Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 27, 2000
Jane R. Becker and Gabriel P. Weisberg, eds. Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian Rutgers University Press in association with Dahesh Museum of Art, 1999. 170 pp.; 31 color ills.; 61 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (0813527562)
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, October 2, 1999-January 2, 2000; The Dahesh Museum, New York, January 18-May 13, 2000;
Thumbnail

“Our studio now enjoys the same advantages as the studio of the men, that is to say, we draw from the nude every day from the same model in the same pose as they do; consequently we can now paint compositions of more importance than before.” So wrote the Ukrainian painter Marie Bashkirtseff in November 1880. The studio to which she referred was one of the ateliers of the Académie Julian, located in the center of Paris, where she had been studying since 1877. That the women of the Académie Julian were now able to work directly from the nude—and from the same nude who posed for the men—marked a singular advance in the education of female artists and made the Académie a powerful magnet for women who sought serious training in the visual arts.

When the Académie Julian was founded by Rodolphe Julian in the late 1860s, the École des Beaux-Arts, the state-run institution that provided the most highly regarded education in the fine arts, was closed to women, as it would remain until the end of the century. The most frequently stated reason for the exclusion of women concerned the charge that immorality would result if women were permitted to examine a nude model at close range. Julian’s solution to the sociosexual anxieties of the time was to create separate studios for men and women, and by 1890, he directed nine interrelated ateliers—four that accepted women and five that accepted men. His instructional faculty included a number of artists with firm ties to the establishment and to the École—Tony Robert-Fleury, William Bouguereau, and Jean-Paul Laurens among them.

Until mid-May, the Dahesh Museum in New York is home to a splendidly vibrant exhibition, Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian. Organized by Gabriel Weisberg and Jane Becker, with the scholarly contributions of Catherine Fehrer and Tamar Garb, the exhibition comprises nearly sixty paintings, drawings, and photographs, as well as such ephemera as caricatures, diary entries, and sketches. Facilitating the exhibition was the active participation of André Del Debbio and his son Christopher-Emmanuel Del Debbio, who direct the Académie Julian-Del Debbio, the successor to the Académie Julian. Additional loans were obtained from public and private collections in Europe, the Ukraine, and the United States.

As I toured the exhibition at the Dahesh, I was struck by the reaction of one of the viewers, to the effect that she had never realized that so many women had painted so well. The exuberance of her remark suggested that an enthusiastic sense of enlightenment, rather than sexism’s gloomy grasp, had motivated her outburst, and I expect that hers was a reaction that many viewers will share. The works on exhibition need no apology or qualification: Many of them are commanding in approach, ambitious in format, and bold in technique, giving lie to so many shibboleths about the limitations of “women’s work.”

Overcoming All Obstacles includes five paintings by Bashkirtseff, whose name is probably best known in connection with the journal she kept, chronicling her experiences as a young art student in Paris. She had arrived at the Académie Julian at the age of seventeen and with only a smattering of art lessons behind her. Bashkirtseff’s journal documents the slow and often frustrating process by which she struggled to master her craft, as well as the progressive invasion of the tuberculosis from which she died in 1884. Among the works by Bashkirtseff on exhibition at the Dahesh are In the Studio (1881), a large oil depicting her women’s atelier; Jean and Jacques (1883), a genre image of two urban gamins; and two portraits, Oriental Woman (undated) and the elegant Parisian Woman (Portrait of Irma, Model from the Académie Julian, 1882).

One of the real showstoppers of the exhibition—a painting that punches a hole in the wall, as Émile Zola might have written—is her self-portrait from around 1883. Dressed soberly, chicly, in black, with a bright white collar and jabot, Bashkirtseff stares outward with an expression of such delicate emotional arrest that I found myself riveted in front of the work. With her eyes opened revealingly wide—the trace of a question in them perhaps?—and her mouth closed gently in an expression that suggests seriousness, self-possession, and the hint of a smile to come; her visage is striking in the complexity and depth of the self that it evokes. In the lower right corner, she holds her palette, angled toward the viewer so that its rough, bright smearings of color can be seen. The boldness of these smudges and streaks of pigment contrast forcefully with the delicacy of Bashkirtseff’s face, as if to assert that differences existed between pictorial and social realities.

