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Entries in victorian (1)

Wednesday
Oct092019

Reporting on Chadwick's (2012) Research

           The art historian and author, Whitney Chadwick, has written several books about the contributions women have made to the art world. Chadwick (2012) uses art history as a way to advance feminist issues and to point out that so many of the methods used to marginalize women in the past continue to daunt society and females in particular. Contained in the Chadwick (2012) research documents, based on the book, Women, art, and society (Chadwick, 2012), is an encyclopedic collection of women artists from the Middle Ages to the present, many whose names should be more familiar than customary historians have allowed, and the events that shaped their unique, overlooked role in history. Because records are hard to find prior to the medieval period the text begins there and covers all the traditional periods that followed, like the Renaissance, Northern Genre, and Modern.

            Beginning in the Middles ages when craft, which was often skills women had mastered in the home, was regarded as an activity unsuited for a man, and activities such as painting and sculpture were considered righteous. The problem, as Chadwick (2012) points out, is that this primordial, but powerful, contempt for women had “solidified a hierarchical ordering of the visual arts” (p. 43). The powerful Christian church, which has always been suspicious of women, dictated the behavior of women and their role in society, leaving them unable to properly train like their male counterparts. But some women were able to insert themselves into the art world and leave a record of their contributions. It is unknown how many women were permitted to work on manuscripts during this time but this opportunity allowed some women to become educated.

            Economic change and the subsequent economic growth during the Renaissance allowed lords and priests to become very powerful and this diminished the role that women had during Feudalism. It was during this time that women’s role in art changes from one who produces art to the one being represented. This is the time when some men were labeled genius and revered like gods because of the skills they acquired as a result of their entitlement. While the majority of women were confined to domestic duties some women, like Sofonisba Anguissola, who were from families of artists and/or wealth, were able to be trained and make art as long as it was “feminine.” Changes in the church’s position on the women’s role in society have always been a pendulum and in turn, affected the subject and style of art women were allowed to make. Women have had to include this frequent change in excepted morality as one of the many challenges they’ve had to face.

            In northern Europe, a woman had a better chance of becoming a professional artist because of the aesthetic tastes associated with Genre, and its emphasis on everyday life and less of a focus on women being objects of pleasure, aligned with attributes commonly thought to be feminine. The northern artists became experts on technique as they focused on other objects and this allowed women to become more established. Still many women faced obstacles that can now be looked at as essential to the growth of an artist, like access to education and the simple act of having a discussion about style and technique with other artists. Society establishes what is aesthetically appropriate but restricts women from acquiring the skills necessary to participate.

            As women pressed for more rights and equality they were often met with opposition that supported the antiquated patriarchal idea that a woman’s place is at home and their autonomy challenged the natural order of behavior. According to Chadwick (2012), “women’s artistic endeavors were more readily accepted when confined to “feminine” media and executed in their own homes.” Some would argue that a woman’s brain is different and inferior to the man and that “they lack the capacity for abstract reasoning and creativity, but are better suited for detail work” (Chadwick, 2012, p.148). Chadwick (2012) stated that women who would aspire to become artists were branded unscrupulous because ambition was not an accepted feminine quality and “the attacks on prominent public women revealed the fears of the revolutionaries that women, if allowed to enter the public realm, would become not women but hideous perversions of female sexuality” (p.173).

            Within the era of Queen Victoria, mid-1800s to the 1900s, there were reform movements, like the Divorce Act of 1857, Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, and the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1884, that gave women more rights and they expressed themselves more freely in art. Also, education reform and the creation of groups like The Society of Female Artists gave women the support to continue learning and changing policy. All the while, as Chadwick (2012) points out, “not only was it widely believed that too much book learning decreased femininity, exposure to the nude model was thought to inflame the passions and disturb the control of female sexuality that lay at the heart of Victorian moral injunctions” (p. 175).

            During this period a debate would center on the question regarding the capabilities and demands placed on a woman. As Chadwick (2012) states though, “What contribution could middle-class women make to society when they were removed from all productive labor except childbirth” (p. 176)? And the women who were able to find work outside the home were scorned despite the horrible conditions they endured. One artist during this time, Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), painted animals masterfully and presented them in a way that illustrated their helplessness and how that mirrored “the subordinate and powerless position of women in relation to the institutions male of power and privilege” (Chadwick, 2017, p. 176).

            The 19th-century reforms to women’s civil rights woke the spirit of women artists but as Chadwick (2012) continued to point out, “critics were far from reconciled to the ideas of independent women” (p. 221). While some women artists began to experience greater acceptance and appreciation during this period they were often overshadowed by their male counterparts or were forced to choose between their art careers or family. Chadwick (2012) points out, “At that time [the first half of the nineteenth century] the highest praise that could be given to any woman’s work was the criticism that it might be easily mistaken for a man’s” (p. 248).

            Feminists’ movements began during this time and continued to fight for equality. Women had secured the right to vote, made access to higher education, and fought for the right to earn an equal income, yet the idea of the “new woman” existed only for the wealthy and privileged women. Female artists used their freedom to call attention to this discrepancy in society while at the same time calling out the art establishment for its part in the continued dismissal of the role women have in society and their absence from historical records. Most specifically we see the change in the nude representation of the female from the sexual male fetish perspective to something more honest and natural. Though the representation of the nude female still causes great dispute it nonetheless always neglects any substantive contribution women have made to society.

            In conclusion, the Chadwick (2012) book examines the way women have overcome adversity for the sake of free expression and how culture and opinion have rebuked their efforts. Chadwick (2012) points out that despite the advancements women have made in the past 600 years they continue to be evaluated by gender, scrutinized for their ideas, and marginalized in history. Chadwick (2012) even offers criticism of books based solely on women in art history, but a book this ambitious means the cultural, economic, and historical incidents that shaped these artists are greatly edited down. Still, it remains a great resource for anyone looking to find out more about female artists who have often been underrepresented and the historical events that shaped the art they made and the way their art shaped history.

References

Chadwick, W. (2012). Women, art, and society (5th ed.). New York, NY: Thames and Hudson.