The question ‘Why are there no great women artists?’ was first put to Linda Nochlin in 1970 by the New York gallerist Richard Feigen. It was a genuine inquiry. He would love, he said, to show women artists. The problem was he couldn’t find any good enough. Stumped for an answer at the time, Nochlin continued to consider the question. Her response came a year later in the form of an essay that appropriated Feigen’s question for its title. Nochlin argued that while it was easy enough to come up with a list of interesting or exciting contemporary women artists, producing a list of ‘great’ ones was impossible because ‘greatness’ is bestowed by those in power – in this case, by the institutions to which women have traditionally been refused access. Feigen was looking at things the wrong way: no amount of digging up and recovering under-recognised women artists would change the fact that if it was hard for a woman to establish herself as an artist, it was ‘institutionally impossible’ for her to be a great one. If this now seems an uncomplicated assertion, it didn’t in 1971.
Lack of access to professional training was the most serious obstacle for female artists seeking a way into the canon. It was only in the late 19th century that ‘lady’ students were admitted to life drawing classes at the Royal Academy, and even then the models had to be partially clothed. To exclude women from these classes was to deny them the possibility of painting ambitious works (Nochlin compared it to a medical student being refused anatomy classes). To get around the issue, women either had to be extraordinarily inventive or turn their attention away from history painting towards the so-called ‘minor’ genres of portraiture, landscape and still life. Which isn’t to say men didn’t operate in these genres too: in contrast to much contemporary writing on women by women, Nochlin rejected the idea that there existed de facto ‘feminine’ artistic styles.
Given the essay’s importance to feminist art history, it seems notable that Nochlin’s opening salvo was aimed not at the patriarchy but at her feminist peers. She cautioned against an emphasis on the ‘personal, psychological and subjective’ at the expense of a historical approach. Like all revolutions, feminism needed to contend with the intellectual and ideological basis of the problem at hand. Change needed to take place structurally, and to be organised collectively rather than at the level of the individual. ‘Disadvantage may indeed be an excuse,’ she wrote. ‘It is not, however, an intellectual position.’ As soon as she finished it, Nochlin knew that she had written something significant, though years later – on one of many occasions when she revisited the essay – she wondered whether she might ‘tone down the rhetoric a little’ if she were to write it again.
Born into a secular leftist Jewish family in Brooklyn in 1931, Nochlin often pointed to the importance of intellectual debate in her upbringing. She didn’t want for strong female role models – her father’s mother was a deep-sea fisherwoman – and an awareness of gender inequality arrived early. Aged six, she gouged out Tinker Bell’s eyes in an illustrated edition of Peter Pan (‘My first act of proto-feminist critique in the realm of the visual’). Referring to it as a ‘desecration’, Nochlin said: ‘I hoped it hurt, and I was both frightened and triumphant looking at the black holes in the expensive paper. I hated Tinker Bell – her weakness, her sickening sweetness, her helplessness, her wispy, evanescent body – so different from my sturdy plump one – her pale hair, her plea to her audience to approve of her. I was glad I had destroyed her baby blues.’ Freudians, she added, should make of this what they will.
After graduating from Vassar in 1951 with a BA in philosophy and a minor in Greek and art history, Nochlin went to Columbia, where she specialised in 19th-century French painting (her doctorate was on Courbet). By the time Feigen posed the question to her in 1970, Nochlin had given birth to her first child, a daughter; become a feminist; and organised her first class on ‘Women and Art’ at Vassar, where she had returned to teach. These events were, she said, ‘interconnected’ (though did she really equate having a baby with writing a new syllabus?).
Her introduction to Women’s Lib came via a stack of ‘crudely illustrated’ journals and pamphlets given to her by a friend; she found she couldn’t stop reading this ‘brilliant, furious, polemic stuff, written from the guts and the heart’, a world apart from the feminism of Simone de Beauvoir, which ‘didn’t apply to me. I thought I was already liberated.’ Nochlin posted a notice to the student bulletin board at Vassar announcing a change in title for her previously advertised course. It would now be called ‘The Image of Women in the 19th and 20th Centuries’. At that time there was no such thing as feminist art history, no reading list on which she and her students could draw. ‘Like all other forms of historical discourse,’ Nochlin wrote, ‘it had to be constructed.’
