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Summary: Thousands of women pursued artistic careers in the United States during the late nineteenth century. According to census figures, the number of women among the ranks of professional artists rose from 10 percent to nearly 50 percent between 1870 and 1890. Examining the effects of this change, Kirsten Swinth explores how women's growing presence in the American art world transformed both its institutions and its ideology.
Swinth traces the careers of women pa ...show moreinters in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, opening and closing her book with discussion of the two most famous women artists of the period--Mary Cassatt and Georgia O'Keeffe. Perhaps surprisingly, Swinth shows that in the 1870s and 1880s men and women easily crossed the boundaries separating conventionally masculine and feminine artistic territories to compete with each other as well as to join forces to professionalize art training, manage a fluid and unpredictable art market, and shape the language of art criticism. By the 1890s, however, women artists faced a backlash. Ultimately, Swinth argues, these gender contests spilled beyond the world of art to shape twentieth-century understandings of high culture and the formation of modernism in profound ways.
Swinth, Kirsten : Fordham University
Kirsten Swinth is associate professor of history and director of the American Studies Program at Fordham University.
In 1864 Mary Cassatt wrote to Eliza Haldeman, her friend and fellow student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Cassatt encouraged Haldeman to submit a picture to the academy's annual exhibition. "Now please don't let your ambition sleep," she wrote, "but finish your portrait of Alice so that I may bring it to town with me & have it framed with mine sent to the Exhibition with mine hung side by side with mine be praised, criticised with mine & finally that some enthusiastic admirer of art and beauty may offer us a thousand dollars a piece for them. 'Picture it--think of it!'" Awakened ambition carried Cassatt and Haldeman well beyond the decorous art training given to proper, but amateur, ladies in the late nineteenth century into public exhibition, critical recognition, and unabashed earnings. Without hesitation, without even a nod to Victorian womanly reserve, Cassatt proclaimed her ambition to be a professional artist. The hunger and drive compressed in that short command, "Now please don't let your ambition sleep," ring with a larger impact. The ambition of Cassatt and her peers shook up the art world. It disrupted entrenched beliefs about art, refinement, and high culture. A modern, twentieth-century and avant-garde art world would be profoundly shaped by late-nineteenth-century women's urgent desire to become artists. This book traces the relationship between the careers of women painters and the realignment of the art world at the turn of the century.
Women entered art in unprecedented numbers after the Civil War, flooding art schools, hanging their pictures alongside men's, pressing for critical recognition, and competing for sales in an unpredictable market. By the end of the century, these ambitious women had created an extensive network of female artists seeking, as Cassatt had dreamed, to exhibit their works "side by side." Like Cassatt, such women developed sustained careers that easily transcended the stereotypes of flower painter and dilettantish amateur that still color descriptions of late-nineteenth-century women artists. Ultimately, women's growing presence triggered a reaction that decisively reshaped not only the art world but also the concept of culture in highly gendered terms.
The American art world expanded rapidly after the Civil War. The relatively small, intimate world of antebellum artists and patrons dissolved as the cultural nationalism that had fostered close patronage and dedicated purchase of American landscape paintings lost favor to a cosmopolitan taste for contemporary European figure and Old Master paintings. New industrial wealth funded vast collections and underwrote major art institutions such as the large urban museums founded in New York, Boston, and Chicago. Vigorous collecting, tantalizingly high prices, and new public prominence made art a growth industry. Older art academies attracted rising enrollments as schools sprang up around them; both, responding to a new professional orientation among their students, standardized and regularized their teaching. Art students, in part sharing collectors' cosmopolitanism of taste and in part sensing the direction of the market, rejected the landscapes and genre paintings of the previous generation and demanded fully elaborated academic figure training. The figure rapidly became the centerpiece of cutting-edge American art. As early as 1883 the New York Times was declaring the field of art crowded, with the numbers of artists equaling the numbers of lawyers in cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago. According to the Times, the rising status of art had reduced parental opposition to this volatile profession and brought burgeoning numbers of aspirants to the field.
