Monday, December 3, 2018

Qualifying Feminism: Empowerment and the Arts (Part IIIa) (Updated 1/3/19 & 1/23/19)

"You've come a long way, baby." But, no, this is not a vintage ad for
Virginia Slims. It's a (1896) self-portrait by New Woman photographer
Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864 -1952). Then again, for a woman of that period,
blatantly smoking a cigarette in public was a radical feminist statement...
that is, when it wasn't illegal (see quote below).

"Though men could, and did, smoke with abandon anywhere they wished, a woman with a cigarette was regarded as dangerously sexual, immoral and not to be trusted. That the government tried to ban only women from smoking says a lot about how society responded as women claimed new rights at the turn of the 20th century."


The New Woman

"As educational opportunities were made more available in the 19th-century, women artists became part of professional enterprises, including founding their own art associations. Artwork made by women was considered to be inferior, and to help overcome that stereotype women became "increasingly vocal and confident" in promoting women's work, and thus became part of the emerging image of the educated, modern and freer "New Woman". Artists then, "played crucial roles in representing the New Woman, both by drawing images of the icon and exemplifying this emerging type through their own lives," including Abbéma who created androgynous self-portraits to "link intellectual life through emphasis on ocularity". Many other portraits included androgynously dressed women, and women participating in intellectual and other pastimes traditionally associated with men."

- Reference to the New Woman via the Wiki entry for New Woman painter, Louise Abbéma (1853 -1927). Inset right is one of her self-portraits. Below is an example of her work: La dame avec les fleurs (1883). More of her work can be found here.

"At the age of 18, Abbéma painted her first portrait of the 'Divine Sarah,' which she showed at the Paris Salon of 1876. It was an instant success, and the work propelled the young painter into the limelight alongside her famous subject. From that moment, Abbéma became Bernhardt’s official portraitist; she also received a flood of commissions from wealthy and fashionable clientele. Her works hung in the homes of the French elite, as well as on the walls of the Paris Town Hall and Opera House.

Yet, it was not just her famous subject that brought her success – Abbéma possessed, like Bernhardt, a certain je ne sais quoi. She was brash, smoked cigars, and dressed in men’s clothing, and the attention she attracted brought her much public acclaim. Favored almost as much for her flamboyant behavior as for her popular paintings, it is no wonder that Abbéma became fast, lifelong friends with the equally eccentric Bernhardt. Throughout their fifty-year-long friendship, Abbéma would paint Bernhardt’s portrait numerous times, and would serve as her companion and confidante until Bernhardt’s death in 1823."

- Excerpt from the article: Bernhardt and Abbéma: Leading Ladies of the Belle Époque. Primarily known as an actress and muse to a number of artists and writers (including the equally flamboyant Oscar Wilde, who referred to her as the "Divine Sarah" or the "Incomparable One"), Sarah Bernhardt (1844 -1923) (in costume, inset left above) was also an accomplished sculptress.*

"The Woman's Building was designed and built for the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. It had exhibition space as well as an assembly room, a library, and a Hall of Honor. The History of the World's Fair states 'It will be a long time before such an aggregation of woman's work, as may now be seen in the Woman's Building, can be gathered from all parts of the world again.'

14 women architects submitted designs for the Women's Building. The Board of Architects selected Sophia Hayden's design. Alice Rideout was chosen as the official sculptor for the Women's Building. She created the exterior sculpture groups and the pediment. Enid Yandell designed and created the caryatid that supported the roof garden.

The Women's Building contained exhibits of works by women across a variety of fields from fine art, applied art, literature and music, to science, and home economics. There were also exhibits about women in American History and other cultures and places in the world.

... Buildings at world's fairs are often demolished when the event ends, and finding another home for them is rarely practical. (The exception was The Crystal Palace after the Great Exhibition of 1851.) The Woman's Building was destroyed as part of the general demolition after the Fair. Sadly, after the exposition, Cassatt's mural and many other artworks by many women were placed in storage and subsequently lost.

Eighty years later, the Woman's Building had been almost lost to history. With the flourishing of second-wave feminism, women went searching for what had gone before. Feminist artist Judy Chicago and her team of students, in the midst of creating The Dinner Party, discovered a copy of the Woman’s Building catalog in a second-hand bookstore. When the Los Angeles Woman's Building was opened in 1973, the founders decided to name the organization after the 1893 Woman's Building."