The list of weekly seminar topics included woman as angel and devil; representations of the nude through history; pornography; the theme of the prostitute; the Holy Family and the joys of domesticity; Freudian mythology in modern art; and women as artists. Even Nochlin, whose confidence was astonishing, later wondered how she had hoped to fit it all in. A combination of ‘ambition and naivety’, she supposed. Despite a few outliers – ‘why was I so fixated on the Vampire woman?’ – most of these topics found their way into her writing over the next forty years, alongside her interests in Orientalism, Jewish identity, ageing, class, work and motherhood. In her 1988 essay on Morisot’s The Wet Nurse and Julie (1879), Nochlin weaves together these last three to great effect. The painting is extraordinary, she argues, because the chief subject is not, as first appears, an intimate scene of a mother and child – stock in trade for women Impressionists – but a clear-eyed representation of gendered labour, filtered through Morisot’s ‘dazzlingly unfettered’ facture. Morisot is the mother of the infant in the painting, who is being nursed by another woman – the artist’s model – not for love but for money. ‘All that is solid melts into air,’ Nochlin wrote, drawing a comparison between Marx’s diagnosis of capitalism’s effect on modern life and the soft-edged blur of Morisot’s pastel brushwork, in which the social relations and bodily contours of the wet nurse and infant dissolve into a shimmering mass of pinkish flesh and tulle. Impressionist artists painted the environments to which they had access. In an essay published the same year, Griselda Pollock pointed out that for the bourgeois woman, this meant painting gardens and drawing rooms instead of the spaces of modernity available to their male counterparts – the city street, the café and so forth. Women’s use of domestic imagery was born of necessity not natural inclination.
Nochlin was a great storyteller and didn’t shy away from discussing her life and achievements, especially in her later years. Five years before her death in 2017, Nochlin reflected on the unexpected success of ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ in an interview with the Art Bulletin. ‘I sure didn’t realise it would have the effect it did,’ she said. (Who would?) Both the original essay and Nochlin’s later commentary have recently been reprinted, in a reissue of her collected writings on women artists – and, separately, in a small, funky looking gift edition marking its fiftieth anniversary. The latter seems unnecessary given the essay’s ubiquity and ready availability, though it does include the images that originally accompanied the text, usually absent in reprints, and it has a short introduction by Catherine Grant that situates the essay for new readers. Each generation seems to need to discover ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ for itself, to work through its claims. But then art history is a discipline still shaped by what Nochlin described in 1971 as ‘the white-male-position-accepted-as-natural’. This goes for the art we see too: in 2019 the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC reported that 87 per cent of the artists represented in US museums were men.
‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ was first published in an issue of ARTNews, dedicated to ‘Women’s Liberation, Woman Artists and Art History’. It appeared at a critical moment: museums were under fire for excluding artworks by women who, on the founding of the Art Workers’ Coalition in 1969 by a group of New York-based artists, had formed their own special interest groups to promote women and women of colour. The Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee, founded by the critic and curator Lucy R. Lippard and the artists Poppy Johnson, Faith Ringgold and Brenda Miller, staged a successful protest at that year’s Whitney Painting and Sculpture Annual, with the result that the museum upped its quota of women artists. The campaign involved printing fake flyers, which members distributed at the opening, announcing that 50 per cent of all exhibits were by women, forcing the director to make a public statement denying it. In 1970, the representation of women artists rose from the usual 5 or 10 per cent to 22 per cent. Lippard was involved in another protest that year, against the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when the group released cockroaches at a trustees’ dinner in protest over the museum’s recent exhibition Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-69. The Met was heavily criticised for failing to consult with the local Black community the show claimed to represent. The abstract painter Kes Zapkus threw the roaches on the table ‘to keep Harlem on your mind’.
ARTNews invited written responses to Nochlin’s essay by eight contemporary artists: Elaine de Kooning, Rosalyn Drexler, Marjorie Strider, Louise Nevelson, Lynda Benglis, Eleanor Antin, Rosemarie Castoro and Suzi Gablik. These ran the gamut from tentative support for Nochlin’s argument to outright rejection of the category ‘woman artist’. Nevelson’s blunt riposte to the categorisation of artists by gender was simply ‘do your work,’ while de Kooning complained that Nochlin did not name enough contemporary women artists (‘If the Whitney leaves out a lot of women, so did Miss Nochlin’). Castoro’s response was a litany of her own experiences of sexism and ended by rejecting the idea that women artists should be ‘segregated’ into their own category (‘Man, woman, black, white, big tits, big penises, Italian, Jewish. Every artist is something. I didn’t become an artist because there was a job vacancy’). Drexler argued that Nochlin assumed women strove for the same recognition as their male counterparts (‘I don’t want to create any other institutions. I don’t want to be in any institution’).
