Gender in Nineteenth-Century Art
First Things First...
This lecture addresses issues of gender—masculine and feminine—in nineteenth-century art. It primarily focuses on works produced in France, corresponding with the standard narrative of the nineteenth-century survey. However, images produced in Britain, Belgium, and the United States are also addressed. These discussions could be expanded upon—and the lecture made more international—at the instructor’s discretion.
While gender is certainly a topic that could be addressed throughout the entire survey of art, the nineteenth century had very strong (and pervasive) ideas about how a “man” or a “woman” should behave. Men belonged to the public sphere, in the realms of politics, commerce, religion, and academia. They should be physically strong and serve as the breadwinners of their families. Women, on the other hand, belonged to the private sphere, raising the family and caring for the home, and should be delicate and demure.
Since “gender” is such a broad topic, this lecture has been divided into three thematic sub-groups with coherent narratives. This subject could also, however, be discussed chronologically since changes in the treatment of gender are quite often the product of larger socio-political events.
- Defining Gender Roles
- Female Artists
- Gender and the Nude
This lesson is by no means a comprehensive discussion of gender in the nineteenth century. It is an overview of several artists, artworks, and common trends prevalent at that time. Many of the topics discussed in this lecture could also be taken forward into discussions about the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For example, the end of the nineteenth century marks the beginning of an important gender revolution that eventually developed into the first wave of the feminist movement.
Since so much of this lecture is based on discussing representations of “masculinity” versus “femininity,” it might be helpful to first compile a word-bank as a class of adjectives traditionally associated with these terms. Since this is an art history lecture, encourage your students to think about physical characteristics as well as personality traits. And, if you find that your students are providing a lot of value-laden terms, consider circling or starring those words to then discuss why we associate so many positive or negative attributes with a certain gender.
This lecture addresses issues of gender in nineteenth-century art, a context that predated understandings of gender as a continuum instead of a binary construction. The lecture will therefore use the terms “masculine” and “feminine.”
- Flâneur: literally a “stroller” or “lounger” in French. In the nineteenth century, a flâneur refers to a bourgeois man of leisure, who strolls around the city observing his surroundings. During this decade, the flâneur is the archetype of the urban modern male experience.
- Femme Fatale: an attractive, mysterious, and dangerously seductive woman who will ultimately bring disaster to any man who becomes involved with her.
- New Woman: a feminist; an educated, independent career woman. The New Woman was a feminist ideal that emerged in the late nineteenth century as a counterpoint to the traditional definition of woman as a demure homemaker dependent upon a man to care for her.
Defining Gender Roles:
- Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1785
- Jacques-Louis David, The Lictors Brining to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons for Burial, 1789
- Edwin Landseer, Windsor Castle in Modern Times, 1841-45
- Gustave Caillebotte, Boulevard Seen from Above, 1880
- Gustave Caillebotte, Traffic Island on Boulevard Haussmann, 1880
- Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877
- Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l’Europe, 1876
- Édouard Manet, Masked Ball at the Opera, 1873
- Édouard Manet, Concert in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862
- Mary Cassatt, The Opera, 1877
- Pierre-August Renoir’s The Loge, 1874
- Mary Cassatt’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879
- Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872
- Mary Cassatt, The Bath, 1891-92
- Pierre-August Renoir, Maternity, 1885
- Berthe Morisot, On the Balcony, 1872
- Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing before Herod, 1876
- Fernand Khnopff, Caresses, 1896
- Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, 1785
- Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair, 1853
- Rosa Bonheur, Plowing in the Nivernais, 1849
- Gustave Courbet, White Bull and Blonde Heifer, 1850
- Berthe Morisot, The Wet Nurse, 1880
Gender and the Nude:
- Jacques-Louis David, Death of Socrates, 1787
- Anne-Louis Girodet, The Sleep of Endymion, 1791
- Jean Broc, The Death of Hyacinth, 1801
- Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Venus Anadyomene, 1808
- Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Grande Odalisque, 1814
- Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Large Bathers, 1887
- Edgar Degas, The Tub, 1886
- Paul Cezanne, Large Bathers, 1906
- Gustave Caillebotte, Man at His Bath, 1884
- Thomas Eakins, Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, 1871
Defining Gender Roles
For the most part, the nineteenth century conceived of gender as a binary of masculine versus feminine. A good way to start a discussion of this divide is through the Neoclassical paintings of Jacques-Louis David. In works like Oath of the Horatii (1785) or The Lictors Bringing to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons for Burial (1789), David clearly illustrates the gender roles of the time: men are energetic, muscular, and heroic, while women are soft, fragile, and emotional. Moreover, David underlines this division through his clear, ordered composition by physically separating the genders so that the women slump over, weep, and mourn on one side of the painting, while the men take charge and prepare for battle or deal with the difficult decisions of a leader on the other.
