Let men busy themselves withall that has to do with great art. Let women occupy themselves with those types of art which they have always preferred, such as pastels, portraits, and miniatures... To women, above all, falls the practice of the graphic arts, those painstaking arts which correspond so well to the role of abnegation and devotion which the honest woman happily fills here on earth. — Léon Legrange in Gazette des beaux-arts, 1860

Throughout the nineteenth century, women artists had to overcome great odds to pursue their livelihoods. Besides the prejudice that women weren't meant to create serious art as expressed by such male critics as Legrange, women also found that entrance into premier art schools ranged from extremely difficult to impossible. England's Royal Academy did not allow women into its Antique Schools until 1862, while École des Beaux-Arts in France completely shut out women. Notably in the United States, the Pennsylvania Academy allowed women and even set up a Ladies Life Class with a nude female model by 1868.

Once inside any insititution, women found their educations woefully inadequate in comparison to the men's classes which were sometimes just upstairs. One of the great debates of the times was over the use of the nude model in life classes. Even in the Ladies Life Class of the Pennsylvania Academy (which was only for women) did not establish a "nude" male model until 1877. These men, however, were actually still clothed about the loins.

Two photographs of classes at the Glosgow School of Art, 1900: Left: The Antiques [classical sculpture] Room.

Right: A Mixed male and female life-drawing class.

[Click on the thumbnails for larger images.]

The Pennsylvania Academy, however, was a rather liberal exception. In Europe, prominent art schools did not provide women's classes with a nude model until close to the turn of the century. The concern over the nude model can be illustrated by letters which the Pennsylvania Academy received from irate male observers, which expressed that the students' fragile feminine natures "were violated by contact with... degraded women and the sight of nude males in the stifling heat of the Life Class."

In addition to the controversy of the nude in the life classes, was the fact that the requirements for women students versus the male artists were substandard. In 1885, the Royal Academy demanded to see a male student's drawings of a whole figure for juries, while the female student was only required to submit a drawing of the models head. Women were also shut out of examinations and competitions for prizes. In an already difficult professional field, the added burden of being female meant that the woman artist met many obstacles and was granted little opportunity.

And yet it is true that thousands of women showed works to the public, even at the Royal Academy's exhibitions. Two prominent women artists of the time, Emily Osborn, and Elizabeth Thompson (later to be Lady Elizabeth Butler), showed their works quite regularly. The former painted from the daily experiences of women and offered crucial insights into the plight of the female artist.

In her work Nameless and Friendless, she shows a young woman artist attempting to sell her work to a dealer. She is poor, unwed and orphaned as evidenced by her old, worn black clothing. Since she is of a lower class, she cannot sit in the chair by the dealer's desk which would be reserved for artists of a higher status. The dealer and his helper are apathetic to her situation and only doubtfully look over her work. In the background, rich men do not disguise their lewd glances at the helpless girl. The work is narrative, a piece of moral versus merely aesthetic art.

Elizabeth Thompson chose not to address the subject matter close to a women's experience, and instead painted great battle scenes. Thompson was an anamoly in this genre, usually left to the male artist; yet she handled her subject matter with energy and vigor, impressing even the skeptical critics. According to John Ruskin,

I never approached a picture with more iniquitous prejudice against it than I did Miss Thompson's, partly because I have always said that no woman could paint; and secondly, because I thought what the public made such a fuss about must be good for nothing.

Ruskin eventually renounced his previous criticism and went on to compare her sense of color and light to his favorite artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner.

As can be seen by the commentaries of both Ruskin and Legrange, women artists had to overcome the initial opinion of many that women weren't meant to create Art. Despite the obstacles of inadequate training, women artists managed to practice their occupation and earn a living. However, they did not earn lasting fame. True enough, in an age where only experimentation would ensure entrance into the artistic canon, women artists tended not to be innovators. The notable exceptions came from the United States and France in the rebel Impressionists Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot who portrayed intimate looks into domestic life, a topic considered radical at the time.


Harris, Ann Sutherland and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550-1950. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Last modified 1996; images added 2007