- Excerpts from the Wiki entry for The Women's Building (inset left is a photo of the interior): a segregated exhibition space made by women for women at the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Inset right and left above are photographs of sculptress Enid Yandell (1869 -1934) standing beside her massive caryatid of the goddess Athena. Interestingly, Yandell maintained a studio in Paris where the 40-foot statue was sculpted, and finally shipped to the states. Allegedly, while in Paris, Yandell also "worked with" Auguste Rodin. As for the fate of her Athena: it was never cast in a permanent material and deteriorated within a year. (Note:There seems to be no evidence of the finished piece online.) In reference to the Woman's Building founded by Judy Chicago, Sheila de Bretteville and Arlene Raven in 1973: it was formally designated a historic cultural monument during the summer of this year.

"In the dread art of war the male element of the race asserts itself alone. In its antithesis, the art of peace, woman is paramount... A generation ago the seers of our race foretold two great things: a material growth and prosperity, the like of which the world has never seen; a mastery of electricity, that most potent of man's friendly genii, and a great city through which the traffic of the world should roll, one of the strongholds of the earth–all this the voice of the male seer foretold from his tower, and much more.

A clearer, sweeter prophecy went forth from the tower where the wise women watched the signs of the times: "Woman the acknowledged equal of man; his true helpmate, honored and beloved, honoring and loving as never before since Adam cried, 'The woman tempted me and I did eat.'"

We have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the Eden of idleness is hateful to us.

- Excerpt from Maude Howe Elliot's The Building and its Decoration, a chapter from the 1894 publication: Art and Handicraft in the Woman's Building of the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893, edited by Maud Howe Elliott. Insert left is the official poster for the Woman's Building created by French painter, Madeleine Lemaire (1845 –1928).**

"What started as a playful game in woman's fashion is gradually becoming a distressing aberration... It is high time that sound male judgement takes a stand against these odious fashions... the excesses which have been transplanted here from America... the look of a sickeningly sweet little boy is detested by every real boy."

- Quote taken from a vintage Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung's 1925 article: "Enough is enough! Against the Masculinization of Woman."  Found in Marsha Meskimmon's We Weren't Modern Enough: Women artists and the Limits of German Modernism. Inset right is the lovely actress, Louise Brooks... and her "sickening, sweet little boy" look...?

Note: challenge for the day: substantiate the phrase "sound male judgement." ;-)

“The chief obstacle to a woman's success is that she can never have a wife. Just reflect what a wife does for an artist: Darns the stockings; keeps his house; writes his letters; visits for his benefit; wards off intruders; is personally suggestive of beautiful pictures; always an encouraging and partial critic. It is exceedingly difficult to be an artist without this time-saving help. A husband would be quite useless."

-  A quote from the New Woman painter, Anna Lea Merritt (1844 –1930). Inset left is her 1885 painting Eve.

"In 1907, the French filmmaker, playwright, journalist, feminist, and political activist Germaine Dulac (1882-1942) gave a lecture on the “international task of French Women.” She urged her audience to “create things anew and according to your own spirit” and to organize into cooperatives and unions. Tami Williams’s in-depth historical study and critical biography Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations reveals the breathtaking extent to which Dulac followed her own advice. Among the most prolific and influential figures in early French cinema, Dulac is today virtually forgotten."

-  An excerpt from Jenny Mcphee's 2014 article: The "Pure Cinema" of Germaine Dulac. Inset right is the cover of an early French cinema review featuring a photo of Germaine Dulac (1882-1942) a pioneer filmmaker whose 1928 Surrealist film La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman) predated  Buñuel's  and Dalí's Un Chien Andalou. She was also on the editorial staff of the radical feminist newspaper La Fronde (The Sling).

“Do you really believe ... that everything historians tell us about men – or about women – is actually true? You ought to consider the fact that these histories have been written by men, who never tell the truth except by accident.”

- Quote from Il merito delle donne, oue chiaramente si scuopre quanto siano elle degne e più perfette de gli huomini (On the Merit of Women, Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men) by 16th century Italian writer and poet Moderata Fonte (inset left). An additional article (in English) can be found here. More quotes can be found here. Other Italian poets of the period: Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara, Chiara Matraini.


Impressionist painter,
Berthe Morisot.
Well, it took long enough, but finally I've the presence of mind (and quality time) to tend to the last Feminist Art and Empowerment post - which, incidentally has already fragmented into Part 3a and Part 3b (no, it never ends) - but, first, allow me to back up a bit and clear up an oversight.

In "A Day for the Little Ladies," which mostly focused on the political aspect of first-wave feminism in relation to International Women's Day, we witnessed a solidarity of assertive, empowered, formidable women who, outraged by their second-class citizen status, literally fought "tooth and nail" for emancipation. In some countries, such as Russia, they also helped ignite actual revolutions; in Spain, they led them.

Après le déjeuner - oil painting - 1881, Berthe Morisot.

