Meet Cindy Nemser - art critic, theatre critic, novelist, humorist, journalist, and ardent feminist.

About Me



Sunday, June 10, 2007

4:03 PM Posted by Cindy Nemser 1 comment
Reclaiming Women Artists History

Let Roberta Smith of the New York Times know that woman painters and sculptors were known and honored until the 19th century.

If letters to the editor were part of the June 8th “Friday Weekend Arts, Fine Arts Leisure” section of the New York Times here is the letter I would write for publication to Roberta Smith about her article “When Home Was Where the Art Was.” Since there is no place in the Times for to be printed, I will put my response on my blogspot.

I certainly commend Smith on acknowledging the beauty and mastery in rugs made by women. In the 1970’s the Feminist Art Journal, of which I was the publisher/editor, printed a major article about women’s quilts by Patricia Mainardi, and Rachel Maines wrote about the exquisite items of lace making, needle work and knitting created by the family of Carrie Montgomery among many others.

What I object to is her introduction to her article, in which she insists that in the last five hundred years practically all women artists have been anonymous.

If Smith had done some reading beyond Linda Nochlin’s misguided article, “Why have there been no great women artists, she would have encountered Eleanor Tufts’ landmark book Our Hidden Heritage or Woman Artists 1550-1950, by Ann Sutherland Harris and a recanting Linda Nochlin, where she would have learned the names of artists like Sophia Anguisola, a portrait painter to royalty the 16th century, Artemisa Gentileschi famous in the 17th century for painting “Judith and Holofernes,” Vigèe-LeBrun, painter to Queen Marie Antoinette, in the 18th century, Rosa Bonheur, .a painter, greatly admired for her depictions of horses by 19th century academicians , Mary Cassat, a great impressionist, also in the,19th century. There were sculptors as well i.e. Harriet Hosmer, and Anna Huntington and many more greatly revered artists in the twentieth century such as Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe, etc.

However if Smith looked in Janson’s History of Art, 1991 edition, she would have found the names of just a few historical figures including the genre painter Judith Leyster, and the still life painter Rachel Ruysch, Rosa Bonheur, Harriet Hosmer. Not great progress, but an improvement considering that up to then there were no women at all.

An artist does not to be counted out because she does not paint nude men and women in classical or Biblical poses. Men like Caravaggio, Frans Synders, Willem Claesz Heda, Franz Hals, Rembrandt, Georges de la Tour, Gainsborough, Chardin, Turner, etc painted still lifes genre scenes, landscapes and portraits and were designated to be great.

But because of the rampant sexism in the 19th century when art history was becoming a discipline un to itself in Germany, England, and other parts of Europe, women’s art that was honored from the middle ages, through the renaissance and up 19th century was denigrated by the use of unflattering stereotypes. (See my article “Stereotypes and Women Artists,” the Feminist Art Journal, April, 1972 and reprinted in Feminist Collage, ed Judith Loeb, 1979 Barnard Teacher’s College Press, Columbia University) as weak, hysterical, timid, imitative or asexual if it was too masculine looking like the horses of Rosa Bonheur.

It would seem that despite all the feminist revisionist art history that has occurred from the 70’s up to the present, influential twentieth century critics like Roberta Smith are perpetuating the lie that women artists of the past did not do significant and sometimes even great art. Right up to today women’s art is undervalued. Just check the list of women artists who were invited to the Basel Art Fair.

I think we should all write to the Times protesting Roberta Smith’s blatant error. Despite what she or others think, women painters and sculptors were not anonymous. Up to the late 19th they were part of the mainstream. We have a history to be proud of but we must continue to work to have it recognized and honored.

P.S. I have completed my book Firebrand: Tales of a Feminist Art Critic and I am looking for a publisher. If anyone has any suggestions as to which editor or agent would be interested in the book, please let me know.

Cindy Nemser

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed your account of your visit to the Vogels. I went to see the movie and was amazed to see how much more "stuff" they had accumulated. An amazing pair and an amusing depiction that adds some humor to their obessive pursuit of the latest, hopeful most status filled art works.
    David Sher