The Times discussion of artists' professional opportunities reflected the rising coverage art received in the Gilded Age. Several magazines devoted exclusively to art were launched, while major monthly magazines such as Scribner's and Century filled their pages with illustrations and expanded their circulations. Newspapers also hired their first full-time art critics. These men and women covered small and large exhibitions, artists' societies, and studio openings. They introduced a broad middle-class readership to the history of art and to its latest developments as a mood of what one contemporary critic called "aesthetic evangelism" moved through the culture. The adventurous, somewhat bohemian artist became a popular image in journalistic and fictional tales, with the exploits of the studio, the adventures of Parisian art study, and the oddities of the girl art student becoming stock figures.
This extensive popularization was not accidental or incidental. Because art virtually obsessed Gilded Age Americans, it became a potent vehicle for defining social authority. Beginning with the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, critics and commentators subjected the late nineteenth century's world's fairs to intense scrutiny, assessing America's place on the artistic world stage but also disseminating and popularizing aesthetic norms and genteel standards of taste. The Centennial Exhibition was particularly important because it sparked the wildly popular aesthetic movement. Most indicative of the Gilded Age devotion to art was the extension of art education to the public schools. Educators argued that art training promoted manual skills, tasteful consumption, and an "art spirit" that fostered individual development and social harmony. Gilded Age Americans, particularly the middle class, placed extraordinary faith in the power of art (and high culture generally) to instill values and unify society. This meant that much more than the latest aesthetic fashion was at stake. The dynamics of the art world influenced conceptions of high culture, its social purposes, and, more broadly, the form and content of middle-class assertions of cultural authority.
Middle-class white women were essential to the expansion of art. Schools of design, founded as early as 1848, offered women instruction and employment in the decorative and industrial arts. By the early 1860s, women also began to enter traditional art academies for academic training in painting and drawing. Thirty years later nearly 11,000 women artists, sculptors, and teachers of art practiced their profession according to the 1890 census, rising stunningly from the 414 women counted in the same category just twenty years before. Proportionally, the increase was just as striking: women had been merely 10 percent of artists in 1870; in 1890 they reached nearly one-half of all those counted (48.1 percent). While the category encompassed a range of practices and art teaching diverted many from painting careers, these numbers reflected major inroads into the profession by women. In painting, the highest end of the profession, directories of artists and exhibitions indicated that women represented fully one-third of those active in the country at the turn of the century. These kinds of gains in a profession that was not on its way to becoming fully feminized are unmatched. In "traditional" professions such as medicine and law, women remained well under 10 percent; in academia, they reached almost a third of all professors and instructors, but not until 1930. The census numbers for women artists declined after 1890. They dropped more than 10 percent by 1930, a reversal induced undoubtedly by the backlash the twenty-year surge engendered. But in 1890 the census numbers meant a sense of optimism, flowering, and possibility for women. "The energetic, hopeful female art student abreast with the most advanced theories," described by Frank White in 1893, could not be missed. Women and men alike perceived a major advance.
With these numbers as a starting point, the landscape of Gilded Age and Progressive Era women's history looks significantly different than it has often been portrayed. The women pursuing art as a career joined thousands of others who followed well-established routes for middle-class women into charitable activity and civic reform. Gilded Age women entered the public sphere through this work, where their endeavors included what we might call "cultural housekeeping." As with the "social housekeeping" so often linked to women in this period, Victorian ideologies of womanhood justified this cultural housekeeping, but through the association of women with cultural guardianship, beauty, and refinement, rather than with a female maternal and nurturing nature. Beginning in the 1850s, then gathering momentum from the Fine Arts Palace at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, women pursued a broad range of cultural activities: early charitable efforts to provide women with means of self-support in places such as design schools and decorative art societies; the massive club movement of the turn of the century; and finally civic campaigns such as the movement for art education in public schools and the municipal arts commissions formed in the Progressive Era. One goal of this book, then, is to begin to redraw turn-of-the-century women's history in such a way that the artist and the cultural guardian become figures with dimension rather than the caricatured dilettantes and amateurs they remain in popular and scholarly imagination.