Nochlin had the ability to make complicated ideas appear simple and self-evident. She had a knack, too, for getting there first – an underacknowledged skill – and bringing up issues that would later find more complex theoretical formulations in the work of others. Her essay ‘The Imaginary Orient’, published in 1983, was among the first to import Edward Said’s work on Orientalism into art history. Written in response to an exhibition of unapologetically Orientalist painting at the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, and the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, New York, it took aim at the curators for ruling out any political reading of the work on show, insisting instead on the ‘aesthetic quality and historical interest’ of individual paintings – something Nochlin described as ‘art-historical business as usual’. She took Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Snake Charmer (1879) as her starting point. It had been used to illustrate the cover of Said’s Orientalism, though the painting wasn’t mentioned in the book. Nochlin admitted to being seduced by Gérôme’s work, but to her mind this made it all the more powerful as a ‘document of 19th-century colonialist ideology’.
Snake Charmer does not invite the viewer to identify with members of the depicted audience so much as cast them as voyeurs, free to enjoy the ‘spectacle’ from the side-lines. The naked boy’s ‘rosy buttocks’ and his semi-clad observers are presented at a remove, as objects of ‘picturesque delectation’. This stands in stark contrast to Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, painted three years later, in which the barmaid confronts her viewers directly.
Nochlin’s argument that Snake Charmer, for all its richness of detail, is a painting centred on a series of absences is an example of her ability to read so-called realist art for what’s missing as much as for what’s there. The most striking absence, obscured by the welter of pictorial detail, is that of history itself. After Said, Nochlin argued that time stands still in this Orientalist fantasy, a world ‘untouched’ by historical progress. She cautions (à la Yeats) that ‘in dreams begin responsibilities.’
Nochlin later described her approach as a form of bricolage, working with whatever tools lay to hand. Art historical literature at the time was of little help in answering the kinds of question she wanted to ask of painting, whether it was Degas’s antisemitism or Georges Seurat’s La Grande Jatte (1884-86), which she read by way of Ernst Bloch on anti-utopianism. She saw Seurat as the only post-Impressionist to have ‘inscribed the modern condition’ in the very ‘fabric and structure of the picture’ (Bloch for his part described La Grande Jatte as ‘one single mosaic of boredom’).
‘Degas and the Dreyfus Affair: A Portrait of the Artist as an Antisemite’ feels as urgent now as it did when it first appeared in 1987, particularly in its insistence that we hold back from easy elisions of the artist’s life with his work. Hunting for clues of Degas’s antisemitism is, Nochlin argued, both too easy and not enough. Degas’s closest friends, and frequent sitters, were Jewish. The work of his former friend Pissarro, also a Jew, could be every bit as antisemitic as his own.
What, Nochlin asked, are we to do with Degas’s subtle, sympathetic oil and Conté crayon portraits of his old family friends, the Halévys, or, for that matter, the antisemitic imagery of At the Bourse (c.1879)? Contained within that painting is, she writes, a ‘whole mythology of Jewish financial conspiracy’, from the ‘Semitic nose’ to the huddled intimacy of the two black-clad businessmen. She notes the paradoxical fact that the anti-Dreyfusard Degas was in general far more sympathetic to his Jewish friends and sitters than the Jewish Dreyfusard Pissarro in his series of antisemitic caricatures. As Nochlin would often insist, nothing is more difficult to seize than ‘the intersection of the self and history’. But it’s easy now to miss the radicalism in grounding artworks and the artists who made them in ambivalent, contradictory and sometimes unpalatable social contexts.
Nochlin once described her writing as a form of ‘dialectical thinking’, an unusual turn of phrase for a scholar who deliberately – politically – wore her learning lightly, preferring a direct style and informal manner. This adaptability lent itself well to her later work on contemporary art. Her collected writings on women artists encompass lecture transcripts, exhibition reviews and short essays commissioned for catalogues by commercial galleries and public museums. Occasionally the immediacy of her contemporary criticism pales alongside her more polished historical essays (texts for commercial galleries are inclined to praise and gloss, while chapters written for scholarly publications tend to do the opposite). The selection edited by Maura Reilly spans Nochlin’s career, placing her early essays on Cassatt and Morisot alongside later pieces, which brought to light artists including Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Sylvia Sleigh and Florine Stettheimer.Her insistence on the value of figurative painting remains striking – and persuasive.
