Women’s Ateliers and Drawing from Life: 19th-Century France

If the prospect of life drawing class has ever, at any point, struck you as a bit daunting, imagine the uphill battle, imperviousness to criticism and relentless perseverance required of all women artists in the 19th century and earlier. In France, state-sponsored access to life drawing studios was still closed to women as late as 1896. This represented a nearly insurmountable obstacle, historically embedded and deeply ingrained. Though female artists were to gain access, from the 1870s on, to classes in select private studios, virtually all public spaces conducive to drawing from life—the street, the café, the dance hall—were still off-limits to unchaperoned women of the upper class, who alone possessed sufficient wealth and leisure to allow for artistic pursuits. Male artists, regardless of class, were free to frequent all of these places. Indeed, a career choice in any direction other than home and family could actually obliterate the possibility of marriage for a female artist. The practice of art was considered threatening to women and, by extension, to the very fabric of society.
Edgar Degas - Figure Study

Edgar Degas - Figure Study

Mastery of drawing, as we have seen, was considered obligatory and always preceded introduction to painting or work in other media. This was true all over Europe, and the Paris ateliers were no exception. Consider, then, the tremendous challenge presented to women artists by the prohibition of figure drawing class, the essential foundation for any serious artist. Deprived of the very instruction that would render them capable of heightening their artistic ability, women were perceived as unequal to higher artistic achievement and relegated to subjects considered appropriately quotidian, feminine, and close to the family hearth. For women, still lifes, portraits and landscapes ruled the day.

With the advent of Impressionism, traditional, quasi-religious adherence to purity of form finally relaxed, metamorphosing into a looser depiction of the subject’s inherent life force. This unraveling of requirements subtly benefited female artists with reduced access to formal training, but they were catching up at the speed of light. Private life-drawing studios began to open exclusively for women, offering a highly refined, sheltered environment that stood a lesser chance of offending prevailing sensibilities.

If women of more than one hundred years ago could bravely manifest changes considered altogether too shocking for the time, it follows that aspiring artists of our age can summon the disclipline to attend life drawing class, as well. Try committing to one for an evening, a semester, perhaps a year; then try two. You’ll have the chance to fully acclimate to the life drawing environment, become accustomed to infinitely varied charcoal types and techniques, and witness incredible strides in your own artistic ability and vision.

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