Although the numbers of women pursuing art careers and the wide array of women's artistic activity register advance and progress, with immense gains for women, the numbers alone mask a more complex history. This book does not uncover patriarchy overturned but rather gain, backlash, and recouping as gender ideologies shifted and as women's ability to access and leverage the dominant discourse and institutions changed. For example, female cultural guardianship created positive associations between art, refinement, and women's activity that helped validate women's careers (especially in the 1870s and 1880s), but serious women artists continuously struggled not to be drawn into the aura of velvet painting and bric-a-brac production that clung to female artwork. Numbers show neither the specific social and cultural battles women fought nor how the growing numbers of women artists changed the structure and dynamics of the profession.
So, this book seeks to do more than look at numbers. The first is of women painters--of the careers they were able (and not able) to fashion and of the kinds of pressures they exerted on the art world for recognition and status. The second charts the emergence of modern, twentieth-century understandings of culture out of the contentious gender politics of the art world. In the book's first narrative, I follow two generations of women painters through three periods of change: the Gilded Age years of the 1870s and 1880s, the period of backlash and reorientation that followed in the 1890s, and the era of modernism between 1910 and 1930. After the Civil War, women entered art schools in rising numbers and began to pursue careers. They succeeded in art schools, where they joined male students in advancing a new professionalism that stressed trained, educated skill and meritocratic advancement through the well-defined stages of academic art training. Outnumbering men in art schools by the 1880s, women sought to translate their training into exhibitions, sales, and reputations. They gained critical notice, passed juries for major exhibitions, and garnered some sales, even though the market for American art remained weak. To compensate for the weak market, women (as well as men) also worked in the "lesser" media associated with female amateurism, such as watercolor, which critics and consumers valorized as exemplifying genteel taste and cultural refinement.
By 1890, commentators and critics claimed that women were winning the "race" for art and outpacing men in their achievement. A backlash set in that fundamentally reoriented the art world. Institutionally, market structures grew smaller and more exclusive, especially as the gallery-dealer system developed. Rhetorically, rebellion against cultural refinement bred a new masculinity in criticism based on biological and Darwinian notions of creativity. Repudiation of highly finished academic work (and the trained skill behind it) translated into celebration of a more personal, brushy style. Read as male, these new, actively painted canvases became a prelude to an avant-garde aesthetic.
Women responded to these changes with professionalism, choosing skill, training, and hard work over biology. But as biology came to define artistic expression, women had increasing difficulty circumventing the small space allotted to them as the producers of the "essentially feminine" (such as charming and sympathetic portraits of women and children). In the second decade of the twentieth century, modernism, as the product of a bohemian avant-garde, seemed as if it might liberate women from the requirement to express the feminine. Instead, modernism carried forward the same gender-based closures of market and discourse that had developed in the 1890s. Figuring academic art as not only conservative but also the province of women, male avant-garde artists reinvigorated the selective galleries and the biological discourse of artistic virility from the 1890s. Only in the 1920s did modernist women artists escape the imperative to paint womanhood by reformulating ideas about individuality and femininity.
To track the changes in women's position within the art world is to track a fundamental reorganization of culture. Changes in art world institutions and ideology helped rewrite understandings of high culture, from a realm of (feminized) genteel refinement to a space of heroic (masculine) self-expression. Women artists, I argue, by undercutting male control over art and culture, set off a chain reaction that shifted the ground beneath long-standing conceptions of culture. We could, in the traditions of melodrama, see this reformulation as a rescue mission, extracting culture from the clutches of the "evil empire" of the feminine.