In a somewhat less dramatic way, Edwin Landseer conveys similar ideas about the roles of men versus women in his Windsor Castle in Modern Times (1841-45). While it is a portrait of Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, Victoria is depicted as a typical middle-class woman of the time, not a ruling monarch. Dressed in soft colors and carefully put together, Victoria welcomes her husband home from the hunt. The scene suggests that the interior space of the home is Victoria’s dominion, like a good middle-class woman, while hunting and the outside world belong to Prince Albert. It is a harmonious domestic scene in which Victoria plays the role of the modest and devoted wife and Prince Albert the virile, bread-winning husband (with his recent kill scattered about his feet).
This divide between the spheres for men and women remained an important social doctrine throughout the nineteenth century. Man’s connection to the public sphere is best exemplified in the second half of the nineteenth century by the figure of the flâneur—the man of leisure who strolls throughout the city carefully observing the world, while he himself remains almost invisible. A homogenizing black attire was popular among bourgeois males at the time, which allowed them to move through the city without drawing attention to themselves, thus infusing them with the all-important power of the gaze—of seeing without being seen. The gaze is a very significant issue in nineteenth-century gender politics as it functions as a symbol of the power dynamics between the dominant person observing (often a man) and the vulnerable person being observed (often a woman). The politics of the gaze involves not only the power dynamics of who is looking at whom within the painting, but also who is looking at the painting. Who was the image intended for? Was it a privately owned work and only seen by a few select (most likely male) viewers? Or would it have been displayed in a public venue like the Paris Salon and seen by both men and women?
The boundless world of the flâneur can most clearly be seen in the works of the Impressionist artist Gustave Caillebotte. Following Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, Caillebotte took to depicting the new, open spaces of the city that encouraged social interaction and a rise in the upper middle class. In images like Boulevard Seen from Above (1880) and Traffic Island on Boulevard Haussmann (1880), the neutral beiges of the city streets are punctuated by wandering, anonymous figures clad in the black coat and top hat of the bourgeoisie man. They are solitary figures moving throughout these new public spaces, completely open only to men. They may go anywhere and do anything without a chaperone.
The accessibility of public spaces for men is further demonstrated in some of Caillebotte’s more famous works, like Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) and Le Pont de l’Europe (1876). Again, independent male figures punctuate these street scenes. Women, however, such as the female figure holding the man’s arm in the foreground of Paris Street; Rainy Day, must be in the company of an escort if she is to retain her reputation as an honest, moral woman (an unaccompanied woman was assumed to be a prostitute). Based on this critical social norm, there has been much debate about the status of the woman at the center of Caillebotte’s Le Pont de l’Europe. The ambiguous amount of space between her and the bourgeois man walking in front of her bring doubts about whether the two are together or the man is propositioning her.
While good bourgeois women had limited public spaces available to them, bourgeois men could go anywhere and mix with all levels of society, their reputations unscathed. Édouard Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera (1873) is good example of the nightlife entertainment open to them. The anonymous sea of uniformly black-clad men is punctuated by masked female figures in a scene of coquetry. No proper woman would appear in a space like this where men and women mix in such a flirtatious and informal manner. These instead are the women of the demi-monde (women of questionable morality and social standing).
Manet further demonstrates the difference between the near invisibility of the flâneur compared to bourgeois women in his Concert in the Tuileries Gardens (1862). The uniformity of male fashion at the time again allows them to wander through the scene and the public space anonymously. In contrast, the voluminous, brightly colored dresses worn by the women make them instantly visible—most notably with the matching yellow dresses and blue bonnets of the mother and daughter in the immediate foreground of the scene.
The gender politics of sight and visibility in nineteenth-century France are also outlined by the female artist Mary Cassatt in The Opera (1877). The woman in the immediate foreground peers through her opera glasses (presumably to better see the performers on stage), while in the background, a man can been seen using his glasses, not to watch the performance, but to spy on the women in the boxes around him. Just being out in public—even in an acceptable venue like the opera—made women susceptible to male gaze and the power dynamics associated with it.
