It is not coincidental that so few women artists are represented in the Modern Woman exhibition. Since the Ecole des Beaux-Arts did not admit women until 1897, all the female art students in Paris had to find an alternative, less prestigious school that would accept them. Or, if their families had plenty of money, some women students were able to study privately with an established male artist. Fortunately Académie Julian, founded by Rodolphe Julian in 1868, accepted women; but even there the male students and female students were trained separately.
Worse still was the constant chaperoning that women artists had to endure. Berthe Morisot mother’s totally banned her from going to unsuitable places (eg dances, winebars, cabarets, the beach) and chaperoned her when she went to suitable places. Artist Marie Bashkirtseff was forbidden from participating in Paris’ cultural night life, never being exposed to the wonderful events that male artists used as themes for their own art works.
Folies Bergère poster by Leonetto Cappiello, 1900. Musee d’Orsay
What holds the various artists and styles together? Firstly, as the gallery points out, modern artists increasingly moved away from idealised representations of the female figure. In particular the artists abandoned the idea of the female as a goddess, virgin or idealised allegorical figure.
Secondly the artists stopped focusing largely on aristocratic or wealthy women, and started looking at ordinary women from every part of society. The artists seemed interested in women’s family lives, in working roles and enjoying leisure time activities. Ordinary women in city streets, coffee shops and cabarets!
For art to be truly modern, it had to reflect its own era. So the gallery’s third aim was to show French society going through a radical change in political, social and artistic life. For those who had a reliable income, life was musical, optimistic and colourful. Women didn't have the vote yet, but their lives were becoming more valued and meaningful. Science and medicine were improving rapidly.
Of course in 1900 they didn't know that industrial-strength massacres were just around the corner (in 1914).
Toulouse-Lautrec, Woman at her Toilette, 1896. Musee d’Orsay
It is no surprise that the drawings for the Brisbane exhibition came from Musée d'Orsay, housed in the former Orsay Railway Station in Paris. The works were selected from the 10,000 drawings of d'Orsay's graphic arts collection, a collection visited by millions of people each year. If any one city was going to sum up all that was special about late C19th culture… it was Paris.
I agree with Angela Goddard, curator of Australian Art in Brisbane. The image of woman, in all its ambiguity and diversity, became the face of modernity. And in the immediacy of these drawings, we can glimpse a sense of the fleeting sensations that characterised La Belle Époque.
A number of reviews have noted that this exhibition concentrates on drawings rather than the larger works in oils by Renoir and his colleagues. Thus, they suggest, we are provided with a more intimate portrait of the people and times, and especially the changing roles of women. Is this true? Are drawings more intimate by definition?
What I did not like was the apparently intimate title Modern Woman: Daughters and Lovers. These women were definitely not the daughters of the artists, a fact that becomes clear from some rather sexy images of women getting undressed, lying in bed and washing in the bath. The models in the art works may have been someone's daughters and lovers, but to the viewer they were ordinary, modern women, going about their daily life in bustling Paris. And surely that was the entire aim of the exhibition.
Tissot, Sunday at the Luxembourg Gardens. Private collection