So this book's second narrative parallels its first, unearthing the uneven, and sometimes unexpected, gender dynamics of the art world and unraveling larger transformations in the definition of culture. In the 1870s and 1880s, artists aspired to the ideal of the refined professional. The development of professionalism in art was part of the growing prominence of the professions in the late 1800s. By the end of the nineteenth century, a broadly diffused culture of professionalism was well ensconced. It extended the authority claimed by professionals to the middle-class generally and became a key component of middle-class identity. In their drive to propel themselves solidly into the middle class, Gilded Age artists adapted the institutions, strategies, and autonomous outlook of traditional professions to the art world. Art thus professionalized in the sense that it both deepened the culture of professionalism and claimed the authority and prestige of the professions for itself. But the normative image of the professional was masculine--rational, independent, expert--and professionalization, as women's historians have convincingly shown, was always a deeply gendered process. This made women artists' involvement in art's professionalization complex. Still, seeing potential in professional norms and sharing male artists' class aspirations, they joined men in establishing professionalism in art schools and participated in setting its standards.
In addition to professionalism, Gilded Age artists aligned themselves with--and shaped--ideals of taste, including cosmopolitanism, gentility, and refinement. Art, literature, and intellectual life came to represent what we now think of as the realm of high culture. The world of high culture shared much with the Victorian world of white, middle-class womanhood: a domain supposedly above and outside the market, a terrain of refinement and beauty, and a realm of morality and uplifting influence. More than overlaps in definition, these common meanings reflected the dependence of high culture on a gendered ideology that linked refinement and femininity and placed them outside the market. This understanding of culture became a cornerstone of middle-class identity and aspirations. It was a way for the middle class to define itself and a means to extend its authority, as middle-class leaders envisioned high culture as the means through which all classes would be brought under its own refining--and ordering--influences. There was a congruence, then, between refinement and professionalism in this period. Even though their gender overtones were quite distinct, they were intertwined in a shared process of shaping middle-class identity and asserting middle-class cultural authority. The complex interaction between refinement and professionalism generated a degree of fluidity in the gendered ideologies of art and moments when male and female artists had similar aims because their goals were bound up in a shared class and race project about civilized, refined culture. Male and female artists agreed that culture aided not only the ordering of society but also the "civilizing" mission that marked and guaranteed Anglo Saxon supremacy.
Then in the 1890s, professionalization and refinement stopped working to advance the status of art and support middle-class uses of high culture. Why? Artists responded to forces both within and outside the art world. Most important outside the art world was the deepening impact of industrialization. A growing immigrant and industrial working class evaded middle-class efforts at control. Amusement parks, dance halls, and eventually movies attracted far more working-class interest than middle-class programs for civilized refinement. The corporate structure also profoundly altered middle-class male work as nineteenth-century ideals of manly hard work and self-discipline seemed of little use to men now employed in large, anonymous businesses. Industrialization eroded not only opportunities for male independence but also the centrality of men's roles as producers as consumption's significance to the economy grew. The rising importance of consumption, long understood as a female activity, signaled changed gender roles as well.
As the new economic order weakened nineteenth-century ideals of manhood, intellectuals, journalists, and scientists restructured middle-class white manhood. The hypermasculinity of Theodore Roosevelt's popular "strenuous life" reflected the celebration of virility, competitiveness, and self-expression dominating these new ideas. Male artists certainly participated in this restructuring. Their pursuit of refinement had changed male practice so much that their work, however much they wanted it to be professional (with its male connotations), left them far removed from Roosevelt's vigorous masculine existence.
Male artists' involvement in this society-wide restructuring of manhood helped realign the art world. But the changes in the art world stemmed from more than the sweeping, yet indirect, effects of industrialization. A far more immediate pressure lay in women's contest with men over the profession and culture. This part of the story has not yet been told. By the end of the 1880s women's advances in art were substantial and widely perceived by their contemporaries. Male artists encountered female colleagues face to face on a daily basis: women students populated classes with men; female petitions for membership filled artists' clubs' agendas; women's canvases inundated exhibition juries; female artists, such as the Frenchwoman Rosa Bonheur, grabbed headlines with notable sales, such as second highest ever price paid for a painting at auction in America; and women painters received reviews that declared them triumphing over men. This female presence and the gender dynamics it provoked reverberated through the art world, stimulating institutional and discursive change and rupturing established ideas of culture.