Marie Spartali
Yet, this was merely a portion of a much larger picture. Underlying the political strides of the feminist movement during the latter decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th there emerged a different form of feminist insurgence (and/or resurgence); equally as liberating and, perhaps, even more radical. A creative New Woman was finding her voice and autonomy under the auspices of what was, in effect, a new cultural renaissance across the globe. While the New Women's contributions may have been undervalued at the time, or lost in subsequent years - as were those of women who flourished in the initial Renaissance (see here) - the New Woman reopened the door for all future generations of women and her existence was the crucial, empowering force which lay dormant in the contemporary woman's psyche until the next wave of feminism was established.

Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni.
1884, Marie Spartali.
And, who were these New Women? They were the artists, writers, poets and performers of the late Victorian era, the Belle Époque, the Fin de Siècle, the Naughty Nineties, the Roaring Twenties and the beginning of the Jazz Age. Talk about an exciting, multi-faceted time! Within this period (covering approximately 40 years) the art world would explode with new forms, innovations, and a multitude of new genres: Romanticism, Symbolism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Futurism and early Modernism. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Arts & Crafts movement were established earlier during this period. Art Nouveau (Jungendstil) and, later, Art Deco emerged. Surrealism was born. Poster art flourished. It was the Golden Age of Illustration. Photography became an art form and the first motion picture was shot in 1888; by 1896, movie theatres had opened in France, Italy and Great Britain.

And, as for the New Woman, she was a player in all of these arenas... and, very often the star...

Loie Fuller (1862-1928) - an American dancer - in Paris. More photos
can be found here... and here's a (1896) video of her Serpentine Dance,
for which she had a patent.

Of course, none of this came easy... especially for visual artists. In many cases women were dismissed as genuine contenders in the field of art - specifically fine art - due to their gender. Moreover, prior to the latter half of the 19th century, things hadn't changed much since the late Middle Ages; women continued to be denied the formal art training - and education in general - offered to their male counterparts. Remarkably, much of the problem - and all similar problems - originated from one basic failure... that is, the failure of society to agree upon the fundamental "role" of women: i.e., the so-called "Woman Question." Whereas the original French phrase "querelle des femmes" originated in the first Renaissance, it seems the "quarrel" would continue well into the 19th century: were women, in fact, biologically, intellectually and ethically inferior to men?***

La Petite Jeannette1915,
Virginie Demont-Breton
Apparently, there are those who continue this debate to this day... but, by the turn of the 19th century, women were finally accepted into most universities in the States and abroad and things appeared to be improving. In terms of a fully equal art education, however, any advances that were made were due to the efforts of the artists themselves; especially those operating within unions and other organizations created by women for women.

One of these women - Virginie Demont-Breton (daughter of French artist, Jules Breton) (inset left above: her portrait) - served as President of the newly-founded Union of Women Painters and Sculptors in Paris in the 1890s.

Via her Wiki entry: "She worked with Hélène Bertaux in her effort to open the École des Beaux-Arts to women students; a goal which was achieved in 1897. Thanks to her success in this endeavor, female artists were given the opportunity to not only be present in academic settings, but also the ability to use artistic tools previously not available to them - such as nude models."

Sculptress Hélène Bertaux was a maverick in her own right. Inset left is her controversial piece, Jeune Gaulois prisonnier (Young Gallic Prisoner) (1867). For more of her work and a few period photos of female art students in an academic setting see this link. For more of Demont-Breton's work try this link.

The Red Rose Girls. 

In any case, if the first-wave feminists passed any wisdom down to their latter-day sisters, it was this: there is power in numbers... even small numbers... (and, yes, this includes anti-social artists). Take it from that enterprising collective of illustrators - the Red Rose Girls who both painted and co-habited together - shown in the photo above: organize, organize, organize!

And, the Woman's Building at the 1892 World's Columbian Exposition was the perfect example of what various organizations of women working together might accomplish. In short, it was a tour de force, giving many female artists (here's a listing) from across the globe a golden opportunity to exhibit before an international audience along with their multi-national peers. For instance, inset left is the work of Japanese Master Tsune Uemura sourced here. While, below, are paintings by Dutch artist Margaretha Roosenboom (1843 -1896) and Swedish painter Eva Bonnier (1857-1990).

White Mallows on a Stone Table - Margaretha Roosenboom

The Dressmakers, 1887, Eva Fredrika Bonnier.

Camille Claudel's original marble of Sakountala (inset left) was shown  at the Columbian Exposition (yes!). Claudel's work was, alas, possibly the singularly most sophisticated of the offerings, and surely the most erotic... but, it wasn't shown in the Women's Building.

