of female solidarity. Men are absent or a mostly minor presence in much of the exhibit, as the female painters, given few opportunities to exhibit their work, had to rely on one another for support and to fend off male critics.

Some, like Berthe Morisot, found more sympathy among men. Her husband, painter Eugène Manet, was the brother of Édouard Manet, a pivotal 19th-century French painter, and Morisot was well regarded among the Impressionists. Her paintings such as “The Cherry Tree” and “Lucie Leon at the Piano” show a unique style that melds elements of Renoir’s female figures with Monet’s repeated, colorful brushstrokes.

Lady Elizabeth Butler, of England, initially had her work rejected by Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts but later became one of the country’s most celebrated artists. She concentrated on some very male turf: battle scenes. Paintings like “Balaclava,” a depiction of the Crimean War, and the melancholy “Listed for the Connaught Rangers,” a portrait of child soldiers being recruited, won much acclaim.

Exhibit notes say female painters were also encouraged to paint landscapes because they required “little artistic imagination.” But those in Paris “pushed the boundaries” of the genre, shifting from realism to impressionism to symbolism. A good example is “Stokkavannet” by Norwegian artist Kitty Kielland, a moody but beautiful view of a marshy shoreline at dusk, with a lone figure in a small rowboat — a silhouette, really — alongside a patch of reeds.

Eventually, women artists could no longer be ignored. In 1865, Bonheur became the first woman to be awarded the coveted Légion d’Honneur, the highest decoration in France, and in 1881, the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs — the first-ever association for female artists — was created. And in 1897, women were finally granted acceptance to the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts), France’s most prestigious art academy.

Making the City of Light

Paris of the early 1850s was like a lot of European cities of the time: cramped, dirty and very old, with many dark, narrow streets. Emperor Napoleon III, inspired both by a visit to a more modern London — and perhaps by his desire to leave his mark on France’s capital — appointed Georges-Eugène Haussmann the lead engineer of a sweeping plan to remake Paris with grander streets and public places.

Curator Kristie Couser says Napoleon and other French officials believed that a redesigned, more “airy” Paris would boost safety, public health and sanitation, while also improving the flow of traffic.

The photos of “A City Transformed,” taken between 1850 and the first years of the 20th century, show the changes that took place while documenting the city’s past; the images also reveal specific architectural details of Paris, from intricately designed lampposts to the stone carvings on cathedrals.

Perhaps most interesting are shots of long-vanished streets and neighborhoods that dated to medieval times, where buildings constructed closely together left the uneven cobblestone streets below permanently in shadow. Recognizable sites, like the plaza around the Arc de Triomphe, still look quite different without the modern roads of today.

The exhibit also showcases the changes and advancements in photography, still a very new medium (and one first made commercially viable by the French), during the second half of the 19th century. Couser says a number of photographers, such as Édouard Baldus and Charles Marville, created an exacting architectural record of the city while highlighting points low and high — from the first photo of Paris’ extensive catacombs to a striking image of the Tour Saint-Jacques, the remnant of a 16th-century cathedral.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Women Artists in Paris,” “A City Transformed” and “The Art of Iron” are on view at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown through July, August and part of September. For exact dates, museum visiting hours and fees, and additional information, visit clarkart.edu.