By 1890, women could no longer be contained as rapt receivers of men's creations. Rather than dignifying the ideals of high culture, women started to appear threatening and disruptive. Art critics and magazine editors lamented "the vast horde of disorderly females who daub[ed] over plush and paint[ed] lilies of the valley on guitars." As part of a "horde," women signified the dangers of mass culture and popular consumption; as "disorderly females," their cultural productions signified a violation of gender roles. Daubing away, middle-class women endangered the gendered ideology backing up ideals of culture. Women's entry into art thus stimulated intense conflict within the middle class over the control of culture. Acting as producers of culture, and not just as exemplars of refinement or aesthetic consumers, middle-class women artists effectively challenged middle-class men's control over "professional" art.
As the precarious balance between refinement, professionalization, and the elevated realm of culture outside the market fell apart, male artists and critics regrouped under the banner of a newly redrawn notion of culture. Based in Darwinian notions about the evolutionary basis of artistic genius, the highest achievement in culture altered. Art and cultural critics replaced the ideal of cultural refinement with the lauding of culture as the expression of an authentic self that was by evolution restricted to white men. True art displayed a virile selfhood. The purpose of high culture now lay not in elevating, refining, and ordering all members of society; it lay in individual self-realization. This is a modern, and ultimately modernist, understanding of culture. The move from genteel and academic art to avant-garde art was a highly gendered process that allowed men to reclaim culture for themselves. That modernists rejected an overbearing, feminized Victorian tradition is a mainstay of recent accounts of the formation of the early-twentieth-century avant-garde. But, I argue, to understand modernism fully we need to read that repudiation in a more complex light. The modernist break with the Victorian past actually precluded female creativity on a par with men's. The modernist woman's self-expression was her femininity; truly individualized self-expression became male. The New York Evening Sun was more accurate than it intended when it declared women the cause of modernism. Avant-garde artists and critics responded to women's pressure on the art world when they followed turn-of-the-century commentators in rewriting culture as a heroic, but masculine, enterprise of liberation.
This modern reconstruction of culture is at once a more therapeutic understanding and one that preserves high culture as a realm apart from and untainted by the market because it comes from the "inner" self. Part of the cultural work of the turn-of-the-century realignment of art and culture was transferring high culture to a masculine domain without losing its privileged position outside the market. This new conception of culture shed the social aims of the genteel tradition. I do not want to oversimplify the complexity of this cultural formation, but I do want to stress here how a gendered reading of the transformation in culture reveals an entirely new set of social purposes for high culture--one with conservative implications. These conservative results lay not just in the gender politics but also in the relatively undemocratic thrust of the ideals. Artists, in the modern formulation, model a process of self-expression and realization that only a few may achieve. Given all the top-down social control attributed to the genteel tradition, and given the often relieved accounts of its demise, the triumph of the heroic, yet singular, male artist has a certain irony. Even fewer people can truly gain access to culture.
The redefinition of culture and the reorganization of its social purposes across the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have not been fully mapped. This book elucidates how critics, artists, and other commentators extended and reformulated the category of "high culture" for the twentieth century and in particular underwrote the new cultural formation of modernism. Typically, early-twentieth-century high culture has been understood through a sharpening distinction between the "highbrow" and the "lowbrow" as a result of the expansion of mass culture. Just as significant were changes within the category itself, notably the gendered construction of oppositions between refinement and virility and professionalism and self-expression. Modern high culture took its form not simply from the rise of mass, commercial culture but more immediately through women's challenge. Women, as producers of art, encroached on high culture until turn-of-the-century (and then modernist) artists and art avatars elevated style over subject and denied women the biological equipment to be true stylists.
