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English Female Artists
With the advent of the women's rights movement from the 1970s on, art recent historians have been forced to take a thorough look at the past importance of women in the arts, and particularly as applied to the traditionally all-male bastion of painting. I mentioned in passing a few days ago their reluctance in some cases to do so. However when women themselves such as Lois Fichner-Rathus and Marilyn Stokstad began writing texts for college level art history courses, the work of great female artists ceased to take the form of tacked-on chapters at the end of the traditional text and instead began to stand shoulder to shoulder with that of their male counterparts in the normal context of painting history. And when it did, more than a few art scholars of both sexes found themselves blinking their eyes in astonishment. They didn't recognise the names but the newly discovered "female art" stood up very well on its own, thank you.

We're all familiar with the almost legendary story of the inclusion of female artists Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser amongst the thirty-six founding members of the England's Royal Academy in 1760. What few of us may be aware of is that the next woman to be elected to membership in this august body was not until 1910. For the ninety-one years following the death of the flower painter, Mary Moser in 1809, the Royal Academy was an all-male club...and deliberately so. Few of us have ever heard the name of the genre painter, Rolinda Sharples, or miniaturist, Annie Dixon, or portrait artist, Margaret Sarah Carpenter, or watercolourist, Mary Ellen Best. But for their sex, it's very likely all these, and of course many others, would have been Academy painters. In each case they were free to exhibit at the Royal Academy (and did) but were never even considered for possible membership.

In London alone, during the nineteenth century, two to three dozen outstanding female artists rose to some prominence painting everything from tight botanical depictions to scenes of military history in all its frenzied glory and humiliating pathos. The names and work of Henrietta Ward, Louise Jopling, Marie Stillman, Rebecca Solomon, and Kate Elizabeth Bunce particularly stand out. While Rosa Bonheur was painting action scenes of daily rural life in France (later in England), Elizabeth Thompson, better known by her married name of Lady Butler, was painting scenes from the Crimean War and Waterloo on a very masculine scale. Her Roll Call (1874) and Scotland Forever! (1881) forced even the classic male chauvinist critic, John Ruskin, to admit in seeing them that he'd been wrong in previously asserting that " woman could paint." Ruskin was not the first, nor the last man to have to eat those words. All during the latter third of the twentieth century, they've been a staple part of the diet of very many male art historians.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
13 August 2000


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