In contrast to their male counterparts, bourgeois women could either stay home or venture out in select public spaces only if accompanied by a proper chaperone. Because of these restrictions, female artists had fewer experiences to draw from than their male colleagues. Griselda Pollock’s landmark essay “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity” discusses the way that contemporary gender roles impacted the subject matter depicted by the female versus male Impressionist artists. As Pollock points out, social restrictions prevented female Impressionist artists like Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt from being able to attend the new nighttime entertainment spots that occupied their male colleagues, like the café-concert or the cabaret. In the nineteenth-century mindset, only women with loose morals would converse with men so informally and without a chaperone in these settings. According to Pollock, because of these constrictions on their mobility, female Impressionist artists therefore tended to focus on the lives and experiences of women— most often the experience of childrearing.
Within her article, Pollock provides two grids in which she outlines the various venues that frequently appear in Impressionist paintings, the types of women/occupations often represented, and the artists who depict them, divided into two columns, male and female. Recreating these grids for the class using actual images could be an effective way to discuss Pollock’s essay. Alternatively, after assigning your students the reading for class, you could bring images in unordered and, either in groups or as a whole, have the students organize them based on the logic of Pollock’s argument.
Or, do a comparison as a class of two paintings, one by a male artist and another by a female artist, that depict the same public space, like Pierre-August Renoir’s The Loge (1874) and Cassatt’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge (1879). Then, move from the public to the private sphere and discuss Morisot’s The Cradle (1872) and Cassatt’s The Bath (1891-92), both female artists who frequently address the theme of motherhood in their art. These are more than archetypal scenes of mother and child drawing on the Christian theme of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. They are distinctively modern scenes—and spaces exclusively available to women in the nineteenth century: the nursery and the child’s bath. Furthermore, there is a complex psychological bond and emotional connection between mother and child in Morisot and Cassatt’s maternal images that is often lacking in comparable works by their male colleagues. Morisot and Cassatt could be compared with the work of Renoir, who created numerous images of women and children. For example, he created several paintings depicting his wife nursing their son, Maternity (1885), which is more of a nostalgic image of wholesome, pre-modern, rustic maternity than an exploration of the psychological relationships between the two.
Morisot also poignantly illustrates the sphere of women in her scenes of mothers and daughters out in the city together, such as in On the Balcony (1872). Mother and daughter stand on a balcony overlooking a view of the city of Paris (distinguishable in the distance through the gold dome of Les Invalides). The child, still young and unfamiliar with her expectations in life, peers through the fence, looking out toward the city. The mother, on the other hand, aware that the public life of the city is not open to her, looks down at her daughter.
Women started to push back against their prescribed gender roles toward the end of the nineteenth century, and called for more liberty and socio-political rights. As female gender roles began to change, the figure of the New Woman—an educated, independent career woman—emerged. Many men were wary of the New Woman and the autonomy she demanded. They lashed back against this early form of feminism with warnings of the dangerous power of women, and depictions of the femme fatale, or a dangerous, evil woman, in art and popular culture.
One of the earliest representations of the femme fatale is Gustave Moreau’s Salome Dancing before Herod (1876). A biblical figure, Salome is often considered to be the original femme fatale as she used her powers of seduction to secure the death of John the Baptist. In exchange for the saint’s head on a platter, Salome agreed to dance the erotic Dance of the Seven Veils for her stepfather, Herod Antipas. She thus uses her dangerous power of allure to secure the death of a good and honorable man.
Another good example of the femme fatale in art is Fernand Khnopff’s Caresses (1896), in which a female-headed leopard embraces a young man. Khnopff’s image references the story of Oedipus, who must solve the riddle of the sphinx to gain entry to Thebes. Unlike earlier depictions of this myth—most famously, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808)—the male youth lacks the muscular physique typical of classical heroes. He does not appear to be the one in power here, especially since the woman-beast’s left forepaw rests strategically just above his groin, alluding to the possibility of castration.
Women were not only limited in the spaces they could inhabit, they were also limited in their educational opportunities—especially in terms of art production. Before the French Revolution of 1789, the French Academy limited the number of female admissions to four, and following the Revolution, women were then excluded from the Academy until 1897. As Linda Nochlin outlines in her canonical essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” women were expected to restrict themselves to the polite arts of flower and porcelain painting and were denied access to nude models because it was deemed improper—especially if the model was male. This exclusion severely impacted female artists’ ability to effectively execute large figural paintings and compete on the same level as their male colleagues. Nochlin’s essay is an important feminist art-historical text, largely because it moves beyond the early impulse to uncover forgotten female artists and approaches the discussion of female artists from another perspective. By admitting that there actually haven’t been any “great women artists,” Nochlin examines why that is and what prevented female artists from becoming “great.”