In the end, despite declarations to the contrary, much of the work that was exhibited in the Woman's Building was somewhat less than awe-inspiring. In short, while many highly capable artists were on view, few of them rocked any major artistic platforms. With some exceptions - such as the artists shown in this post (!) - most exhibited works were somewhat tame in terms of subject matter, and strictly academic in terms of style...

... or, maybe just quietly charming... like American artist Sarah Paxton Ball Dodson's lovely painting Butterflies (inset right). And, while I can't say for certain if American sculptor, Harriet Hosmer's lovely Beatrice Cenci (below) was actually exhibited, in terms of sculpture, hers was the classical school best represented. (For a more comprehensive view of the artists and their works exhibited at the Exposition, see K. L. Nichols' pages.)

Then again, as New Women artists had just begun to emerge from academic art institutions, perhaps, this might be expected. But, while its understandable that the judge's choices may have erred on the side of the safest and most feminine - regardless of the variety of work available - one wishes a few more "dangerous" artists were added to the mix. It isn't as if they didn't exist at the time... as we shall see.

Meanwhile, the work of a few highly respected Impressionist painters was shown; notably, French artists Berthe Morisot (shown earlier) and Marie Bracquemond, along with an American artist (living in Paris) Mary Cassatt.  Examples of Bracquemond's and Cassatt's work - featuring some astounding brush-work - is posted below (Click on for enlargements).

Marie Bracquemond's work can be found here.

By Marie Bracquemond.

Mother Combing Child’s Hair - 1879, Mary Cassatt

But, as I mentioned, there were other, more controversial, New Woman artists producing work at the time, who may have really shook things up at the Woman's Building had they been given the chance. And, one such artist was the great Post-Impressionist Susan Valadon (1865-1938).

The Blue Room - Susan Valadon

Susan Valadon (inset left) began her career as an artist's model, but, in this, she wasn't alone. For instance, Pre-Raphaelite painter, Marie Spartali, (shown previously) was one of Rossetti's favorite models. In any case, a year after the Columbian Exposition was held, Valadon became the first woman painter to be admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, which held exhibitions for its members and, later, offered awards. Like other renegade artists, she was largely self-taught and avoided academic training. Artistically, one of her claims to fame is that she was the first female painter to feature male nudity in her work. (Inset right belowValadon's 1909 painting of she and husband, André UtterAdam and Eve.)

She became a mother at 18 - father unknown - of the painter Utrillo which for many years became her legacy instead of her artwork. Although it is said that she died at her easel, her obituary merely informed its readers of “the death of the wife of painter André Utter and mother of Maurice Utrillo.” In reality, André Utter, a minor artist who eventually managed Valadon's career, was a young friend of her son - 21 years her junior - whom she fell in love with... that is, after a short affair with the composer Eric Satie... and a 13 year marriage to a stockbroker. Then, at age 70, she found a new lover... a Russian man half her age! And, the bottom line: she never considered herself a feminist! A great article (and source for this post) can be found here. Some wonderful photos can be found here, and here.

The Violin Case - Susan Valadon. Note the details of a large painting in
the background. It is her Le Lancement du filet (Casting the net).

Another flamboyant artist worth noting also began her career as an artist's model in Paris: Italian painter Juana Romani (En) (1867-1923) (inset left). When she turned to painting she focused on fantastic interpretations of various women, some of them legendary and many of them for whom she used herself as the model. Frustratingly, there is very little information on the web (in English) about her. There is, however, a blog (in French), an Italian page, a Tumblr page, and this short article from which I sourced the following: "In 1901 she hosted the Lumière brothers in Velletri who gave the town a projector which facilitated the opening of one of Italy’s first cinemas. She also donated 5000 lire to an art school in the town which still bears her name today. Sadly, in time, a combination of prejudice, savaging by Italian critics and her own mental frailties led to Romani being committed to a Parisian sanatorium where she died in 1924."  (Sigh. That story again.) Meanwhile I've posted 2 of her luminous paintings below: (left) Salome, 1898 and (right) Beauté orientale, 1897.

Later in the time-frame two Russian-born artists emerged, whose paths crossed in Montparnasse, an area known as the artistic hub of post-WW1 Paris: Marie Vassilieff and Olga Sacharoff. Both were regarded as Cubists before branching off into Surrealist and Primitivist directions. Vassilieff also created sculptural dolls and marionettes. She founded her own art school in 1909 - the Académie Vassilieff - which, during WW1, was a popular meeting place for the many Montparnasse artists. Ultimately, although her work was difficult to categorize - an attribute which, all too often, dooms an artist into obscurity - it strikes me as wonderfully modern, like her 1948 painting La Bete Humaine inset right. More of her unique work can be found herehere, and here.

Marie Vassilieff in her studio in Montparnasse found here.