Nochlin wrote almost exclusively about oil painting, though exceptions include a surprisingly interesting essay on Sam Taylor-Wood’s not very interesting photographs of famous men weeping (Jude Law and so on); a piece on Liza Lou’s beaded objects; and an essay on the conceptually spiky yet seductively soft fabric sculpture Louise Bourgeois made towards the end of her life, an example of what Nochlin called ‘old-age style’. But a collection made up entirely of Nochlin’s essays about women artists gives readers a lopsided sense of her achievements as a feminist scholar, as if her writing on Gérôme isn’t also about gender and sexuality, and Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera isn’t an exploration of ‘erotic pleasure’ aimed both at ‘prosperous men’ and ‘marginal or anonymous women’.
An essay from 2002 about the realist portraiture of Alice Neel provides Nochlin with an opportunity to reflect on the time she sat for Neel with her young daughter Daisy in 1973. Afterwards Neel, who was famous for needling her subjects, as well as cajoling them out of their clothes, told the fully clothed Nochlin: ‘You don’t seem so anxious, but that’s how you come out.’ For Nochlin, this was vital evidence of portraiture’s ability to expose the gap between exterior and interior selves, and she only occasionally adopts a defensive tone: ‘I was keeping a lively four-year-old in place.’ This wasn’t her first stint as an artist’s model. Philip Pearlstein had painted Nochlin and her then husband Dick Pommer in 1968. A photograph of Nochlin standing in front of the painting twenty years later shows one of the best interpreters of realist painting acknowledging the artifice of art, an about-turn I suspect she enjoyed.
The stanning of ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ by later generations suggests that its appeal has only grown. And yet, as readers noted at the outset, the essay has its problems. Several of Nochlin’s claims seem to upend her own basic premise, most notably her insistence that ‘there are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse’, a claim that seems to retain ‘greatness’ as something to which women should aspire. Perhaps this was an example of Nochlin’s ‘dialectical thinking’, but it reads as an abrupt change of heart (Nochlin eventually modified her argument in subsequent essays and interviews). In 1976 she backtracked again with the exhibition Women Artists: 1550-1950, co-curated with Ann Sutherland Harris: the show displayed those great women artists she had previously argued didn’t, or couldn’t, exist.
In later reflections on ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, Nochlin acknowledged how far feminist art history had come and pointed out that the essay was written at a time when there was no women’s studies, feminist theory, African American studies, queer theory or postcolonial studies on which to draw for theoretical or institutional support. Subsequent scholars have taken note, perhaps more generously than we might expect. It’s hard to think of another art historical intervention of the last century that had the same kind of influence. Does anybody read it all the way to the end these days? I suspect that many don’t get past the title, reduced to a cheesy soundbite in recent years. In 2017, Christian Dior sent a model wearing a shirt printed with Nochlin’s question stomping down the catwalk. Apparently a copy of the essay was placed on every seat at the show. A panel titled ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival trod familiar ground, breathlessly describing the moment Nochlin ‘kickstarted a revolution’.
Nochlin’s eightieth birthday in 2011 was marked with a symposium in London of new scholarship by feminist art historians. It concluded with a party and a cake adorned with Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. As one of the speakers that day, I was nervous about the subject of my talk: the work of the self-declared anti-feminist Lee Lozano, best known for the ‘boycott of women’ she embarked on the same year Nochlin published ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ In an interview not long afterwards, Nochlin praised the symposium – she was nothing if not generous to younger scholars – but sounded a note of caution about the recent revival of interest in feminism: ‘I think they need to figure out for themselves what feminism might mean today.’ It was an interesting swerve, suggesting the time had come to move away from, not back towards earlier scholarship, her own included.
The art historian Jeannine Tang repurposed the title of Nochlin’s essay to ask ‘Why have there been no great transgender artists?’ back in 2013. Other scholars have posed the question in relation to the exclusion of people of colour from the established canon of ‘great artists’, the overwhelming majority of whom are white. These contemporary revisions speak to the long afterlife of Nochlin’s original inquiry, but they are also powerful attempts to redress its historical blind spots on queerness and race – issues Nochlin would acknowledge in her 2007 exhibition Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum. But the rhetoric around greatness is pretty tired, and for several decades now art historians have been aware of the kinds of structural inequality that determine who does and doesn’t make the cut. At times it feels as if we’re stuck on repeat, attached to a category that does more harm than good. ‘Feminist art history is there to make trouble,’ Nochlin once wrote. The hagiographic preservation of a debate about ‘greatness’ now fifty years old seems an odd way of doing justice to those troublemaking tendencies. Perhaps the real question is whether we still need to hold onto Nochlin’s question at all.