Self-portraits are of course fictions, in which the artist effectuates on canvas the presentation of a public persona. For women artists in the later nineteenth century, creating a self-portrait was no small matter: given that self-effacement was a woman’s expected social role, the production of a public presence necessarily entailed a willingness to paint against the cultural grain. In Bashkirtseff’s self-portrait, the thumb that holds the palette is as rough in facture as the blotches of the palette’s pigment and seems to stake out her right to depart from sociability and engage that other and different reality of messy, risk-taking, strenuous studio work.

The exhibition includes several other accomplished and compelling self-portraits: an ingratiatingly down-to-earth self-image (1889) of the artist at work, by the Swedish painter, Mina Carlsson-Bredberg; two boldly assertive self-portraits by the Polish Anna Bilinska-Bohdanowicz (1887 and 1892); a seemingly fearless image of blazing independence by the American Cecilia Beaux (1894); and a rather austere and remote self-presentation (1904, in pastel) by the German-born, Louise-Catherine Breslau. These works are complemented by a large and magisterial portrait of Rosa Bonheur (1898) by the American painter Anna Klumpke, also a student at the Académie Julian. This group of paintings seemed to me unusually rich and uncommon: all views of women by women, the paintings depict sitters of different nationalities, and seemingly different intellectual and artistic temperaments, and show them at greatly varied stages of their lives.

Though the Académie Julian encouraged portraiture, and though portraits and self-portraits are very much in evidence here, also included are paintings on a wide range of other subjects. From Louise-Catherine Breslau—the artist Bashkirtseff considered as her archrival at the Académie Julian—the exhibition features not only her self-portrait and a portrait of Henry Davison, but also a genre painting, At Home (or Intimacy), steeped in the closeness and familiarity of domestic life. By Elizabeth Jane Gardner, the exhibition includes the history painting The Shepherd David (1895); and by Cecilia Beaux, in addition to her self-portrait and the equally magnificent Little Girl (1887), there are the religious paintings Supper at Emmaus and The Good Samaritan (both 1888).

I have left to the end what is perhaps one of the most significant and salutary aspects of the exhibition: the portrayals by women of male and female nudes. If the presentation of a public self created one set of difficulties for women artists—that is, the necessity of overcoming social prohibitions against female exposure and self-assertiveness—depictions of the nude body opened up that snake pit of the collective subconscious: normative notions concerning sexuality. In the archives of what is now the Académie Julian-Del Debbio were found many studies of the nude, done in the women’s ateliers around the turn of the century. A number of the studies are included in Overcoming All Obstacles, and these are works in which society’s hesitations seem to have mattered very little: preeminent in this category are Cécile Baudry’s Nude Woman (1901) and Charlotte Trouessard’s Seated Nude Woman (1904), both in charcoal. Also to be noticed is Anna Bilinska-Bohdanowicz’s oil and goauche Male Semi-Nude Study (Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, 1885), in which, although the model is decorously clad in a set of trunks, the protrusions of his anatomy have been closely followed—foregrounded in a literal sense—with a thorough and steady pictorial gaze.

Since its opening, the Dahesh Museum has developed a solid reputation for presenting top-flight, highly original, and innovative exhibitions focusing on various aspects of nineteenth-century French art. With Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian, it has provided yet another fresh and illuminating encounter with the art of that past, proving once again that it can continue to surprise. Organized by the Dahesh, the exhibition opened last fall at The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and will travel to The Dixon Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee (July–September, 2000). A catalogue, edited by Gabriel Weisberg and Jane Becker accompanies the show, and includes essays by Catherine Fehrer and Tamar Garb as well as Weisberg and Becker. The Dahesh Museum is located at 601 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10017. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11a.m.–6p.m. and is wheelchair accessible.

Jane Mayo Roos
Professor Emerita, Hunter College and the Graduate Center of CUNY

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.