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Unearthing the history of women artists

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I am a curator of art. I mainly look after the works on paper collection in the Ulster Museum which includes prints, drawings and watercolours. Though I also have a particular interest in women artists across the whole art collection, including paintings and sculpture. A large part of my job is to research the collections and create engaging stories about it for you, the public.

Sometimes my research informs an academic audience. Most often, I create ways in which I can make information about the collections accessible and engaging to as broad an audience as possible. I achieve this through exhibitions, enquiries, talks, books, tours, fun (I hope) events, podcasts, TV and social media.

Essentially, it’s my job as a curator to look after your collection of art and help you explore it.

Art History and Women

Through my research on women artists I have become aware of the sheer amount of information that doesn’t exist. There is a need for us to reflect and construct a more inclusive history. I have begun to recognise patterns that explain why women artists have often remained invisible in art history. Why many conversations around women fail to represent the truth of the past.

Image: Helen O'Hara (1846-1920) Evening watercolour & white on paper BELUM.U1320
Helen O'Hara (1846-1920) Evening watercolour & white on paper BELUM.U1320

The Feminist Movement

From the 1970s onwards there was a huge drive towards constructing feminist art theory. Much has been written about this time, with a lot of energy put into debates around feminist practice, but this has taken away from the simple recording of women artists existence. If an artist was actively involved with the feminist ‘movement’ they are more likely to be discussed than those who weren’t. So, what about the women artists who didn’t do that or that came before, we still need to record them.

In 1971 Linda Nochlin proposed that feminism would challenge art history. But there is still an imbalance, women are still invisible we need to ask why?

Image: (attributed to) Angelica Kaufmann (1741 – 1807) A Reclining Girl Reading charcoal on paper BELUM.U1200
(attributed to) Angelica Kaufmann (1741 – 1807) A Reclining Girl Reading charcoal on paper BELUM.U1200

Recording reality?

I am interested in what some people might consider ‘the boring stuff’ - actually cataloguing information. I’m fascinated by the clear disconnect between what happened and what has been recorded in the history of women’s artistic practice.

There are many examples of the historical artistic information not reflecting the actual landscape of the time.

In a late 1800s census of London one-third of painters, sculptors and engravers were women. In the US census around that time, it was 40%. But this was not reflected in the collections of most galleries and museums.

This number of a third or 40% often comes up when researching women artists.

Women were not allowed to be members of the Royal Academies. They also struggled to get private gallery representation. Many of them would exhibit their work as part of groups - joining a group was often the way a woman artist got her work seen. A quarter of the one thousand artists in the summer shows at Grosvenor Gallery in London were women. The Artist International Association membership was 40% women. The Surrealist exhibition group had one third, as did the 7 and 5 Group.

We can argue that if a 50% representation of women artists in museum collections and art history isn't achievable, it should be at least one third.

Image: Julie (Jessie) Muntz (fl. 1903-1924)  Miss Iza Munce  oil on canvas BELUM.U100
Julie (Jessie) Muntz (fl. 1903-1924) Miss Iza Munce oil on canvas BELUM.U100

Progress

In the 1890s, women art students accounted for 50 to 60% of all students, 40% of which went on to be artists. Looking at teaching institutions forms a large aspect of my research. Recording the existence of women students begins to redress the imbalance of the historic record. I began with the Slade, as it was the first to accept women, and many Irish women artists studied there. I have created a timeline of the women who attended and their place in the narrative of art history is marked. As I progress in my research I will do this with other institutions. It’s a small step but it will help their presence and work in the past be recognised.

Image: Rose De Crespigny (fl. 1891-1929) Charing Cross Bridge, London watercolour on paper BELUM.U1022
Rose De Crespigny (fl. 1891-1929) Charing Cross Bridge, London watercolour on paper BELUM.U1022

In the next instalment. So why is the recorded narrative so uneven? Where are all the women? Many factors have contributed to this invisibility.