Olga Sacharoff, on the other hand, moved to Spain with her husband Otho Lloyd at the outbreak of WW1, where she lived for the rest of her life. She was also an illustrator. In 1964 she received the medalla de oro de Barcelona, commemorating her contribution to Catalan culture. Her work can be found here and here, where the painting below was found.

 (Title and date unknown), Olga Sacharoff.

"Maintenant, parmi les roses et les étoiles,
Te voici dans ma chambre, abandonnant tes voiles,
Et ta nudité luit.

Sur mes yeux s’est posé ton regard indicible…
Sans astres et sans fleurs, je rêve l’impossible
Dans le froid de la nuit."

("Now, among the roses and the stars,
You, here in my room, loosening your robe,
And your nakedness glistens.

Your unspeakable gaze rests on my eyes...
Without stars and without flowers,
I dream the impossible In the cold night.")

- The last stanzas of Les roses sont entrées, a poem written by lesbian poète maudit Renée Vivien (1877-1909) (inset left, in costume for a play).

I confess, I was thrilled when I discovered another true female poète maudit... and, one that can be placed right up there with Baudelaire and Rimbaud! Renée Vivien (inset right, sourced here) wasn't born in France, however; she was a British expatriate named Pauline Tarn who reinvented herself into the French poet she always felt she essentially was. But, in spite of this, as a Symbolist, she was far more authentic than many of her misogynist male peers who rallied around the flag of Decadence... and more relevant. Because, if any human was "accursed" from birth it would be a woman... especially a woman who exclusively loved women.

Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972).

That being said, lesbianism was a significant trend for a number of New Woman, and while not necessarily politically motivated nor even merely fashionable, "coming-out" was one way to avoid the shackles of marriage and male domination. The only down-side is that the future detractors of feminism would manipulate evidence of this kind to establish a primary feminist stereotype - the malcontented, man-hating lesbian - a misconception which damaged and trivialized the feminist movement for many years. One gets the impression, however, that for Renée Vivien, lesbianism was tantamount to a religion. And, in direct opposition to most of the male Symbolists, she virtually worshipped at the altars of Aphrodite and Artemis.

In her 1904 book of prose Une Femme M'apparut (A Woman Appeared to Me) (above, inset left, is a 1970's facsimile of the original) she writes: "I would evoke over and over again the faraway hour when I saw her for the first time, and the shudder which ran down my spine when my eyes met her eyes of mortal steel. ...I had a dim premonition that this woman would determine the pattern of my destiny, and that her face was the fearful face of my Future." ****

Unfortunately, while many of our Sapphic sisters thrived during this period, Vivien did not. She fell deeply in love - at best, a precarious, vulnerable condition - with that "fearful face" of her "Future," and, possibly, one of the most inconstant, capricious lesbians in the land: American writer and poet, Natalie Clifford Barney (inset right). Barney was another among the many expats drawn to Paris at the time, who (allegedly) had "hundreds" of lovers - up to and including Dolly Wilde, Oscar Wilde's niece. She lived to the formidable age of 95. She was also said to have inspired the lesbian character in Radclyffe Hall's ground-breaking novel The Well of Loneliness. As it was, Renée Vivien was devastated by Natalie's numerous infidelities and ended their relationship. Tragically, this proved to mark the beginning of Vivien's downward spiral, for, although she found other lovers - notably, motoring pioneer, Helene van Zuylen, who eventually abandoned her - she was depressed, addicted to alcohol, opiates and (alleged) bizarre sexual behavior, and became severely malnourished. Finally, while partially paralyzed from a failed suicide attempt, she contracted pneumonia, and died at the tender age of 32. In true Symbolist fashion she wrote her own epitaph:

"Here is the gate through which I leave…
O my roses and my thorns!
What matter now days gone by?
I sleep and dream of things divine.

Herein lies my ravished soul,
Appeased and sleeping now
Who, for the love of Death
Has forgiven the crime that is Life."

Happily, there's been a resurgence of interest in Renée Vivien. Some of her poetry - in both French and English - can be found here and here. Other online locations of interest: Valkyria's Vivien page... also here, and here.

It's actually Natalie Barney, however, who directly leads us to two of our last New Woman artists: Alice Pike Barney, Natalie's mother, and Romaine Brooks, Natalie's lover for 50 years. The portrait of Natalie (inset above) was painted by Alice Pike Barney, and, inset left, is her Self Portrait with Jabot.

