The misogynists got it right

Christine Stansell

  • Representing Women by Linda Nochlin
    Thames and Hudson, 272 pp, £14.99, May 1999, ISBN 0 500 28098 3

As the ‘woman question’ surged through Europe and America in the 19th century and pressed on politics, education and the law, it also washed through cultural sensibilities. Controversies over woman’s proper place and men’s entitlements precipitated new forms of longing and passion, discomfort and fear. While the most sustained literary register of this change came from Britain, and the most forthright social and political manifestations were seen in Britain, Germany and the United States, the great painterly response occurred in France. In Paris, from the 1850s on, artistic radicals made female figures – and especially the female nude – emblems of their revolt against tradition. In the painting of modern life, women were everywhere, loaded with meaning, fascination, beauty, seduction and repulsion; signifiers at once of modernity and of the world that modernity sought to undo.

The city they painted was one where women both occupied their ordained place – matrons tucked discreetly into boxes at the opera, shepherding well-mannered children in the parks – and moved around disturbingly out of place: barmaids, shop-girls, streetwalkers, factory girls, ballet dancers. Women were also present in the art world, not only as models and wives but as painters (Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot) and art students (large numbers of them by the end of the century). As in other metropoles of the West – New York, London, Vienna, Berlin – perceptions of modernity and the revolution it wrought swirled around these women who, alone and unchaperoned, shopped, walked and worked in places where they had previously been unseen. Where did their freedom of movement, their composure come from? What consequences did their self-sufficiency have?

Men stared and remarked and observed: women tried to look down and away and sideways. Women were among the sights that flâneurs took in as they slid through the crowds on the streets, but to look boldly in return was to designate oneself a woman of ill repute. The gazes which whizzed about and knocked and glanced against each other in the streets of Paris were an imaginative nexus from which the new painters in their studios fashioned their own stunning ways of seeing and shocking: think of Manet’s lounging Olympia and her shameless look.

Feminist art history has brought together the theatre of the metropolitan gaze with the 19th-century drama of women’s emancipation. The story of the look in its myriad forms – intimate, voyeuristic, commercial, erotic, pornographic – enters into the heart of men’s and women’s attempts to orient themselves to modernity. The tracks left by those Parisian looks betray the tangled relations between history, aesthetics and the power that men have held over women, even as they painted compelling pictures of them.

Linda Nochlin has long been a critical presence on both sides of the Atlantic, known for formulating big, bold ways of understanding images of women. Her forte has been the blunt insight, brilliant in its very plainness of address, that throws into question something that everyone took for granted, as in her famous essay of 1971, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Energised by a polemicism which ran strong at the time, Nochlin attacked ideas of innate artistic genius and argued for the institutional preconditions for achievement (or the lack of it) in a profession where the overwhelming drive was to pass on training and inspiration from father to son (both fictive and actual). From the Renaissance to the 19th century, women were denied access to the life-drawing classes where prolonged study of the nude model, first male and later female, constituted the fundamental training of every young artist. In the second half of the 19th century, young, ambitious women in the art schools challenged the rules, but the Royal Academy still forbade female students access to nude models into the 1890s, and some of the Parisian schools only let women work with draped models.

Institutional discrimination was not, for Nochlin, the main problem. She has been more interested in the difficulties the forms and composition of paintings themselves represented for women. The problem of access to the nude thus came to signify a deeper aesthetic exclusion etched into the conventions of painterly perception, what she terms the ‘Oedipal eye’. No woman, however talented, could paint easily, freely, productively in the 19th century, when the idea of the artist in the studio assumed, at core, men’s free access to naked women. Women in paintings, clothed or not, had always had a limited range of meanings (maternality, eros, domesticity) and were consistently imbued with male desire. Other aspects of the past were repudiated, but these traditional structures remained and, as Nochlin provocatively argues, were intensified with the experiments of the Modernists.

Consider the awkward relation of the woman painter to a time-honoured topos of erotic imagery: the comparison of the desirable female body with ripe fruit as it appears in Gauguin’s Tahitian Women with Mango Blossoms – a woman seems to serve up her bare breasts on the tray of fruit she holds right beneath them. Why are there not aesthetically sanctioned images linking male genitalia to bananas? The patent absurdity of the question (‘the food-penis metaphor has no upward mobility, so to speak,’ Nochlin has said) shows the way inequality between men and women shapes conventions of beauty.

Those first – very influential – essays, published in Women, Art and Power ten years ago, hinge on an opposition between the male painter/viewer, situated felicitously in the culture, and the marginalised female painter/subject, scrambling to get an aesthetic vantage point within 19th-century society. In Representing Women, Nochlin’s new collection, the masculine disposition of the painting is still a paramount consideration. She tightens up notions of male and female ways of seeing into a more thoroughly articulated description of ‘the Oedipal construction’ of meaning for the first generation of Modernists. As the Impressionists looked at Courbet and were ‘stirred by fires both imitative and competitive’, so Courbet looked at Rembrandt, Rembrandt at Raphael, Raphael at Rome. But she also moves more freely in this book, acknowledging some creative negotiations between artists and the women who were their subjects, between looking and being looked at and looking back. There are other eyes besides the Oedipal eye at work. Structures of power which in her early work seemed obdurate now crack slightly, tremble, and in places give way to surprising reversals. Woman herself is no longer a fixed entity, rendered in generic images, but a ‘complex, mercurial and problematic signifier, mixed in its messages, resisting fixed interpretation’.

Here and there, Nochlin still speaks of looking at art ‘as a woman’. The phrase suggests a belief in innate feminine characteristics – highly unfashionable today in academic life – that Nochlin herself would surely eschew. Yet she does continue to believe that her social position has predisposed her to see the limits and strictures of an aesthetic tradition and its intellectual explication in art history. This is the critical side of her feminism – blunt, funny, mischievous, learned, anything but dull and dogmatic. But there is also an affirmative side – passionate and delighted – expressed in her appreciation of art which represents elements of women’s lives traditionally suppressed, negated or obliterated in painting. The richness of Representing Women comes from the play between the critical and the affirmative.

A particular sensibility, not a cumulative argument, loops the pieces in this book together, a perspective which combines erudition, ardour and heterodox opinion. Nochlin takes a second feminist look at male painters who were once seen as problematic or indifferent in their renderings of women: Delacroix, Géricault, Degas, Seurat. These are her heroes: all of them, she argues, refused conventions, even avant-garde conventions, when they painted and drew women. An essay on the figure of the woman warrior ends with a surprising paean to Delacroix, a man who, she notes, is known for his ill-treatment of models and his scenes of female torture. But Delacroix, she suggests, found new roles for women on the canvas. In Liberty Leading the People, for example, the old motif of the woman warrior (an image which extends back to the 17th century) is transformed into a paradigmatic figure of female civic activism – a Liberty all the more striking in her differences from the virtuous French mothers which were, after the Revolution, the reigning painterly icons of female devotion to the nation.

There may even be a paradoxical value in leaving women out of paintings altogether. Géricault, she points out, scarcely painted women at all. In The Raft of the Medusa, he even omitted the real heroine of the ordeal at sea which inspired the work. When he did turn his attention to women, it was to draw madwomen, paralytic paupers and (for private pleasure) naked women energetically having sex with men. Here, then, it seems, is a man for whom women existed only on the margins of life as freaks and sexual objects. But Nochlin up-ends the judgment she seems to be building towards. Géricault, she observes, could have painted women endlessly, as his contemporaries did, drawing on the sanctioned repertoire of madonnas, virtuous matrons, lissom nymphs. Instead, he created in his sketches and drawings a rapport with female bodies and female energies which were shunted to invisibility and publicly repressed in the life around him. He becomes, in his very omission of women, an estimable refusé.

About Courbet, the great radical, Nochlin is more ambivalent. The two essays on him at the centre of the collection are, for her, strangely inconclusive, as if she could not quite give up the hope of finding the painter she wants: an artist who could paint women in modern life with the same empathy with which he could portray ordinary men. The Grain Sifters, an eloquent depiction of a female agricultural worker, seems at first glance a tribute to a muscular, competent woman at work, a female body portrayed as sufficient in itself rather than as a vessel for men’s desire. Yet as Nochlin excavates the archaeology of images of peasant women to which Courbet was indebted, she finally finds The Grain Sifters, despite its energy and expansiveness, an ambivalent work, frozen by the painter’s own difficulties in imagining a woman in the integrity of manual labour. Placed against Käthe Kollwitz’s later etchings of fierce rural women in The Peasants’ War, Courbet comes up short.

Yet still she comes back to him, as if she cannot give up on the hope of finding some kinship with the painter who was revolutionary in so much else. At first, she falters. Usually Nochlin is a confident and straightforward writer who strides from one point to the next. But in the long essay on Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio (1855) she seems to succumb, uncharacteristically, to the pressures of her discipline. The beginning is baggy, loaded with art historiography and weighed down with an exposition of others’ theories so extensive it seems pedantic. The picture in question, subtitled ‘A Real Allegory Summing up Seven Years of My Artistic Life’, features Courbet at his easel in the centre, a half-naked model gazing reverently over his shoulder, flanked by a host of odd, obscure figures, almost all of them male. Other scholars of this weird painting (Courbet himself urged a friend just to ‘make it out as best you can’) have shown that it is a heavily veiled but precise political allegorisation of Courbet’s enemies and allies, an assertion of the value of national reconciliation. Nochlin’s problem, as she herself acknowledges, is that there is not much more to say.

As soon as she turns her back on academic explanation, however, and strikes off on her own, it turns out that there is indeed more to say. She practically storms into the painting to see what can be found. And indeed, she retrieves ‘from the brownish, undersea depths of the painting’, crouched in a corner, a mysterious female figure whom no one else seems to have paid much mind to, a beggar-woman cradling a nursling, all ‘muffled roundness’. What is the beggar woman doing tucked away in this male allegory, where the female principal is a generic model/muse? It’s a slim pretext for a feminist re-evaluation of Courbet, but her analysis of the figure makes it worthwhile. This is one of the few places where Nochlin dwells on a particular form to tease out the meanings, and not vice versa.

Unlike the naked lady next to Courbet in the painting, the beggar woman defeats the male gaze. She doesn’t titillate or arouse, at least not in the usual ways. Take her legs: ‘bare, flabby, pale, unhealthy, yet not without a certain unexpected, pearly sexual allure, the right one folded back in on itself, exposing its vulnerable fleshiness to the gaze of the viewer yet suggestively leading to more exciting, darker passages’. But with her legs stuck out on the ground, she is both an updating of the Madonna of Humility and an evocation of dark contemporaneity: ‘The flesh of those pale, varicose-veined, naked, unhealthy, sometimes filthy, often scabbed and scarred female legs on the sidewalks of our own cities, precisely as Courbet, it is said, saw them on the streets of England in his own time.’ And so she goes: the woman’s bare legs placed against Courbet’s jaunty green-striped trousers, the woman of the streets as Baudelairian type, the woman as Baudelaire himself, ‘dark negator of utopian promises’.

Nochlin requires her readers to meander with her, but the stroll is never desultory. Sooner or later she hits on a new and brilliant way of seeing. An essay on Degas’s portrait of the Bellelli family comes closest to introducing too much extraneous material – long quotes on the nature of the bourgeois family, plot summaries of 19th-century novels – but she finally arrives at a striking juxtaposition between Degas’s formal structure of indifference in his family portraits and the ‘dark, dreamy fingerprinted figuration of flesh finding satisfaction in flesh’ in his brothel monotypes. Degas is another of her admired oddballs of the male gaze:

I seem to have arrived at the paradoxical position of arguing that only those [painters] who ... in conventional terms ... are misogynists are capable of representing women fairly – an odd position for a feminist, but then again, not really. Degas, Seurat and, finally, Géricault, in their different ways, seem to have made out the most interesting cases for feminine representation in the 19th century, not those apparent admirers and idealisers of them, Ingres and Renoir

A final pair of essays on Cassatt and Seurat seem twinned, as if to revert to ideas of male and female looking. The loving appreciation of Mary Cassatt – a homage, really – is a particular joy to read. It’s as if Nochlin, after years of thinking about paintings of women, has come back around to controvert the claim that there are no great woman artists. She opens briskly with the declaration that Cassatt’s Lady at a Tea Table is a masterpiece, ‘one of the most remarkable American portraits of the 19th century’. What Cassatt’s portrait has is ‘character’, she notes briskly, something altogether different from John Singer Sargent’s vapid sitters. Here the critic’s way of looking ‘as a woman’ means fully recognising Cassatt’s achievement in bringing ignored and devalued female subject-matter into the painting of modern life – the world of upper-class women, sequestered from the bars, theatres and café-concerts that were the sites of modernity for the other Impressionists. Drawing on an exclusively feminine imagery of mothers and children, Cassatt succeeded, at her best, in breaking with sentimental clichés of motherhood to create an artistic world of feminine experience, replete with its own inventions. The rooms and activities of the household – taking tea, bathing – are transformed through elegant patterning into aesthetic spaces and rituals. Her mothers are imbued with directed attention and intelligence. Her luscious nudes are babies and small children – ‘plump, naked, smooth-skinned bodies’.

