Women in the wild

Women are the majority of plein air painters, but some are afraid to be outside working alone.
The Alaska Range, by Carol L. Douglas
Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont was a landscape painter who traveled around Italy painting ‘views’ at a time when nice women were expected to be chaperoned in public. She made a tidy income for herself in the process. She’s one of two female artists represented in the National Gallery’s True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1870, which runs until May. 
The other is Rosa Bonheur, who is best known for her animal paintings (including The Horse Fair). Bonheur was a one-off, refusing to be pigeonholed by society. She dressed in men’s clothing and openly lived with women. She didn’t want to be male; instead, she felt that trousers and short hair gave her an advantage when handling large animals.
Clouds over Teslin Lake, the Yukon, by Carol L. Douglas
We have an idea that 19th-century society was extremely repressed, but Bonheur was its most famous woman painter. Among those who admired her work was Queen Victoria. Bonheur, like Sarazin de Belmont, was an astute businesswoman, able to earn enough by age 37 to buy herself the Chateau de By.
Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot are the best-known 19th century painters today; why weren’t they as popular then? In part, they suffered from their restricted subject matter.
Western Ontario forest, by Carol L. Douglas
“Morisot isn’t going out with all of her paint tools, like everybody else, and setting up along the river and painting all day,” said curator Mary Morton in this thoughtful essay by Karen Chernick. “That’s absolutely because of the limitations of her gender and her class. She’s a nice upper middle-class French woman, and it’s just not seemly. In the end, her most accomplished pictures tend to be things she can do indoors.”
It’s something I’ve been thinking about recently, after reading a plaintive letter from a woman afraid to paint alone outdoors. “Can you give me tips for safety?” she asked.
Cobequid Bay Farm, Hants County, Nova Scotia, by Carol L. Douglas
Since the plein air painting scene is predominantly female, many women have made the adjustment to working alone. I’ve camped and painted alone through the Atlantic states and for 10,000 miles through Alaska and Canada with my daughter. I’ve been unnerved by tourists acting idiotically, but I’ve never been bothered by human predators.
But perhaps I’m not harassed because I’m so old, this blogger suggests. I don’t think so; I’ve been doing it for a long time. And I’m not the only woman interested in painting on the road. Deborah Frey McAllister created the International Sisterhood of the Traveling Paints on Facebook. Debby calls herself a ‘free range artist.’
Hermit’s Peak, El Porviner, NM, by Carol L. Douglas
It’s possible to run into trouble anywhere. In my experience, there are stranger people in town parks than in national forests. The worst thing that’s ever happened to me was being warned away from drug deals. But be alert and aware of your surroundings. 
The subject is something I’ll address when I speak to the Knox County Art Society on tips for the traveling painter. That’s Tuesday, March 10, at 7 PM in the Marianne W. Smith Gallery at the Lord Camden Inn, 24 Main Street, Camden. The talk is open to the public; the suggested donation is $5.

Reflections of a recovering coffee addict

Love may be an addiction, but it’s at the heart of everything we do. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Birthday, 1915, Marc Chagall, courtesy Museum of Modern Art

Yesterday I quit drinking coffee. This wasn’t my choice; it was on the advice of my medical professional. He’s loads of fun; this regimen also precludes alcohol, sugar, wheat and dairy. None of those other things caused me a moment’s trouble, but the coffee? I’ve been drinking it since I was nine years old. I like the taste, the smell, the buzz. Coffee is a very mild stimulant, I thought, and dropping it out of my diet should be no big deal.