The story goes that it was Oscar Wilde who - during a day at the beach with Alice and young Natalie - persuaded Alice to follow her artistic muse despite her husband's objections. Which she did, eventually opening a salon in Paris where she came under the influence of several notable Symbolists. (See here.) The story also goes that she illustrated her daughter's first book of poetry... not realizing that many of the models she used were actually Natalie's lovers. But, Alice was no slouch. Apart from painting, she actually patented several mechanical devices. And, never the sort of woman to let a couple of numbers stand in the way of her erotic nature, at age 53, when if came time for a second husband she married a young man 20 years her junior. Evidently, this caused quite a stir, and supposedly made world-wide headlines. Not that she cared: inset right is another of her self-portraits. Well, does she look like she'd care?

Romaine Brooks (1874–1970) was, yet, another American painter who relocated to Paris. She and Natalie Barney lived just blocks away from lesbian extraordinaires Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas.

Brooks painted mostly portraits - wonderfully minimalist and stark - specifically drawn to her most creative, subversive, (and androgynous) contemporaries who, like herself, pushed the envelope in terms of dress, sexuality, and overall aesthetic.

Inset left is a detail of her most famous painting, a self-portrait she painted in 1923.

She actually gave birth to a daughter... and was married for a short time to a homosexual man. But, her relationship with Natalie Barney lasted from age 40 almost up to the time of her death which, like Barney's, didn't occur till she was in her  90s.

Inset right is another of her portraits, of the painter Hannah Gluckstein (who referred to herself as Gluck) entitled Peter, A Young English Girl - Portrait of GluckApparently, the plan was for Gluck, in turn, to paint Romaine, but this never happened; the two artists never really hit it off. Gluck was also an accomplished artist. You can see her work and read more about her in a 4-part online article found here, where her 1932 painting - inset left, below - Datura, The Devil’s Altar  was found. More of Romaine's work can be found here.

And, that just about wraps up one extremely long post! Trust me, it could've been a book... or two... or three. The period in which these women lived and the Paris to which many of them flocked was teeming with such a richness of human expression, innovation and (yes) subversiveness, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find its equal in any other period (or place) since that time. And, I've only mentioned a few of the female visual artists... the writers would fill a book by themselves. In any case, my belief is that knowing about the empowered women of the past is empowering for the women of the present; it is, in fact, essential. It's knowing the true history of ones gender and It's setting the record straight.

And, we're talking about many a brave woman who, in spite of the tremendous odds, pursued her muse and managed to make her mark upon the world; even if it meant traveling half-way round the globe like all of those American expatriates. They were looking for freedom of expression... a freedom they would find nowhere else but in Paris at the turn of the century. And, no woman set a better example than the beautiful woman below, the fabulous dancer, Josephine Baker, who appears several times in this post. Did you know she was also a spy for the French Resistance?

Josephine Baker (1906-1975). Photo found here.


January 3, 2019 Update

Family Portrait II, 1933, Florine Stettheimer

"I have begun this article with a quotation from Walter Benjamin in which he refers to the figure of the lesbian as the heroine of modernism. Here Benjamin is talking about Baudelaire’sThe Flowers of Evil, a work that, as we will see, provided a key antecedent for Laurencin and her contemporaries’ lesbian neoclassical imaginings. Benjamin is pointing to the hidden history of an element of modernism, a historical moment that not only made room for women and for female creativity, but which upheld lesbianism as an ideal that intertwined female sexuality and greatness. Benjamin writes that “in [the lesbian] an erotic ideal of Baudelaire — the woman who bespeaks hardness and mannishness — has combined with a historical ideal, that of greatness in the ancient world.'” 

- Excerpt from Elizabeth Otto's 2002 online article: Memories of Bilitis: Marie Laurencin beyond the Cubist Context. Inset right is a 1912 photograph of artist Marie Laurencin via her Wiki entry.

"Lesbos, terre des nuits chaudes et langoureuses, 
Qui font qu'à leurs miroirs, stérile volupté! 
Les filles aux yeux creux, de leur corps amoureuses, 
Caressent les fruits mûrs de leur nubilité; 
Lesbos, terre des nuits chaudes et langoureuses...

(Lesbos, the land of warm and languid night,
Where gazing in their mirrors as they dress
The cave-eyed girls, in barren, vain delight,
The fruits of their nubility caress.
Lesbos, the land of warm and languid night...)"

- Lines of the poem "Lesbos" by Charles Baudelaire from Les Fleurs Du Mal.

"Stettheimer’s time in Paris also contributed to her attitude toward sexual preference, something that distinguished her family’s salon once they returned to New York City. In Paris, sexual relations between same-sex individuals were not illegal as they were in the United States and England. As a result, lesbians, including the Stettheimers’ cousin, the poet Natalie Barney, moved freely throughout the city. Given their close relations with all of their relations, the Stettheimers undoubtedly knew, and possibly visited, Barney’s infamous Friday afternoon salons at 20 Rue Jacob. Following 1884, new laws in France gave women the right to initiate divorce proceedings, and a powerful new symbol, the Femme Nouvelle, emerged, demanding women’s rights. Many of these New Women chose to live independently, not marrying or having children. The wearing of masculine clothing, including pants, by the Femme Nouvelle was seen as a feminist statement against the predominant marginalization of women’s accomplishments."


