Breaking Barriers – 8 Little Known 19th Century Women Artists


Our graphic novel Valadon chronicles the life of the little known Post-Impressionist artist Suzanne Valadon. There were many women artists in the late 1800’s that were highly successful and were equal in talent to their male counterparts. Here are a select few:

1. Berthe Morisot

One of three women to be part of the French Impressionist movement. Highly successful even before joining the Impressionists, she had exhibited several times at the highly esteemed Salon de Paris, the top honor for any artist at the time.

In 1874 she exhibited with Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley at their first “rejected” exhibition (when their work had been rejected by the Salon de Paris). The critics referring to them as “five lunatics and a woman”. Despite that the public loved them.

Her use of color was subtle and limited yet the other impressionists called her a virtuoso colorist. She used color to create a sense of space and depth. Her brush work was light, delicate.

Morisot’s career was long and distinguished. Here are a selection of her works.

2. Mary Cassatt

Mary was an American painter living in France. She had a rough early start, with a resistant father, lack of sales, loss of paintings in the Great Chicago Fire, returning to France for  second time her fortunes changed.

She was accepted into the Salon de Paris in 1872. From there she received commissions amd travelled to Spain to work. Throughout this she was vocally critical of the Salon and its limited vision and sexism. In 1877 her works were rejected but Edgar Degas invited her to show with them. As a big admirer of Degas she readily accepted.

Her most well-received pieces are those about mother and child. Below are a selection of her works.

3. Camille Claudel

Camille Claudel was a French sculptor. She studied under the Académie Colarossi, one of the few schools to take women. She then rented a studio with other female artists. She was being taught by the artist Alfred Boucher. Eventually he asked Auguste Rodin to take over his student’s education. During this time they started a relationship, a tumultuous and contentious one, a relationship of passion and bitterness, a relationship where they ultimately became rivals.

Camille’s work was bold and vigorous. The art critic Octave Mirbeau called her “A revolt against nature: a woman genius.” And she was.

4. Rosa Bonheur

Widely thought to be the most famous female painter of the nineteenth century. Rosa Bonheur was predominantly a painter of animals. She was taught to paint by her father but she was largely self taught. Rosa would bring animals home to study and sketch them.

The French government gave her a commision that lead to her first success, with the painting Ploughing in the Nivernais. This work brought her international fame, she was even invited to meet Queen Victoria. She also she was awarded with the French Legion of Honour, and was promoted to Officer of the order. She was the first female artist to receive this award.

Rosa was fiercely feminist and openly lesbian. Her outspokenness inspired many women artists at the time.

As a realist her paintings are surprisingly bright with vibrant colors with a loose brush stroke. As you can see in these examples.

5. Marie Spartali Stillman

Perhaps the greatest of the female Pre-Raphaelites Marie Spartali Stillman was both a painter and a model, having posed for many of the Pre-Raphaelites. She studied under Ford Madox Brown for several years  

Her work was typical of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with subjects of women and scenes from Shakespeare and Dante. Here are a few of her paintings.

6. Harriet Hosmer

In the 1th century, and in America in particular, women did not pursue careers in art, and most certainly not in sculpture. Harriet was not allowed to study art because viewing a naked model was forbidden for women. Fortunately for Hosmer she could afford to take private sculpture lessons. It was her move to Rome, though, that freed her to explore her art. While there she not only studied more freely she opened her own studio.

Harriet’s work was neoclassic and dealt with mythological subjects as you can see below.

7. Edmonia Lewis

An African American and Mississauga Ojibwe woman she faced a troubling college stay and false accusations, and a trial where she was acquitted. Moving to Boston after not being allowed to attend her last year at Oberlin College, she was eager to start a sculpture career but it was difficult to find an instructor willing to take her on. Eventually she found tutelage under Edward Augustus Brackett.  She soon after opened her own studio. After making some money on copies of one of her popular sculpture of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of an African American Civil War regiment, she moved to Rome.

Rome was far more welcoming to her, it’s less pronounced racism and flourishing art community electrified her. She began sculpting in marble, in a quasi-neoclassical style. Her subject matter ranged from mythology to figures of her own African-American and Native American heritage. Here are a few.

8. Marie Bracquemond

One of the three female Impressionists Marie Bracquemond began studying painting in her teens. Eventually she became the student of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. She married the artist Félix Bracquemond and they shared a studio. Influened by the Impressionists her style changed and she moved outdoors to paint. She later became mentored by Claude Monet and Edgar Degas further ensconcing her in the movement.

Paul Gaugin lived with her Marie and Felix for a time. He showed Marie how to prepare her canvas in order to achieve the vibrant colors she desired. You can see her use of color below.

These are just a few of the many women working as artists in the 19th century. Here is a list of many more. Also check out our bio-comic Valadon only at Stela.

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