In the Belle Époque, Paris is at the height of its artistic Renaissance. It’s an era of great freedom—for men. Like any other woman artist of the time, Theo has to battle prejudice. There were only a handful of women painters who had any recognition or success. Women’s painting was devalued because they were assumed inferior to men. Their opportunities, their lives, were constrained by society, and then they were criticized for their lack of scope. As a sop, they were considered to have a better eye for detail, for the minutiae of daily life, but to lack the metal acuity to present the grand idea. Domestic arts such as embroidery were promoted as a more feminine hobby than painting, and if women did want to be amateurs, the softer mediums, watercolor and pastel were encouraged as more feminine than oils.
This painting is by Marie Bashkirtseff, a Ukrainian painter and sculptor. The subject is the Académie Julien, one of the top schools for painting in Paris. Most women and foreign students went to such painting academies, or to professional artists’ ateliers. Theo is a student at the Académie Julien which happily accepted women in their classes—simply charging them double for the privilege of attending.
At the Académie, Theo would study classical painting techniques and also learn from the leading contemporary innovators. Many students preferred the academies because they were more open to experimental techniques, but some students attended them only to increase their proficiency before applying to the famous École des Beaux Arts. Until 1897 women were not admitted to the Beaux-Arts. When, after years of broken promises, the Beaux Arts did allow a couple of women into its hallowed halls, the male students rioted and threw them out in the street. My heroine is there for the protest.
Even though the École and the traditional Salons still had some power at the fin-de-siècle, that power had been waning ever since the rise of the Impressionists. Nonetheless, the grand salons gave the selected artists great visibility. Art played a major part in popular culture—200,000 people would come to view the paintings in the month they were displayed. Success there could still make or break a career.
Of the women Impressionists, American artist Mary Cassatt is the most well-known. Early in her career, she had some success with the prestigious but conservative Salon. Nonetheless, she soon broke with tradition to pursue the new mode of Impressionism. Her work was championed by Degas, but, while she could her to exhibit her work in their shows, in the 1870s and 80s, it was still improper for her to sit and chat with them in the cafés.
Another marvelous Impressionist artist was Berthe Morisot, who exchanged innovative ideas and techniques with Manet. She had a long a varied career. This painting looks like something Theo might have painted.
Eva Gonzalès was also a student of Manet, and his influence is seen in some of her work, though she developed her own style as well. Although she died young, she left behind a large and varied body of work.
I love the distinctive work of Marie Braquemond, though we have only a few paintings with her wonderful glowing light. Her artist husband disapproved of her use of the Impressionist technique and demanded she abandon it.
Those women were from bourgeois families. Born the daughter of a laundress, Suzanne Valadon became a circus acrobat. After injuring herself, she modeled for all the prominent male Impressionists of the day. Learning from them, she became a unique and dynamic painter in her own right. In a future book in the series, she and my heroine will become friends.
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Genre – Historical Mystery
Rating – R
Quality Reads UK Book Club Disclosure: Author interview / guest post has been submitted by the author and previously used on other sites.