Yes, I know, I know... this article did not need any additional volume. But, when I discovered two more artistic connections to lesbian adventuress, Natalie Clifford Barney, during research for my next (and last) empowerment post, I felt it was my duty to report them. After all, it seems that Barney and her circle of lovely lesbians had a quite an extensive decadent thing going on... on both sides of the Atlantic! New York Modernist painter, Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) just happened to be Barney's cousin. While Parisian Modernist painter - and member of the group of geometrically-inspired artists known as Section d'Or (Golden Section) -  Marie Laurencin was on more intimate terms with the American heiress. Inset right is a 1923 painting by Laurencin: Portrait of Mademoiselle Chanel.

I suspect that, in terms of empowerment, these ladies really had it down... to a science!


January 23, 2019 Update

The Death of Cleopatra - marble - 1875, Edmonia Lewis.

“I was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color.  The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.” 

- Edmonia Lewis from a 1876 NY Times article sourced from Lost and Found: Edmonia Lewis and the Death of Cleopatra.


There was one artist whose work was shown in the Woman's Building at the 1892 World's Columbian Exposition whose importance was not revealed to me till yesterday while I was laboring over Part IIIb of this series. (Yes, I'm still at it!) Her name was Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) and she was both an African-American woman and a Native American woman... at a time when being African-American, Native American - or a woman - pretty much ensured that an art career would not be in your future.

Lewis (inset left), however, was born on the 4th of July,1844, in New York, a northern state in which she was born "free." At the age of 15, with the help of her brother, the abolitionists, and her own indomitable spirit, she enrolled in a college where she, unfortunately, faced much discrimination and abuse. She finally found art training in Boston where, in 1864, she held her first exhibition. The exhibition was a success, enabling her to move to Italy. Italy's less pronounced racism increased her opportunities as an artist and she began working in marble. Apparently, her works sold for large sums of money. Even former President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to sculpt his portrait...

Is this beginning to sound like a fairy tale?

Well, actually, it's a true story! But, in true herstory form... well, there's always something. The Death of Cleopatra (above) - all 3,015 pounds of it -  which was sculpted for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, went missing... for a hundred years! It was finally found in storage at shopping mall "surrounded by holiday decorations and papier-mâché turkeys and Christmas lights and Christmas elves." (See this article where Lewis's portrait was also found.)

As for Lewis, she remained unmarried and without children, living in London till her death in 1907. But, let's face it, compared to many woman (of any color) her life was a brilliant success!


* Unfortunately, Bernhardt would never play the lead in Salomé, a play Wilde specifically wrote for her (in French). The play was initially banned by British censors and would not find an audience until Wilde was in prison. It premiered in Paris, February,1896, (allegedly) at at the Théâtre de l'Œuvre staged by Lugné-Poe's theatre group. Lugné-Poe was a Parisian director who embraced the Symbolist movement emerging at the time - Wilde himself is considered a Symbolist - establishing a venue specifically in support of the Symbolist cause. (Lugné-Poe's true name was Aurélien-Marie Lugné... he added "Poe" as an homage to Edgar Allen Poe, a major Symbolist hero.)

Bernhardt herself was a Symbolist goddess, specifically for her decadent, androgynous appeal. While she may have sculpted Ophelia (the character from Hamlet) (shown below), she never played the doomed character's role on stage. Instead, she chose the lead: the Prince of Denmark himself! Inset left is a poster by Mucha representing Bernhardt in the role of Hamlet for the 1899 London stage production.

Oh, and for a last bit of Bernhardt trivia: she (allegedly) flirted with the reclusive inventor Nikola Tesla, but, apparently, nothing came of it. Either he failed to get her message or (cordially) declined out of habit.

Ophelia - bas relief - Sarah Bernhardt. Although estimated
to sell for £70,000 at a recent Southeby's auction,
it actually went for £308,750.

** Regarding Madame Lemaire, amongst the many Victorian interpretations of Shakespeare's Ophelia - including Bernhardt's relief sculpture - Lemaire painted, possibly, the most striking version (inset right) seething with erotic innuendo. In the Wiki article (linked) we find: "the early modern understanding of the distinction between Hamlet's madness and Ophelia's: melancholy was understood as a male disease of the intellect, while Ophelia would have been understood as suffering from erotomania, a malady conceived in biological and emotional terms."

