Discover more from Other Feminisms
Who Depicts Women Well?
What artists have done right by women (and Mary Wollstonecraft)
Whatever the topic of this newsletter, I like picking art of women to go with the text. I need it for social media posts, but I also like the job of choosing art or images to highlight (and I appreciate getting recommendations). The image at the top was prompted by Gracy Olmstead recommending Mary Cassatt as an artist “who was unafraid to make the maternal and domestic the focal point of her art.”
Part of it is getting the chance to cut against whatever other images of women may already be in my readers’ email or social media feed. A few years ago, my friends and I celebrated the feast of Mary, Mother of the Church with a rosary procession through the streets of New York City. And we each picked one of our favorite images of Mary to wear as we processed.
There was so much more diversity in the many images we carried of one woman than in the narrow view of women shown in the ads we passed as we walked.
Our walk came to mind when I saw the new piece of public art intended to honor Mary Wollstonecraft. A small, nude female figure rises out of a swirling abstract cloud of metal. The Cut, not known as a bastion of prudery, titled their article “Needlessly Sexy Statue Stirs Massive Row.”
The female artist explained she made the figure nude to make her more of an everywoman, with none of the distinctions of time or wealth that clothes can carry. As for the flat abs? “As far as I know, she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be.”
That particular standard of female beauty does as much to mark the art as of its time as clothes would have. And it left me thinking about the womanly ideal held up by another female artist.
My favorite Louisa May Alcott book isn’t Little Women, but An Old-Fashioned Girl, and a number of its scenes echo in my head no matter how long it’s been between rereads. Most pertinent for this week is the moment when Polly’s friend, Fanny, goes to visit a sculptress’s studio and tries to describe her impressions of the work-in-progress.
“I don’t know whether it is meant for a saint or a muse, a goddess or a fate; but to me it is only a beautiful woman, bigger, lovelier, and more imposing than any woman I ever saw,” answered Fanny, slowly.
Rebecca smiled brightly, and Bess looked round to nod approvingly, but Polly clapped her hands, and said, “Well done, Fan! I didn’t think you’d get the idea so well, but you have, and I’m proud of your insight. Now I’ll tell you, for Becky will let me, since you have paid her the compliment of understanding her work. Some time ago, we got into a famous talk about what women should be, and Becky said she’d show us her idea of the coming woman. There she is, as you say, bigger, lovelier, and more imposing than any we see nowadays; and at the same time, she is a true woman. See what a fine forehead, yet the mouth is both firm and tender, as if it could say strong, wise thing, as well as teach children and kiss babies. We couldn’t decide what to put in the hands as the most appropriate symbol. What do you say?”
[Rebecca the sculptor goes on to explain], “[She is to be] strong-minded, strong-hearted, strong-souled, and strong bodied; that is why I made her larger than the miserable, pinched-up woman of our day. Strength and beauty must go together.”
I would rather see Alcott’s sculptress’s tribute to Wollstonecraft than the thin nude.
And I’d like to hear (and see) some of your favorite examples of artists (preferably women artists) who show women in their full strength and, thus, their full beauty. What in the depiction speaks to you?
Are there reflections of women you’ve never seen in art? People you admire or stages of life that aren’t given the weight they’re due?
Share your ideas below, and I’ll send out a roundup of your comments (and save some of your suggested images for future newsletters).
Usually, I’ll open a discussion on Monday and then send out highlights from the discussion on the following Thursday (e.g. we began our discussion of how to value care work last Monday, so I’ll send out the follow up post this Thursday). I’ll be skipping a post on Thanksgiving, though, so I’ll share highlights from your art recommendations two Thursdays from now.