Why does it take longer to research women artists?

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.

Read the previous installment

So why is the recorded narrative so uneven? Where are all the women?

There are many factors that have contributed to this invisibility.

Image: Doris Violet Blair (fl.1940-1980s) The Arrival (1936)  oil on canvas BELUM.U3597 © the artist's estate
Doris Violet Blair (fl.1940-1980s) The Arrival (1936) oil on canvas BELUM.U3597 © the artist's estate

The male artist

If they had any kind of relationship with a famous male artist any information on that woman is often tied up in relation to him. A simple search for women artists on the internet will show you this. When you look for Gwen John you get Augustus John; when you look for Mary Martin you get Kenneth.

When researching for the Making Her Mark exhibition, I struggled to find information on Thérèse Lessore. The only catalogue I found on her work talked about her marriage to Walter Sickert!

Image: Therese Lessore (1884-1945) Women seated etching BELUM.Pt532
Therese Lessore (1884-1945) Women seated etching BELUM.Pt532

What's in a name?

How a woman’s name was catalogued in collections is a factor in unearthing women artists. Researching the name behind an initial has led me to discover a wealth of unrecorded women artists in our collection.

One research method used by art historians is to examine the records of art materials supply businesses. It is often possible to find information about the location of artists studios, what paints they used, if they changed materials often. But, for a long time, women could not own property, or have credit, so they are often disguised under the names of their husbands or fathers.

When plates of illustrations were listed in publications and books, those by women were usually listed all together. In contrast, men’s were listed individually per work, awarding them more published text associated with their name .

Ownership of property hides women artists. The mismanagement of the estate and legacy of women artists causes problems too. Families were less likely to publicise their work, often knowing little about their careers. This results in less access, visibility and knowledge of vast bodies of art.

It means we need to approach research in different ways, be more investigative - and it takes a lot more time.

Image: Mainie Jellett (1897-1944) Woman at a High Desk pencil on paper BELUM.U2779
Mainie Jellett (1897-1944) Woman at a High Desk pencil on paper BELUM.U2779

Women in journalism and their contributions to art conversations

Many women with an interest in women’s rights and voices turned to writing about the arts as a way to campaign. One such woman was the Suffragette Florence Fenwick Miller. She had a medical background and was an advocate for women’s education. She turned to arts journalism as it was a sphere in which women could write more freely. As a woman, there was less criticism and restriction than contributing to medical or educational journalism, as discussed by Meaghan Clarke, Critical Voices: Women and Art Criticism in Britain 1880-1905. She campaigned for women to be accepted into the Royal Academy and promoted the art of fellow suffragettes such as Henrietta Rae.

Image: Elizabeth Frances Boyd (fl. 1896-1935) Venice, Rio Della Croce oil on canvas BELUM.U608
Elizabeth Frances Boyd (fl. 1896-1935) Venice, Rio Della Croce oil on canvas BELUM.U608

These are some of the reasons why women artists have remained invisible. The next instalment will celebrate some women artists in the Ulster Museum collection and look at how we are making them more visible.