Nudes by female artists are getting more visibility in museums

·4-min read
"Scipion le noir" by Marie Vassilieff is currently on display at the Royal Monastery of Brou.

Female nudes have long been associated with the work of male artists. But that's only part of the story. Two exhibitions pay tribute to the women who dared to depict such subjects, at a time when they were not even recognized as artists in their own right.

Do macho attitudes persist in the art world? For the Guerrilla Girls, it's not even a question. The collective of American feminists got the attention of the media in 1984, when it wondered in a now-famous poster "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?" And for good reason: less than 4% of the artists exhibited at the time in the American museum were women, while 76% of the nudes that adorned its galleries represented "the second sex."

While this imbalance persists today, many museum institutions are striving to highlight the role of women in art history. The new exhibition at the Royal Monastery of Brou in France pays tribute to Suzanne Valadon and other women artists of her generation who contributed to the buzzing French arts scene at the turn of the 20th century. It brings together nearly 50 women artists, some famous, such as Camille Claudel and Tamara de Lempicka, others lost to posterity.

"For the first time in France, this exhibition shows how numerous and talented women painters and sculptors were, and how they contributed to the artistic vitality in France between 1880 and 1940. No exhibition until now has brought together so many women creators of this dynamic period," says Magali Briat-Philippe, head of the heritage department of the Royal Monastery of Brou and chief curator of heritage.

From muse to artist

The exhibition gives special attention to Suzanne Valadon, whose extraordinary career has helped to shake up preconceived ideas about women artists. Yet nothing in her biography suggested that she would become an accomplished artist. The daughter of a laundress from the Limousin region who emigrated to Paris and settled on the hill of Montmartre, Suzanne Valadon was limited to the role of muse for Puvis de Chavannes, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec during her adolescence. As she began to make her mark in the art world, the young woman became pregnant at the age of 18 -- artist Miguel Utrillo officially claimed paternity. But this new role didn't prevent her from learning to draw herself, with the encouragement of Degas.

Suzanne Valadon started exhibiting her work in 1894, notably at the prestigious Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She did not devote herself fully to her career until she was 45, after leaving her first husband for the young artist André Utter. She then began to paint prolifically, and created the nudes that would make her famous such as "La Chambre Bleue" ("The Blue Room") and "Nu assis sur un canapé" ("Nude sitting on a sofa).

Demasculinizing art history

While some of her nudes are on show at the Royal Monastery of Brou until September 5, they will then go to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. From September 26 to January 9, the American museum will devote an entire exhibition to Suzanne Valadon. This will allow Americans to familiarize themselves with an artist who is relatively unknown on that side of the Atlantic. "Little known in the United States, Suzanne Valadon produced works in the early 20th century that even now challenge viewers with their unapologetic exploration of female desire and the challenges of marriage and motherhood," says Nancy Ireson, the Barnes Foundation's deputy director for collections and exhibitions.

For Thom Collins, the appeal of "Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel" will also allow the museum institution to question more broadly the place of women in the traditionally male world of art. "Placing Suzanne Valadon's work in dialogue with the late 19th- and early 20th-century French paintings in the Barnes collection -- created primarily by her male counterparts -- raises questions of representation and access throughout art history," outlines the president of the Barnes Foundation. "Through this exhibition, we aim to draw attention to the ways in which many artists of merit are unjustly neglected because of biases surrounding gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class."

Caroline Drzewinski

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