Louise Breslau (Swiss, 1856–1927), The Friends, 1881. Oil on canvas, 33 1/2 × 63 in.
© Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Ville de Genève, inv. n° 1883-0002. Photo: Bettina Jacot-Descombes. Courtesy American Federation of Arts
Self-portraits and portraits of one artist by another are common throughout the history of painting. In the later nineteenth century, women artists readily engaged in such portraiture, striving to create a telling image of themselves and their stories. When women served as both painter and model, this practice took on a new urgency. By depicting themselves in the act of painting, women artists insisted that they be taken seriously.
Convention demanded that women limit their creative ambition and copy old masters or undertake small watercolors as an innocuous leisure activity. As there were very few previous examples of women artists who succeeded on their own terms, their nineteenth-century counterparts had to forge a new path for themselves and future generations, struggling for access to education and battling against limited opportunities for exhibition. Hélène Bertaux, founder of the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs, remarked in 1881, “The woman artist is an ignored, little-understood force, delayed in its rise! A social prejudice of sorts weighs upon her; and yet, every year, the number of women who dedicate themselves to art is swelling with fearsome speed.” Nevertheless, barriers remained that limited their opportunities for exhibition and access to education, both crucial to artists who aspired to greatness.
A fully illustrated catalogue, Women Artists in Paris, 1850–1900, has been published by the American Federation of Arts and Yale University Press. Along with an art-historical overview by curator Laurence Madeline, the catalogue includes essays by Jane R. Becker, collections management associate, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Richard Kendall, former curator at large, Clark Art Institute; Bridget Alsdorf, associate professor, History of Art, Princeton University; and Vibeke Hansen, curator, Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo.