Bringing Women To The Foreground: Her Paris


On a sunny Sunday in Denver (with another Obvi Lady),  I went to an art exhibition called “Her Paris” about women artists in the age of impressionism. 

Four years ago, I was lucky enough to study abroad and spend several months in Paris learning about this very impressionist era. I left knowing what I thought was quite a bit about “La Belle Epoque,” Degas’ revolutionary depiction of dancers, and what these artists did for the world in relation to European history and expression at large.

However, I learned not a single name of the artists featured in “Her Paris.” Why was that?

“Self-Portrait”, Berthe Morisot 1885. This was controversial because at the time, women didn’t do their own self-portraits. Quel scandale!

Not Berthe Morisot, who was among the first female to have her art on display with people like Monet, Manet, and Cézanne, and experiment with “controversial” self-portraiture methods of herself.

Not Mary Cassatt, who moved from her family home in Pennsylvania to attend art school in Paris.

Not Rosa Bonheur, who helped other women attend Académie Julian, one of the few art schools that accepted female students.

These paintings were just as emotive as Renoir’s scenes in the park—their contributions just as impressive. As I walked past the depictions of domesticity that many pieces featured—women reading, smoking, having tea together—I thought about the quiet revolution that was and has always been forming. How women consistently lead such private lives to discover their strengths.

“Dans le bleu”, Amélie Beaury-Saurel 1894

Women in art (and indeed, with most other industries) are consigned to the shadows—the background. As L’école des Beaux-Arts was reserved exclusively for men, women were forced to make their own schools of thought and teach and learn from each other. Women supporting women is not a new concept. From the journals of painter Marie Bashkirtseff in 1877, she was quoted at the beginning of the Denver exhibit: “At the studio, all are equal, we have neither name nor family…we are ourselves…and before us is art, and nothing else. We feel so contented, so free, so proud!”

“Les amies” (The Friends), Louise Catherine-Breslau 1881. Idea-sharing and passing the time. With a dog on the table = goals.

One of my favorite pieces was titled “Echo” by Ellen Thesleff in which a girl is in an open field, her head leaned back, mouth wide open. The plaque described this moment as “a young woman discovering, in a sudden cry, the power of her own voice.” How amazing for a girl of this time period to realize that strength. From the quiet spaces of home life, these women had to carve out their own piece of an art world traditionally controlled by men.

“Echo”, Ellen Thesleff 1891

Upon leaving the exhibit, it had me thinking about the other pieces of history that are missing because discourse is so heavily dominated by men. What else must I learn to attain an equal education on art, history, film, science? Certainly, this exclusion did not start or end with the impressionist era.

Why have the Oscars nominated a total of SIX women-directed films in the entirety of the award show’s existence? (Ahem, 90 years). It’s not for lack of women who are making films, that’s for damn sure.

Why was Rachel Morrison the first ever female cinematographer nominated?

How did it take until 1991 for the International Olympic Committee to declare that any sport in the Olympic program also had to include women’s events?

Why did women authors have to publish under pseudonyms in order to have people read their books?

Today, how is it that only 22.8% percent of all nations’ parliaments around the world are made up of women?

How many more versions of “Her Paris” have I yet to uncover?

There is an abundance of work and learning relegated to the sidelines because women are “second-tier” to men. I no longer want to wait around until an art curator takes a closer look and decides women’s contributions might warrant a special exhibit.

I am going to make a bigger effort to look beyond the mainstream or where the spotlight normally shines. Women deserve just as much a part in the historical and modern narratives that shape our culture as men always have. It’s more than time to realize the strength of our own voices—whether that’s in a painting, song, poem, or story.

We may have been historically kept in the background, but wait until we learn the strength of our own voices.

Molly Geoghegan OWTL Contributor
Molly Geoghegan : Dedicated savory brunch fan and lover of all things French and film. Her only regrets are that she never knows the lyrics to songs and will always remain a Muggle. A true grandma at heart.