“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter,” once said Oscar Wilde, which leaves us to ponder what the artworks in Ladylikeness: Historical Portraits of Women by Women reveal about their creators.
In short, quite a lot. Through Ladylikeness, which Glenbow produced in partnership with Library and Archives Canada, we meet amateurs and professionals, society women and emerging feminists, all of whom turned to portraiture as a means of creative expression, and as a way into a hostile or indifferent art world. In doing so they created work that spoke of their own lives and beyond.
With portraiture from the collections of both institutions, Ladylikeness covers 200 years and features works by artists from varied backgrounds and experiences. The earliest pieces, dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, come from a time when women were largely denied access to the established system of art school training and portraiture was considered one of the few “acceptable” artistic avenues afforded to women. Even under these restrictions, we see the emergence of outliers who bucked the system and were able to create careers as artists. As the exhibition progresses chronologically, new, previously unheard voices arise and with them new symbolism and perspectives.
We spoke to Madeleine Trudeau of Library and Archives Canada, who co-curated the exhibition with Glenbow’s Sarah Todd, about these fascinating works and the milieu in which they were created.
When we look at the earliest work in the exhibition, they’re from a time when women were shut out of the art world but portraiture was considered an acceptable pastime. Why was that?
There was a kind of hierarchy of genres. Historical painting was at its pinnacle, and that involved a lot of mythological and big epic event themes. That was really the province of men. Male artists would train through the academy system, generally speaking. There were a few women who managed to make careers during the periods, but it was mainly men. The other genres were considered lower, so they weren’t as important and they were also considered a bit safer. So, something like portraiture, especially of the clothed, three-quarter length figure was considered very acceptable. If women were to create images of the body at all, this was considered an acceptable way to do it, versus the types of figures that would be created for mythological paintings, which would often be unclothed and engaged in some action. Portraiture was considered very inner, it was domestic, and it was often of family members.
And it wasn’t for all women – it was dictated by class, correct?
Generally it was associated with a kind of refinement and for a certain kind of art. As long as you weren’t sullying yourself with the sales aspect of things or creating art as men would be. As long as you were making a very amateurish, pretty type of effort, then it was considered enhancing of the woman’s role as a treasure of her husband’s arm.
In the exhibition, who are the first ones to emerge as outliers – women who rejected their expected place in society and took on art as vocation rather than a pastime?
We use the Beaver Hall Group as an indicator that times had changed. Women in Canada were now able to take a course equivalent to men in becoming an artist, but there’s also a change in their mindset. You can see it in their output and the different kinds of art that they were creating. You can see that they’re thinking as future professionals. The types of things that they would be creating, the types of sketchbooks that they were working on, are a little bit different than the old, amateur kinds that were created by 19th century women. [But] we do have an interesting example of a woman from the 19th century, Margaret Campbell Macpherson, who left Newfoundland and, amazingly, made a full [art] career living mainly in France. She is probably the most exhibited woman of her particular era. Quite incredible, but again, you had to be of a certain class and have money to be able to do this. So it wasn’t unheard of that a woman made a profession of being an artist earlier on, but it wasn’t really available to a greater amount of women from a greater amount of classes until we have the Beaver Hall group.
And then post-Beaver Hall, that’s when we really see a much more expansive group in the exhibition.
That’s right, and you’re also seeing the effects of the way the world is changing and all sorts of different things coming into play and eventually, of course, we have actual feminism. In the beginning, portraiture was used as kind of a way in, but now there’s so many different choices for women that they don’t have to choose portraiture as the way that they express themselves through art. So it becomes about the woman’s body and different, more modern, interpretations of what a portrait is.
Looking at the exhibition as a whole, do you feel there’s a tangible quality to the art that somehow reveals that these are works by women – the opposite of the male gaze, perhaps?
People have speculated about this – there’s tons of stuff about this in feminist art criticism. There’s two camps and people go both ways. Even in the 19th century these types of arguments were used, either to prop women up or knock them down, whether or not to have them as full members of the art world. In some ways a feminine subject or something that revealed that revealed the feminine gaze back in the 19th century was considered lesser – pictures of children or babies, things that were considered not as worthy or important to the overall art world. So many people back then would say, ‘oh you can tell that [the artist] is a woman from the types of subjects she’s choosing to paint. Of course, a lot of times women were creating artworks based on the subjects that they had actual access to.
My personal feeling is that it’s very difficult to identify… there’s so many different kinds of women and so many different ways of seeing things. I guess the answer to the question is there is and there isn’t. So much of the history is of women not necessarily having free choice over what they would choose to show – it might be dictated by their position in society and what they were allowed to create.
Madeleine Trudeau and Sarah Todd will be giving a tour of Ladylikeness on International Women’s Day, Friday, March 8. The tour starts at 7pm and is free with museum admission.