Four Women Artists Who Pushed the Boundaries

To mark International Women’s Day, I look at the lives and work of four women artists who were born in the 19th century and were active in France. Each of them, in their own way, influenced the art world and the lives of women artists who followed them.

I’ve chosen them because the 19th century was a period when women artists began to free themselves from the constraints of society and the art world. Women were supposed to take up painting as a diversion, not as a career. The institutions excluded them from official exhibitions and formal training.  The École des Beaux Arts, for example, did not admit women until 1897. Even then, they were not allowed to take classes with men.

Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) 

Bonheur specialised in painting animals and rustic scenes in a realist style. Her father was a painter who encouraged her artistic ambitions.

Her first major success, Labourage nivernais (Ploughing in the Nivernais), resulted from a government commission, surely rare for a woman at the time. A later work, Foire aux Chevaux (The Horse Fair), won her international acclaim. She became popular in Britain, even meeting Queen Victoria. Bonheur was the first woman artist to receive the Légion d’Honneur in 1865. 

Bonheur, Rosa, Labourage nivernais (1859: Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Bonheur was a lesbian at a time when lesbianism was regarded as unnatural and deviant. She also wore men’s clothing often, saying that wearing trousers enabled her to carry out her work painting country scenes more freely.

Her work is unusual in the choice of subject matter, perhaps not normally chosen by female artists. To understand the anatomy and movement of animals, she studied them at the Paris abattoirs and dissected them at the national veterinary school in Paris. Bonheur’s success helped to open doors for women artists in what was still very much a man’s world.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)

Morisot was a protégée of Édouard Manet (and may have been his mistress) and married Manet’s brother. Her works show the constraints within which women had to live in mid-late 19th-century Paris. Respectable women were unable to frequent cafés, theatres or other public places on their own. Not only was their social situation a constraint, but their very clothing was a limitation.

Most of her paintings are therefore of women in domestic settings or in limited external scenes, often with children. In her work, I feel there is much more than meets the eye, a story behind the story. One of her most famous paintings, Le Berceau (the Cradle) shows a woman gazing at her sleeping child. Her expression could be interpreted in many different ways: exhaustion, ennui, regret, absorption in the child.

Morisot, Berthe, Le Berceau (1869-70: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Her fellow Impressionists greatly admired Morisot’s work. Manet invited her to join the Impressionists, and she was at the heart of the movement.  

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

Cassatt was American but chose to live in France for most of her adult life. She was drawn to the greater liberty of expression and free-thinking of the Impressionists. Edgar Degas was an admirer of her work. When she was rejected by the jury of the Exposition Universelle in 1878, he invited her to join the Impressionist group.

Cassatt’s works are also of women, often with children, in a domestic setting. Like Morisot, her paintings have a complexity that escaped some of the contemporary critics.

I feel she was subtly subversive. The work I have chosen. Dans La Loge (In the Theatre Box) shows a woman eagerly training opera glasses on an unseen target in the audience. Women had traditionally been depicted in paintings as passive objects of the male gaze. Morisot artfully turns this around, so that her subject is the active protagonist. If you look closely, you’ll see that she has unwittingly caught the attention of a man in another box.  

Cassatt, Mary, Dans la Loge (1872: Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938)

Valadon was born in a Limousin village, the daughter of an unmarried laundress. They moved to Paris and ended up in Montmartre, the haunt of Paris’ Bohemian set. She began modelling for artists at fifteen, notably Berthe Morisot, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, whose lover she became for two years. She gave birth at eighteen to a son, later to become a renowned painter, Maurice Utrillo.

Valadon produced mostly drawings to start with, learning painting techniques during her modelling sessions and graduating to painting in 1892. She never had formal artistic training. Edgar Degas befriended her in the 1890s and helped to promote her work.

Born some 20 years later than Morisot and Cassatt, her origins and lifestyle freed her to an extent from the same social constraints. No specific style is associated with her. She incorporated elements of Post-Impressionism and Symbolism, and often painted female nudes, having a particular insight from her own modelling experiences. I have chosen one of these, a pastel and chalk drawing exhibited at the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi last year.

Valadon, Suzanne, Femme nue appuyée sur un fauteuil (1904: Collection Weisman and Michel). Photo © Vanessa Couchman.

I could have written about other women artists: the Impressionists Marie Bracquemond and Eva Gonzales, for example. History has not dealt kindly with some of them. In fact, Morisot and Cassatt were better known during their respective heydays than for many years afterwards. They now enjoy a well-deserved revival.

Here is an interesting article about Morisot and Cassatt. [The site might at first indicate ‘Page unavailable’, but it does work if you wait.]

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  1. Very well chosen!

    I found a Rosa Bonheur engraving in a junk shop when I was about 12yrs old and dragged it up to London when I started work there. I so loved it and had always been mad about horses … it was of an amazing horse fair and it completely knocked out Munnings for me!

    My all time favourite is Morisot. She made such very beautiful paintings while having babies and I think she was hugely influenced by Manet and who wouldn’t have fallen for such an artist?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wondered if this post would resonate with you! Terrific to have that engraving. It sounds as if it might be of her most famous painting, which I believe is an enormous affair.

      Morisot was a wonderful artist. Apparently, Manet ‘improved’ one of her paintings by touching it up, thereby not improving it at all! His portraits of her are a clue to their relationship, although he never painted her at her easel, portraying her rather as a muse.

      I love Cassatt’s work, too. She never married so had more time to devote to her painting.


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