Actually, Ophelia was not delusional in believing Hamlet cared for her, so, erotomania was not the operative termFurthermore, Victorians were more than likely to assume she she suffered from sexual hysteria - the most common misdiagnosis at the time. In any case, of all the images of Ophelia, Lemaire's has a fox-like, almost lascivious, expression on her face... which I rather like! Mad, or not, she seems like an unlikely suicide. However, subjected to the sort of male manipulation Ophelia endured via her father, incestuous brother, and the neurotic prince, who among us wouldn't go mad?

One online page describes Lemaire's Ophelia's expression as "leering" and vampire-like, and, then, goes on to say: "... thus emphasizing the sexual origin of her madness; an aspect further accentuated by the very undecorous fashion in which her dress has slipped off her shoulders to reveal her breasts. Male painters, in contrast, preferred to show Ophelia fully clothed to emphasize the heroic nature of her choice of madness and death over a state of dangerous arousal."

"Dangerous arousal"? For whom? Well, whatever the case, Ophelia certainly was a favorite subject for many male painters of the period, but she inspired a few New Woman painters as well: (inset left above)  Henrietta Rae (30 December 1859 – 26 January 1928), the MacDonald sisters, Francis (inset right) and Margaret... and there may be others. But, while I can understand a male artist's attraction, what was it about the tormented Ophelia that appealed to the New Woman painter? Was it (possibly) Ophelia's "heroic choice" of death over a life dominated by a pack of alpha males?

*** Via the (English) Wiki link: "On one side of the quarrel, many argued that women were inferior to men because man was created by God first, and were therefore stronger and more important. Also, much of Christianity, throughout the ages, has viewed women as the Daughters of Eve, the original temptress responsible for humanity being expelled from the Garden of Eden...

Religious justifications were not the only sources of information regarding woman's nature... Classical philosophy held that women were inferior to men at a physical level, and this physical inferiority made them intellectually inferior as well. While the extent of this inferiority was hotly debated by the likes of Christine de Pizan and Moderata Fonte, women continued to be understood as inherently subordinate to men, and this was the basis for preventing women from attending universities or participating in the public sphere."

Via this .pdf, we have: "In the Aristotelian view, the male principle sought always to reproduce itself. The creation of a female was always a mistake, therefore, resulting from an imperfect act of generation. Every female born was considered a 'defective' or 'mutilated' male (as Aristotle's terminology has variously been translated), a 'monstrosity' of nature."

Apparently, failing any legitimate quarrel, some "learned men" continued to rely upon - and, possibly, still do - antiquated, religious delusions to subordinate women and their "dangerous" sensuality... thereby, effectively decimating a great deal of the competition! As for our understanding of Classical philosophy... well, read Moderata Fonte's quote again (found in introductory section of this post).

**** Interestingly, the image used for the cover of Vivien's book A Woman Appeared to Me - an unusual choice as it represents a man (see post) - was a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's last major work St. John the Baptist (1516). An excerpt from the linked article states:

"This is the last known major work in Leonardo's hand. The figure's haunting beauty comes from the ambiguity of its sexual identity. The luminous face seems to be an emanation of the darkness that completely envelops it. The mysterious gesture of the raised arm with upward-pointing finger is not just of religious but probably also of esoteric significance."

As it was, I believe a major character in Vivien's book was a hermaphrodite, which might (or might not) explain the usage of this image. As for the significance of the upward-pointing finger, anyone who is aware of the mythology, recent speculation, gnostic texts, etc., involving Mary Magdelene, John the Baptist, the Cathars and the Knights Templar, well... don't worry, I'm not going there.

But, aside from that, just in case you're wondering about the sculpture inset right, I swear, but it's a bronze bust of Renée Vivien - the famous lesbian Symbolist - sculpted by that famous womanizer Auguste Rodin! And, not only that, he did a marble as well... in 1904!
Now there's a relationship to wonder about... I suspect they shared a mutual fasciation. One last thing: an exceptionally sweet photo of Vivien can be found here.


  1. Jesus, my head reels and spins in the wake of this breathless narrative. As for antiquated views - they ought to be heaped upon the trash pile of history and set fire. Gender has nothing to do with creativeness nor intellect.

    Well said!

  2. Hah! You're too kind...
    Re: "Gender has nothing to do with creativeness nor intellect."
    Well said! :-)

  3. Wow, a lot to read! This post looks fantastic. I'll comment more as I work through it.

  4. Actually, the post isn't that long... just image-rich... as will be the following (and last) entry in the series. I confess I've lost my enthusiasm in recent months, so the whole operation has become like pulling teeth for me. I look forward to next year... at which point... well, wishing the very best to both of us!