Writing Sample - Conference Keynote Speech

Keynote Speech to AAUW Regional Meeting - "Women in the Arts (Where Were They?)"

I had intended to speak this morning about women in arts administration; but then I began thinking about women in the arts in general; and that led me to the obvious question: where were they?

Have you ever wondered, as I have, about the female counterparts of Michelangelo, of Da Vinci, of Rembrandt?

As far as the history books show, these women never existed. Until recently, most acknowledged artists—and certainly all the renowned ones—have been male.

And yet statistically, genetically, they must have existed, at least potentially. Our own generation proves that intellect, creativity, initiative, are not gender-specific. There is no reason to imagine that the Age of Enlightenment or the Renaissance wouldn't have produced as many women geniuses as men, if the playing field had been level.

And I wonder about them, those women in the sixteenth and seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who might have taken their place in the history books alongside of Michelangelo, and Reubens, and Goya—if the common wisdom of their day had not dictated that the sparks of divine inspiration were handed out to Men Only.

How must it feel to be semi-literate all your life, not by choice but by custom, no matter how intelligent you are, and to have all your time and energy consumed by bearing and raising the ten to fifteen children that were common in those centuries—when you had the potential for creating the Sistine Chapel ceiling locked up inside you?

Perhaps Camille Claudel—Rodin's discarded mistress, whose sculpture was so authoritative that it was occasionally mistaken for Rodin's, and who spent the last three decades of her life in an insane asylum—was not crazy as much as she was simply overwhelmed by a perfectly justifiable rage for 30 years.

Well, we'll never know. The history books are almost universally silent on the subject of great women artists until our own century.

Even as late as the 1960s, a widely assigned college art text—the one I used as an undergraduate—begins with "The Magic Paintings of the Cavemen" (apparently there were no women living in those caves, and if there were, the author never even considered the question of whether or not they might have created any of the paintings at Lascaux)—and takes the reader through 369 pages and 23 centuries of art history without a single mention of Mary Cassat, Georgia O'Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson, or any other woman as a major contributor to the history of art. That book was written in 1957.

A slightly later text, the four-volume Lives of the Painters, published in 1964, includes a grant total of eleven women in its index of 500 artists. (Progress!)

Admittedly this bias is not confined to the field of the arts alone. There were no female counterparts to Galileo, Copernicus, or Shakespeare, either. With a few rare exceptions—such as Elizabeth the First, whose role was thrust upon her by an accident of birth—almost all the great achievements in history, artistic or otherwise, are credited, of course, to men.

But the exclusion of women from the arts seems more striking since art has always been considered a rather "ladylike" endeavor. As soon as women became literate, the mastery of drawing and sketching was considered an essential part of a lady's accomplishments. But except for a very small handful throughout the centuries, they were never publicly recognized for their work.

The earliest record of a woman artist at work appears on a Greek vase dated around 450 B.C. On the vase, this anonymous woman is depicted with a stylo or brush in her hand, working—significantly—as the assistant of a male painter who has won a prize and is being rewarded by Venus with a laurel wreath.

From the tenth through the fourteenth centuries, women are not mentioned as contributors to the arts at all, except for the unidentified ones who embroidered tapestries and illuminated manuscripts.

In the fifteenth century, fewer than ten women artists are recorded in published documents of European life.

The Golden Age of the Renaissance was nearly over before women artists achieved any public recognition or were perceived as accomplished enough to be noted by contemporary biographers. And those were invariably described by their male contemporaries in terms of patronizing complacency about the inferiority of the female sex. In 1521, the famous German artist Albrecht Duhrer paid one guilder for an illustration of the Savior that the daughter of a friend had drawn for him. Duhrer commented, "It is a great wonder that a woman can do so much."

By the eighteenth century nearly three hundred women artists were noted in various historical sources describing contemporary life. A small handful of them—primarily portrait artists—had even become wealthy celebrities of their time. But I doubt if any of us will recognize their names: Clara Peters, Angelica Kaufman, Lavinia Fontana.

And we can't help wondering if it was their talent that brought them to prominence, or their ability to please the movers and shakers of the time (all male, of course)—like some earlier-day Vanna White.

In 1776, French author-philosopher Denis Diderot described a contemporary women artist in the following terms: "It was not talent that she lacked in order to create a big sensation in this country…it was youth; it was beauty; it was modesty; one must be ecstatic over the merits of our great male artists, take lessons from them, have good breasts and good buttocks, and surrender oneself to one's teachers."

