The gender binary. A topic that has become of much conversation today, in terms of dismantling the hierarchy that currently exists. In my religious contexts, there is a focus on opposites: light and dark, good and evil, man and woman. In the modern world, tension between opposites has only grown. Instead of opposites as complimentary, opposites have become adversaries.
In the world of art, women in the arts is a relatively new phenomenon. Only during the last 400 years have women been viewed as artists rather than artisans. Berthe Morisot was one of the major Impressionist artists. She first exhibited in 1864 in the Salon de Paris, a highly sought after exhibition.
As part of the impressionist school, Morisot’s style is soft, textured, and plays with light and color. Her subjects are usually domestic in nature. In the Dining Room is a later work of Morisot’s that shows true impressionist style qualities. She captures light and atmosphere with incredible transparency, somehow capturing the inexplicable shades of white.
A challenging dichotomy for a female impressionist painter is that her work can be seen as aggressively feminine. While the impressionist style is unstructured and atmospheric, these are considered feminine characteristics. But Moriost is only one of the artists in this tradition. It could be noted her impressive techniques of repeated watercolor sketches and intense knowledge of color theory is an attribute for male artists and a masculine aspect of her.
Through Morisot as an example, it is clear constructions of feminine and masculine art exist. Linda Nochlin, in her astounding article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” 1971, she critiques the art system as a whole for being inherently created for the man’s world and does not subscribe to the needs of female artists. Nochlin postulates the institutions for art criticism systemically discourage female artists. Institutionally, women artists did not have the same ability to study art like their male counterparts. They could not enter schools or exhibitions; they could not participate in the fundamental study in art, the study of the nude form.
What I love about Morisot is she did not subscribe to these notions of male vs female artists. She just painted. She was bold. “I do not think any man would ever treat a woman as his equal, and it is all I ask because I know my worth.” Morisot was not timid or passive. She was a serious artist determined to prove herself as a professional, despite her challenges as a female artist and her personal dissatisfaction with her work at times.
Taking Nochlin’s stance, we must deconstruct our systems that perpetuate the idea that gender is binary in the arts. The contextual importance of an artist should not be dismissed. Of course, Morisot’s experiences as a woman in the mid 19th century had an effect on her art. But there is no plausible reason that just because her sex is female, that her art is any less than a mans.
You can view In The Dining Room at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Dolan, Therese. 2019. “Berthe Morisot/Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist.” Woman’s Art Journal. 40 (2): 40–45. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxygw.wrlc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asu&AN=138770138&site=ehost-live.
Havice, Christine. “The Artist in Her Own Words.” Woman’s Art Journal 2, no. 2 (1981): 1–7.
Mathieu, Marianne. Berthe Morisot: 1841-1895. Paris: Éditions Hazan, 2012.
Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” ARTnews, January 1971. https://www.writing.upenn.edu/library/Nochlin-Linda_Why-Have-There-Been-No-Great-Women-Artists.pdf