Amélie Beaury-Saurel, Dans le Bleu, 1894, France, pastel on canvas.
On a recent visit with my Art History students to the Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism exhibition at the Denver Art Museum in Denver, CO on display now until January 15th my research started to query the gender binaries of public vs. private space in the late 19th century. Her Paris is organized by the American Federation of Arts, curated by Laurence Madeline, independent curator and formerly chief curator of Fine Arts at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva and features 80 works by 37 women during the awakening of Modernism in France from 1850-1900.
My expectation for this show was to see a similar iteration of a survey exhibition of this nature to the Met Museum’s 2013 exhibition Impression, Fashion and Modernity that focused more on the male fetishization of women’s garments in art, emphasizing their status as models and muses, rather than competitive equals in the artistic and commercial spheres. Few names of women artists, such as Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt from the Impressionist era, still receive due credit outside of exhibitions just solely focusing on women in the arts. However, the title “Her Paris” is rather misleading in that it hints of autonomy and ownership of the public spaces of the city of Paris as if women were able to freely roam cafés and dancehalls as a femme independent, which was far from reality in both their domestic and artistic lives. Her Paris later addresses this gender division of space and privilege through videos on the lives of free-spirited artists who pressed social boundaries such as the American Cecilia Beaux and the Ukrainian Parisian immigrant artist Marie Bashkirtseff but what speaks most effectively to the question of gender difference is the limited subject matter that fills their canvases. Modernism told artists to paint from reality and capture the immediacy of their surroundings in everyday life, which for Late 19th century bourgeois Parisian women was the domestic interior space of female friends, children and self-portraits.
The contradictory nature of exhibitions of the late 19th century emphasizing the divorce from classical iconography and the academicism of painting from the past is that creating works with the shock value of Manet’s Olympia (1865), depicting the painter and prostitute Victorine Meurent, or Renoir’s Moulin de Gallete (1876) in outdoor café dance hall, was an avant-garde practice only encompassing a world for bourgeois (primarily European) men. Grieselda Pollock emphasizes this division in her Chpt. “Modernity and the Space of Femininity” from her text Vision and Difference. Pollock asserts. “For Women, the public spaces thus construed were where one risked losing one’s virtue, dirtying oneself; going out in public and the idea of disgrace were closely allied. For the man going out in public meant losing oneself in the crowd away from both demands of respectability.” Moreover, as late 19th century Flâneur embraced Baudelaire’s call to modernist freedom to experience the public world in Paris from the perspective of indulging the senses, for women, this ecstasy found in the pubic space only meant demise in the personal realm.
In consideration of the limitations of public space that women experienced in Europe and America in the late 19th century one particular composition in the exhibition beckons the viewer to consider what restraints, if any, were placed on their intellectual lives. Amélie Beaury-Saurel painting Dans le Bleu (1894), oil on canvas depicts a women in a fashionable floral print sunken with her head in her hand gazing off into space in contemplation while smoking a cigarette and having a cup of tea in what appears to be the privacy of her own home. In the late 19th century it was not acceptable for bourgeois women to smoke in public therefore it is assumed Beaury-Saurel is at home representing in painting her ability to momentarily step out of her social boundaries of gender and class. The stigma around women smoking in public emphasizes yet another restraint placed on women by decorum yet to be challenged by modernism. In the compiled text Smoke: A Global History of Smoking authors Linda and Michael Hutcheons discuss how it would have been a symbol not only of a lower class but of “social and sexual autonomy” to see women smoking outside in paintings but also in Opera’s like Carmen, whose heroine figure was known to represent bohemian gypsies.  A year after Beaury-Saurel painted this work the Barcelona born Parisian painter married Pierre Louis Rodolphe Julian who established an art school for both women and foreign artists who were rejected from the Ecole des Beaux Arts called the Académie Julian. Her husband secured her a position as the head of the women’s atelier allowing her to make a generous living and provide for her mother and sister. The question then is what is the shape of this “New Woman” that goes beyond stereotypes of femme enfant and femme fatale that Beaury-Saurel represents? At this point the women who received recognition for artistic developments in the late 19th century were established via proxy of their husband or a male relative, like Berthe Morisot’s famous brother-in-law Manet, but the world of artistic practice for women was still limited to class and privilege. It would take the turmoil of a war stricken 20th century to begin to change roles for women to vote, work, create and occupy the many spaces of the public lives of men.