Nochlin has a restless mind, and she seldom lets us sit down with one painting. She likes to sweep from one artist to another, to rummage about in different periods. The Cassatt essay is packed with discussions of portraits, the Japanese prints from which she derived her ideas of formal rigour in rendering intimate scenes, and so forth. But with Seurat’s Poseuses, Nochlin lets her eyes rest and roam on one canvas and gives readers the pleasure of following her look. Again, the impulse is generous and unorthodox: to look ‘as a woman’ at how a male artist augmented what could be seen of women’s lives. She comes back to the subject of the nude, but this time to admire Seurat’s wonderful subversion of ‘body politics’ in a painting which showed models as models, not as naked Susannas or Dianas or prostitutes or picnickers on the grass.

In this ambitious and (Nochlin convinces you) immensely intelligent picture, three naked women comport themselves like the Three Graces in a corner of Seurat’s studio, before a slice of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte which is hanging on the wall. They are blasé, a little tired and a bit scrawny: everyone could do with a good meal. One woman is already, mentally, out of the picture, as she pulls on her stockings. Compare them to Renoir’s cavalcade of nudes – rosy, plump, dewey-eyed pretties lolling happily in a state of nature – and Nochlin’s point becomes clear: Seurat, even in arranging his women in a traditional pose, shows them as ordinary working women, not creatures of a timeless realm of desire or succulent bodies there for the imaginative taking, ‘Not merely does he insist that a naked woman is not a natural phenomenon but he also asserts that these naked women are workers who are paid for posing.’

Seurat’s impulse is not ethnographic but aesthetic, a ‘gigantic joky meiosis’ of artificiality and reality, which comments on the artist’s job as artificer – a creator but also a colluder with others. Recognisable items from La Grande Jatte mingle with the women’s clothing on the floor, hinting that the naked women are the same ones who posed in Sunday dress as ladies in the big painting: a gaudy polka-dot skirt (working women’s garb) evokes the pointillist dots of the master; notes of green in stockings and handbag pick up the saturated, slightly surreal green of the park in La Grande Jatte – all creating a playfulness about the world which paint could invent and about the women whom paint could invent, with the contrivance of model and artist. ‘Offering an escape neither into nature, the past, nor an erotics of exoticism, the Poseuses sticks with the urban workaday world ... in which both artist and model – and the work of art itself – participate: our own inheritance.’

‘There is nothing easy or harmonious about Seurat’s view of modernity and the position of women’s bodies within it.’ And here, for Nochlin, lies his prescience. Readers will long for a fuller statement of her vision. Her ideas about the fundamental possibilities and disappointments of Modernism’s first generation are scattered among her assessments of individual artists. We are left to piece together, infer or intuit what it is, exactly, she seeks in ‘representing women’. What went unnoticed, unacknowledged, dismissed by the male gaze in the streets of the 19th-century cities? What modern energies were unleashed, to be distorted or elided back into tradition in the realm of vision? The myriad forms of mischief, comedy, sex, desire, labour and love that could not be fitted into the bifurcated notions of a human nature divided into two sexes, Nochlin would say. Woman as bored worker – in the Seurat manner; woman as mind – in Cassatt’s portrait of her mother reading; woman as depressed mother – in Degas’s Bellelli portrait; woman an as pauper – in Courbet.

Formalist art historians complain that scholars like Nochlin who historicise so densely abjure the task of teaching their audience how to look carefully at paintings – at how a painting means rather than what it means. There is no question that Nochlin wants to address the latter set of questions. She is after different quarry from brushwork, colour, perspective, structure, tone. She is, perhaps, more a cerebral critic than a sensuous one. Her sharp, interrogative approach introduces an awkwardness in our relation to these painters. But that’s a virtue. It’s one of the ironies of Modernism that these paintings, so daring and off-putting to their contemporaries, should have taken on a weird half-life in the latter part of the 20th century as home reproductions: a bluish Degas – bathers or ballerinas – in a bluish bathroom; a rosy Cassatt mother and child in a pinkish nursery. Nochlin, with her sharp questions and peremptory demands that painters of modern life paint modern life in all its grand unease, gives the paintings a jolt.