(The more things change, the more they remain the same. Remember a few years ago when news anchor Christine Kraft was fired from a local television network because she was "not attractive enough and not deferential enough to men"?)

One biographer of eighteenth-century artists described the single woman in the group with this caveat: "Women have never been lacking in intellect, and when they are instructed in some subject, they are capable of mastering what they are taught. Nevertheless it is true that the Lord did not endow them properly with the faculty of judgment, and He did this in order to keep them restrained within the boundaries of obedience to men…" et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

In the nineteenth century, women artists had emerged to become an economic threat to the male-monopolized genres of portraiture, still-life, and landscapes. Their work was rarely critiqued on its own merit, however, but almost universally evaluated in terms of dismay that women were denying their ordained destiny as keepers of hearth and home.

In 1875, John Ruskin, the renowned art critic of the Victorian Age, wrote about reviewing the work of a woman artist: "I never approached a painting with more iniquitous prejudice against it than I did Miss Thompson's … I have always said that no woman could paint…" Ruskin goes on to give grudging praise to the quality of her work.

In 1860, a French art critic named Leon Legrange said, "Let men busy themselves with great art. Let women occupy themselves with those types of art which they have always preferred, such as pastels, portraits, and miniatures of paintings of flowers…"

The gentleman might have been surprised to see Lynda Benglis—an artist whose work appeared at our Museum two years ago—wearing welders' goggles and pouring molten iron in a sweltering foundry to create her larger-than-life sculptures.

As late as 1880, there were discriminatory rules barring women from England's Royal Academy of the Arts and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in France. The ruling in France (where the notions of "liberty, equality, and fraternity" originated) was made on the grounds that women were "different from men in every respect."

In this overwhelmingly repressive atmosphere, the achievements of a few women artists emerge across the centuries, like some prickly plant determined to poke through an impossibly rocky and hostile soil.

Most people don't realize that America's first professional sculptor was a woman—Patience Lovell Wright—and that she achieved such a reputation that she was invited to Buckingham Palace to model the British king and queen in 1772.

Thousands pass by Emma Stebbins' bronze fountain, "The Angel of the Waters," in the midst of Central Park in New York City without ever realizing it was sculpted by a woman in 1862.

In 1906, Evelyn Beatrice Longman competed anonymously against some of the best-known male sculptors of the day and won the commission to do the massive bronze doors that still stand at the entrance to the chapel of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

(We are reminded of architectural student Maya Lin, whose magnificent design for the Vietnam War Memorial in 1980 was so vilified when she won a similar contest—because she was Asian, because she was young and inexperienced—or because she was female?)

These early women artists are not exactly household names. But somehow, they overcame the crippling conventions of their time, as women tend to do, to make their artistic voices heard.

Perhaps when they won those commissions they were feeling a little bit like Mary Cassat, the American artist who was invited by her French colleague Edgar Degas to join a group of "independents"—those artists who proclaimed themselves independent from government-sponsored independence without considering the opinion of a jury. Cassat (whose father, by the way, said he would rather see her dead than studying art in Paris) wrote, "At last I could work with absolute freedom. I hated conventional art—I had begun to live."

In fact, the participation of women in the arts is as old as society itself. The medieval tapestries, illuminations, and kimonos that we admire in museums; the Navajo rugs that are exquisite masterpieces of the weaver's art; the intricate, homemade quilts that we now regard as some of the greatest treasures of American history—all speak of thousands of gifted, unsung, anonymous women artists.

Well, we like to think we live in a more enlightened age than those past. Women artists are now well represented in museums and galleries nationwide. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I visited an exhibition of Helen Frankenthaler's paintings at the National Gallery—room after room filled with Frankenthaler's pioneering, abstract, color-soaked canvases sometimes as high as ten feet tall—and I found myself feeling very glad she didn't live in the sixteenth century.

One of the volunteer programs at our Museum is called "Let's Look at Art." In it, docents take slides and prints of historic masterpieces into elementary school classrooms and teach kids how to read a painting. One little fourth-grade boy, when he saw Georgia O'Keeffe's famous painting of a huge red flower for the first time, described it this way: He said, "The flower goes up, up, up to the edge of the page, and then it explodes."

I doubt if that little boy will ever forget that painting, and when he remembers it, I don't think he will stop to consider whether it was painted by a man or a woman.

Maybe that's the point. Maybe we are approaching a time when we won't have exhibitions of women's art, or identify Georgia O'Keeffe as one of the greatest women artists of the twentieth century, or give talks about women in the arts, because women's achievements in the arts won't be thought of as distinct from men's.

I hope so.

Thank you, and good afternoon.