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s Self-Portrait with Two Pupils (1785) provides an opportunity to discuss gender politics that female artists faced in the academy in the late eighteenth century. A member of the French Academy (she and her contemporary Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun were both admitted in 1783), Labille-Guiard was a staunch defender of the rights of women artists. This self-portrait was painted as a retort to sexist rumors that her works were not painted by her, but had actually been painted by men. She positions herself at the center of the composition, seated before a large canvas and holding the tools of a serious artist, including a maulstick, which was only used by history painters, defiantly staring out of the canvas at the viewer. She also inserts herself into a position of authority, as her eager pupils stand behind her. However, her precarious status as a woman and an artist is subtly alluded to by the fashionable, completely impractical dress that she wears. This is common in female artists’ self-portraits from this time period, also evident in self-portraits by Judith Leyster and Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun. Although these women wanted to depict themselves as serious, professional artists, societal expectation prevented them from doing so at the loss of their femininity, which is closely tied to their attire.
In light of the gender politics female artists faced, the life, work, and success of the Realist animal painter Rosa Bonheur is all the more remarkable (as Nochlin herself discusses at length in her article). Determined to make a name for herself as an artist on masculine terms, she rejected the dainty subjects expected of female painters in favor of animal painting. Bonheur’s The Horse Fair (1853) illustrates the way she tackled a traditionally masculine subject on the monumental scale of history painting. Like male artists, Bonheur studied animals from life, visiting the local horse market in Paris to sketch. And, in order to visit these hyper-masculine spaces unnoticed and unmolested, Bonheur obtained special permission from the police to dress in men’s clothing. Like Labille-Guiard, Bonheur sought to prove that women were as equally capable of quality, artistic production as men.
After introducing Bonheur, compare one of her images, like Plowing in the Nivernais (1849), with a similar image created by a male artist, such as Gustave Courbet’s White Bull and Blonde Heifer (1850). Have your students discuss how each artist addresses the subject matter compositionally and how they each actually treat the animals’ form. Are there noticeable differences? Is one more effective than the other? What does that tell us? You could also not tell your students who created which image and see if they can easily identify which was created by a female artist and which a male (either in groups or together as a class). Have them provide solid visual evidence for their argument, and then discuss why they came to the conclusions they did.
Berthe Morisot’s Wet Nurse (1880) is another suitable artwork to examine the obstacles that female artists faced in the nineteenth century. In another seminal essay, “Morisot’s Wet Nurse: The Construction of Work and Leisure in Impressionist Painting,” Linda Nochlin identifies the scene as depicting not just any wet nurse, but the woman who Morisot herself hired to provide for her own daughter, Julie. In addition to representing a type of servant that Morisot was expected to employ as a proper bourgeois woman—and which provided her with enough independence from her child to pursue a professional artistic career—The Wet Nurse is also a good example of Morisot’s mature painting style. Over time, Morisot’s style became more Impressionistic as her palette lightened and her brushstrokes became more visible and broken. Unlike the male Impressionists, however, Morisot was not criticized for this style because it was perceived as inherently feminine.
Gender and the Nude
In addition to discussing gender in relation to the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres, the theme of the nude is another rich thread that concerns both masculinity and femininity.
With the revival of Greco-Roman art in the eighteenth century, the muscular male physique was considered the ideal by Neoclassical artists like Jacques-Louis David. One good example is the youthful musculature of the aged Socrates in David’s Death of Socrates (1787). In the wake of the French Revolution of 1789, the male body lost some of its virility and became more androgynous as artists turned away from the hyper-masculinity of David’s Neoclassicism, which was intrinsically linked to the Revolution—and the horrors it wrought. This trend is most notable in the art of David’s students. Images like Anne-Louis Girodet’s Sleep of Endymion (1791) and Jean Broc’s Death of Hyacinth (1801) thus reject the heroic warriors that embody Neoclassicism and instead depict a more sensual, erotic male nude.
