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