Tracing the evolution of high culture from this gendered perspective deepens our understanding of the transition from a Victorian to a modern cultural landscape. The blossoming of mass and consumer culture has been delineated as a gendered process, with the feminine connotations of these lowbrow arenas strengthening in the early twentieth century. This book helps explain the forceful gendering of mass culture as feminine. Male artists and their supporters enforced the divide between high and low to erase their own commercial labor (primarily as illustrators) and dismiss their female colleagues as daubers and painters of potboilers for an undiscriminating, mass, and female audience. By locating the rewriting of culture in the art world, I am also inviting us to understand the visual world as a major ground for cultural change. The gendered analysis of visual culture that this book undertakes unites matter often separated, such as subject matter, technique, high and low media, aesthetic ideologies, the marketplace, and artists' biographies. Proceeding from individual artists to institutions and discursive formations, this approach uses the problem of gender to tie together the different threads of visual culture. It makes evident the insights lent to cultural and social history by the study of the visual order.
Each chapter of Painting Professionals takes up a particular facet of the art world, making this a study of visual culture that proceeds not from the image but from the production and reception of images. My focus is on art's relation to broader social and cultural changes--the rise of the professions, the emergence of the New Woman, and the displacement of the genteel tradition by a masculinized culture--rather than on images, iconography, and their interpretation. The chapters advance from production to reception--from art schools, to the market, to criticism.
This study also focuses on the highest rungs of the profession and the dominant centers of art in the country, investigating women painters in three cities: New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The standards set by the most prominent and the expectations at the center of the profession established the tone of the art world and set up the ideal artist. This approach bypasses art communities in less prominent centers, the careers of women painters who were not "successful," and the large numbers of women who pursued not painting but illustration, engraving, photography, and other "lesser" arts as their primary form of art work. Nevertheless, it is my contention that the dynamics at the center framed much of what happened in these areas.
Chapter 1 spells out the new centrality of art academies in the late nineteenth century and argues that schools became a principal source of professionalization in art. Women students found much to be optimistic about in this transformation, and they carried this optimism with them to Paris, the subject of chapter 2. In Paris, men and women obtained their final credential and launched themselves into careers. Returning to the United States, young artists faced a weak, fluid, and highly competitive art market. Chapter 3 examines how men and women managed this unsettled market in the 1870s and 1880s; chapter 4 looks at the gendered effects of its solidification around a modern gallery and dealer system in the 1890s. Chapter 5 traces the shifts in critical discourse paralleling the changes in the market, particularly investigating the rise of the ideal of the virile artist. Modernists extended both the market structure and the critical frameworks that developed in the late nineteenth century. In the final chapter, avant-garde women seek to find a place within this highly masculinized formation.
"The manoeuvres, successes and failures of American women artists are engagingly narrated. Swinth relies on lively documentary evidence supplied by diaries, letters and contemporary criticism."
--Times Literary Supplement
"Clearly written. . . . A significant cultural history that identifies the parameters for further study by cultural and art historians."
"Meticulously researched and brilliantly argued, Painting Professionals pictures the unsure paths American women traveled in the late nineteenth century as they sought out training, careers, and a market in the arts. Kirsten Swinth helps explain all those women we see in photographs of late Victorian art classes--where they came from, where they went, and why so many disappeared. A magnificent achievement!"
--Wanda M. Corn, Stanford University
"Swinth gives the reader the big picture, weaving together diaries, letters, and contemporary criticism to create a fascinating story of women's considerable professional achievements in the American art world. She describes their triumphs at the end of the nineteenth century and then traces how, in spite of early-twentieth-century attempts to reclassify art in masculine terms, women used modernism's call for art as self-expression to define themselves anew. Swinth's book is a welcome addition to our field."
--Erica E. Hirshler, John Moors Cabot Curator of Paintings, Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The University of North Carolina Press Web Site, December, 2002
Chapter One. Thousands upon Thousands of Girl Art Students
Chapter Two. Illustrious Men and True Companionship: Parisian Study
Chapter Three. Selling Art in the Age of Refinement
Chapter Four. The Gendered Making of a Modern Market System
Chapter Five. Wielding the "Big Stick" in Art: The Rhetoric of Art Criticism, 1870-1910
Chapter Six. Modernism and Self-Expression
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