While the male nude remained a favorite throughout the reign of Napoleon (who himself was obsessed with classical culture), the female nude never fully disappeared. Female display nudes (or images whose chief aim is to exhibit an idealized, sensualized depiction of the nude female form) from the Renaissance, like Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), were typically painted for private chambers, not public display (where we typically see more impassive nudes derived from antiquity). In the nineteenth century, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres established the female academic nude for public exhibition with his Venus Anadyomene (1808) and Grande Odalisque (1814), which served as the prototypes for the standing and reclining nude, respectively. In his paintings, Ingres emphasizes the smooth, sensuousness of the female form, at times manipulating the figure’s anatomy, altering or omitting certain elements to enhance their aesthetic beauty. For example, he famously added at least three vertebrate to the spine to produce a more alluring S-curve in the Grande Odalisque. He also removed unseemly hair and genitalia from Venuses, nymphs, or odalisques (women whose natural state is to be unclothed and therefore acceptable) to create images suitable for public display.
Following in Ingres’ wake, academic nudes became increasingly popular throughout the nineteenth century. By 1863, the Salon was so full of female nudes that the art critic Théophile Gautier mockingly dubbed it the “Salon of the Venuses.” In response to this overabundance of idealized nudes—as well as the recent call for artists to depict subjects of their own time—Édouard Manet exhibited his Olympia (1863) at the Salon of 1865. Clearly inspired by a famous Renaissance painting, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Olympia turns the female academic nude on its head by presenting, not a mythological or exotic figure, but a contemporary French prostitute for public display. Unlike the nudes of Ingres and Titian, Olympia is confrontational and not nude, but naked, and was therefore extremely controversial.
However, Manet eventually paved the way for the contemporary nude to become popular as well. As artists increasingly turned to modern life to derive their subject matter, mythological nudes began to be replaced by a comparable figure from contemporary life: the bather. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Paul Cézanne all addressed the theme of the bather, but varied in their departure from tradition. An image like Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Large Bathers (1887) is most closely linked to the tradition of the academic nude. Although Renoir’s bodies are much more naturalistic in their anatomy and proportions than Ingres’ unrealistically manipulated forms, they are still idealized through their fleshiness and the gentle contours of their bodies. While there is some attempt at individuality and no allusion to mythology, the women somehow still exist in a state of timeless beauty.
In contrast to Renoir, Edgar Degas’s The Tub (1886) is firmly rooted in the modern world. While Renoir’s female bathers each pose in the perfect position so that they may be seen from the back, the side, or the front (in the classical tradition of the Three Graces), Degas’ bather is absorbed in her own activities, completely unaware that she is being observed. These images feel voyeuristic, as though we are peeking through a keyhole and invading the woman’s privacy. She is also bathing herself in a manner that was uncharacteristic of the habits of bourgeois women at the time. Because of this, it has been proposed that Degas’ bathers are prostitutes cleaning themselves between clients in an attempt to prevent the spread of disease, thus further removing them from any connection to the classical world.
Paul Cezanne’s Large Bathers (1906) likewise departs from the traditional academic nude—but primarily in form, not in composition. The image is rooted in several academic conventions: some of the bathers’ poses reflect classical statuary, the triangular composition derives from Renaissance painting, and the scene fulfills the traditional requirements of history painting as a large multi-figure canvas. However, Cezanne’s distinctive patchy, constructivist stroke and his almost animalistic treatment of the figures distinctively separates his bathers from the smooth, idealized forms of Ingres, and even Renoir.
During the ascendency of the female nude in the nineteenth century, the male figure falls somewhat out of favor. By the mid-nineteenth century, the archetypal male figure evolves from the heroic, muscular warrior to the cultivated, urban flâneur. This led to concerns about the loss of masculine virility toward the end of the century, as illustrated by Gustave Caillebotte’s Man at His Bath (1884). Encapsulating these concerns about male vulnerability, Caillebotte depicts a man rather than a woman at her bath, turning the bathing theme on its head. As in Degas’ The Tub, the man appears to be unaware he is being observed and is at the mercy of the viewer’s gaze. With his discarded clothes and workman’s boots on the floor, he is decidedly not a classical hero, but a contemporary working-class man. Furthermore, his nudity makes him vulnerable, therefore signaling a loss of power.
[NOTE: Caillebotte is also, of course, not the only artist to depict male bathers. Most notably, they appear in the works of Frederic Bazille and Paul Cezanne. Male bathers, however, are usually shown wearing bathing suits (not nude) and are typically discussed in relation to homosocial relations—especially in Bazille’s works.]
This concern with masculine virility appears throughout Caillebotte’s oeuvre, such as in his paintings of floor-scrapers and rowers. It also appears in the work of other late-nineteenth-century artists, like Thomas Eakins, who frequently depicts strong, athletic, moral men in his art, such as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871), which celebrates the rower’s skill and physical prowess.