Wrong. I have withdrawal symptoms in spades: headache, tremors, and the need to sleep forever. I looked out at the snow piling up in the driveway, said a bleary “fuggetaboutit” and cancelled my appointment for the afternoon.
Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow, color woodblock print, c. 1767, Suzuki Harunobu, courtesy Art Institute of Chicago
Clearly, coffee is a much bigger player in my biochemistry than I thought. It’s clearly a physical addiction, but it’s one I’ve never paid attention to. That got me wondering what other habits are running in the background, messing with the fine-tuning of my operating system.
When I’m on the road, I can be outside in the field painting by the time the sun clears the trees. My blog is written, I’m showered, my lunch—such as it is—is made, and my gear is set up. Why, then, does it take me until late morning to get into my studio at home? I’m not lazy; in fact, I’m pretty darned disciplined.
The Cradle, 1872, Berthe Morisot, courtesy Musée d’Orsay
It’s this infernal machine I’m holding in my hands. Much of what it shoots at me is chaff, but some things are important. Is there a way to quit my computer like I quit coffee? I don’t think so.
“Back when I first decided to become a painter, of my ‘art’ time, I spent 80% of it painting and 20% on marketing. Now, a couple of decades later, I spend 20% on painting and 80% on marketing,” lamented Michael Chesley Johnsonyesterday. I feel his pain.
That’s not all I do on this machine. I use my computer to ‘talk’ to my friends, read the news, and keep in contact with my adult kids and grandkids. But those are things I enjoy. Relationship is programmed into our minds; our systems rise to it like fish to a lure.
On the other hand, that’s what I said about coffee.
The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924–7, Sir Stanley Spencer, courtesy the Tate
Next week, I’m going to gum up my productivity still farther, by having my grandchildren here for the week. We’ll go see if Little Bear is still sleeping, take a twirl or two on our skates, and visit the beach. All painting will be with tempera on a very short easel.
Love may be an addiction, but it’s the heart of living. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Les trois grandes dames of Impressionism

Three great women painters who navigated tricky social rules before there was modern feminism.
The Boating Party, 1893-94, Mary Cassatt, courtesy National Gallery

Today we look at the intimate mother-child paintings of Mary Cassatt and pigeonhole her as a woman artist, or, worse, ‘sentimental’. She would have disliked either description. She thought of herself as a New Woman, and her paintings were depictions of that ideal. Although she never married or had children, she viewed motherhood as a high calling.


Cassatt was riding a wave of feminism that swept America during the 1840s, when universities began opening their doors to women and all-women schools, most notably the Seven Sisterscolleges, were formed.
Reading Le Figaro, 1878, Mary Cassatt, private collection. The model is the artist’s mother, an educated and well-read woman who had a profound influence on the artist.
The New Woman was popularized by the heroines of Henry James. She controlled her own life, purse and thoughts. Mary Cassatt was not stridently political in the 20th century sense, but she depicted women and their work in a whole new way. There would be none of the bathtub voyeurism painted by her close friend and sometimes-collaborator, Edgar Degas. In short, she was a feminist and most of her fellow Impressionists were not.
Cassatt was described by critic and art historian Gustave Geffroy  as one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism. The other two were Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot. Each chose to negotiate the difficult territory of career and family in different ways.
Under the Lamp, 1877, Marie Bracquemond, courtesy Galleries Maurice Sternberg, Chicago
Marie Bracquemond was the daughter of an unhappy, arranged marriage. Her sea-captain father died shortly after her birth, and her widowed mother and stepfather were ramblers, giving her an unsettled childhood. Yet she was a prodigy. As a teenager, she began studying in a local atelier. A painting of hers was accepted into the Salon when she was just 17. She studied for a time under Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who didn’t think much of women painters.
At 29, she married fellow artist Félix Bracquemond. They’d had a passionate two-year affair, but Marie should have listened to her mother, who hated the fellow.
According to their son, Félix was resentful and critical of his wife’s painting, particularly when she began to explore Impressionism. By 1890, she was so discouraged that she gave up professional painting altogether. Despite her fragile health, she lived to 76, only outlasting her husband by two years.
The Mother and Sister of the Artist, 1869-70, Berthe Morisot, courtesy National Gallery
Just as Cassatt had a deep friendship with Degas, Berthe Morisot was an intimate of painter Édouard Manet; in fact, she married his brother. Eugène Manet could not have been more different from Félix Bracquemond. Also a painter, Eugène never achieved much of a reputation, instead devoting himself to promoting his wife’s career.
Berthe Morisot was the granddaughter of Jean-Honoré Fragonard and was born into an affluent bourgeois family. Because she was very self-critical, it is difficult to trace her development and training with any certainty. She met Édouard Manet, in 1868, and married Eugène in 1874.
She first showed with her fellow Impressionists in 1874. Le Figaro critic Albert Wolff wrote that the Impressionists consisted of “five or six lunatics — among them a woman — a group of unfortunate creatures.” Morisot, he added, had a “feminine grace [that] is maintained amid the outpourings of a delirious mind.”
By the time her daughter was born in 1878, Morisot was a mature artist who was showing and selling regularly. Morisot died when Julie was just 16. She had contracted pneumonia while nursing her precious child back to health.