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19th-century Paris saw brave women artists

Impressionism bloomed in time and place dominated by men


“You had to go there!” said Suzanne Ramljak of the American Federation of Arts, which organized the show, “Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism,” now open through Jan. 14 at the Denver Art Museum.

Impressionism was centered in Paris and peaked in the 1870s and 1880s. “Hardly any women were able to go. This is the first survey of women working in France at the time,” Ramljak said at a press preview on Oct. 19.

Women artists had to have support from a father or husband — or inherited money. And even then, it was difficult to travel and paint alone — one couldn’t enter a cafe to paint for example, unless accompanied by a man. One had to dress carefully and demurely.

And admission to Ecole des Beaux Artes, the place to train, was closed to women, said exhibit curator, Laurence Madeline, who is chief curator for the French National Museums. “These artists had a passion to overcome obstacles,” she said. (Academie Julien did open to women and taught many of them.)

Madeline has worked nine or ten years on this show, she said — pulling many works from museum storage, “from storage to light,” as well as from gallery walls. “There is much to still achieve,” she added as she speculated on next steps, “Much to do in order that women can achieve what women are and able to do.”

“You’ve got a baby — spread its wings and fly,” said Angelica Daneo, the local exhibition curator and Denver Art Museum’s curator of painting and sculpture, who installed the exhibit, including more than 80 paintings by 37 professional woman artists from Europe and America.

They migrated to Paris to further their careers, overcoming gender-based limitations. “These were not women who painted as a pastime, not makers of ceramics and decorative arts, fans, etc.,” Daneo added. “They had a compelling story to say.” She quoted an early diarist: “To a woman who knows her own mind, men can be only a minor consideration.”

Longtime museum docent Jacqui Kitzelman, of Littleton, has been among those training to conduct tours of this exhibition. They have heard about it from Angelica Daneo and from an expert interpretive specialist on the museum staff and were scheduled for a walk-through on Oct. 20. “Each of us figures out how to tour visitors from age 5 to 105, kindergarten to early Alzheimer’s …” she says. It’s really rewarding for a woman who has spent her career in arts management. And “as long as I can walk out of here with a smile on my face, I’ll continue,” she says.

There have been mandatory reading assignments (tricky to find, since the docent’s library was moved) and access to the website, labels, pictures and wall text. When we spoke with Kitzelman some time ago, there were 70 docents and their number has increased to almost 200. “We just trained 50 new ones,” she said — needed as museum attendance grows steadily. This exhibit should attract real crowds.

Madeline added a historic note: “Napoleon allowed more freedom for women just before this period — women could earn their own way.”

Included in the exhibit: American Mary Cassatt, French women Berthe Morisot and Rosa Bonheur, Dane Anna Archer and German Paula Modrersohn-Becker.

Many paintings included stories of the artists’ lives and friends: painting together, seated with an instructor in a sunny park, enjoying tea, interiors, modern landscapes, strolling, with children — and there are a number of portraits of woman artists by other woman artists (looking businesslike, versus in the pretty white dress). They asserted their roles in the art world.

Women couldn’t attend the Ecole des Beaux Artes until quite late in the period when Paris was the art mecca and by then, it wasn’t nearly as good, nor so much in demand, Madeline said. Famous artists such as Monet left.

“We are just with very good artists,” Madeline concluded, again emphasizing the quality of painting. Allow time to look at details when you visit.

The exhibit will next move to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

If you go

The Denver Art Museum is now open seven days a week. “Her Paris,” in the Anschutz Gallery through Jan. 14, is a ticketed exhibit. See DenverArtMuseum.org.


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