The LA Book Club: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists by Linda Nochlin - Arts & Culture

Published in 1971 in ArtNews, Linda Nochlin’s Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists was a searing critique on the institutional obstacles that stood in the way of women artists.

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Linda Nochlin’s seminal essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists was published in 1971. It changed the way critics wrote about art, forever. In it, she dismantles the question and instead asks why do we talk about art the way we do?

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It just so happened that the so-called wunderkinder in art (Giotto, Picasso, et all) were all male. Soon the assumption was that all geniuses must be male (by, surprise, surprise, white males of the art intelligentsia). The reality is that to succeed in art, there must be an even playing field, one not granted to women until much later, well after the era of grand history paintings, that specific period in time where “greatness” was conferred.

If there had been an even playing field, women would have had the same chances of institutional and educational support that men had. For example, drawing from a nude. “It was argued by defenders of traditional painting in the 19th century that there could be no great painting with clothed figures, since costume inevitably destroyed both the temporal universality and the classical idealization required by great art,” wrote Nochlin.

Therefore, it stands to reason that to learn figure painting, an aspirant had to learn by drawing from a nude body in the great art academies in France and Italy. However, women were rarely allowed access to these hallowed halls, and if they were, they would never have been allowed to draw from a nude.

“To be deprived of this ultimate state of training meant, in effect, to be deprived of the possibility of creating major art works, unless one were a very ingenious lady indeed, or imply, as most of the women aspiring to be painters ultimately did to restrict oneself to the “minor” fields of portraiture, genre, landscape or still-life,” wrote Nochlin. “It is rather as though a medical student were denied the opportunity to dissect or even examine the naked human body.”

The height of absurdity was, of course, that a woman (albeit one from a “lower” class) was allowed to be naked in a room full of male artists for their artistic instruction, but that a woman artist was not allowed to partake in the same instruction with a naked man, or even a woman.

The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771-72) by Johann Zoffany

Amusingly, Johann Zoffany depicts this conundrum in his The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771-72), which presents the members of the Royal Academy of London in 1772 before two nude male models. Two of the members were female: Angelica Kauffman and Mary Morser but due to propriety’s sake could not even be included in the painting: rather, Zoffany makes their presence known as two portraits on the wall, like a pair of stern schoolmarms, staring down at their naughty students.

Even more hysterical was the Woman’s Modeling Class at the Pennsylvania Academy, where a picture by Thomas Eakins in 1885 shows women students learning to draw from a live nude body of a cow. Not a human nude, but a cow.

Other stepping stones to be considered a great artist were equally denied to women students: the apprenticeship system, which culminated in a competition by the Prix de Rome to study at the French Academy, was withheld to women, until the end of the 19th century. But by then, the importance of this system had died off. Women, not of their fault had missed the window.

The “Lady Painter”

In Little Women, Amy, the fourth sister, and Jo’s (and therefore, every reader’s) bête noire, moves to France for her art. Her need for knowledge has grown beyond what is available in Concord, Massachusetts, where the book is set. 

Florence Pugh as Amy March in Little Women (2019)

Here is Louisa May Alcott describing Amy’s early artistic endeavors: 

“If ‘genius is eternal patience’, as Michelangelo affirms, Amy had some claim to the divine attribute, for she persevered in spite of all obstacles, failures, and discouragements, firmly believing that in time she should do something worthy to be called ‘high art’.

She was learning, doing, and enjoying other things, meanwhile, for she had resolved to be an attractive and accomplished woman, even if she never became a great artist.”

In other words, Amy never masters art because while gifted with talent, she has not the drive nor the grift to succeed (that drive and grift solely being attributed to Jo). There are reasons for this slyness on Alcott’s part: Amy is modeled on Abigail May Alcott Nieriker, Alcott’s least liked sister, and because Jo is meant to be Alcott’s self-insert, some of that sisterly animosity, no matter how slight, bleeds through the page.

But there is a touch of reality to what Alcott says. Beyond talent, how could a woman artist truly master art if the doors to success were slammed at her face? Nochlin said as much. Achievement in art, and therefore putting in the work for it, was not expected to be the be-all and end-all of the “lady painter.”

A woman like Amy was expected to marry well (exceptionally, in her case, to be able to support her family), and then pay attention to her family. Art would have been the sidepiece. Women in that period were warned, wrote Nochlin, of the dangers of trying too hard to excel in any one thing.

Art was merely a thing for women to “dabble” in, added to their long laundry list of talents like singing, playing the pianoforte, embroidery, etc., facilities used perhaps to ensnare a man while sitting in an arranged meeting in a drawing-room while parents and chaperones looked on nervously (the 19th-century version of a “meet-cute”).  

“It is this emphasis which transforms serious commitment to frivolous self-indulgence, busy work or occupational therapy, and today, more than ever, in suburban bastions of the feminine mystique, which tends to distort the whole notion of what art is and what kind of social role it plays,” wrote Nochlin.

So the life of a starving, suffering artist was never in line for Amy (it was, for Jo, because as Nochlin says, it was a little easier for a woman novelist to succeed because the difference in education between a man and woman writer were not so drastic).

An Economic Proposition

Greta Gerwig’s 2019 Little Women adaptation goes into this more than the previous movies did: Amy (Florence Pugh) is the last hope of her family to marry well, a fact drummed into her by Aunt March (Meryl Streep).

At this point of the movie, the Marches are well into years of genteel poverty and the head of the household is off fighting in the Civil War. None of the other sisters have much in the way of prospects: Meg has fallen in love with a penniless tutor, Jo is an uncontrolled spirit, and well, I don’t want to spoil what happens to Beth.

It falls to Amy to save everyone. This knowledge, and her suspicion that perhaps she may not be a virtuoso, is what causes her to want to give up on her artistic efforts. “Talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy will make it so. I want to be great or nothing,” she tells Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). “I won’t be a common-place dauber, so I don’t intend to try anymore.” 

They then discuss who declares genius: “Well, men, I suppose,” says Amy, underscoring Nochlin’s point of the “white-male-position-accepted-as-natural.”

The conversation then shifts toward Amy’s marriage prospects. “I’ve always known I would marry rich,” she says. “Why should I be ashamed of that?” Fred Vaughn, her suitor is rich rich and would offer her and her family a safety net, far bigger than even Laurie could. 

In the part of the scene that played on the big screen at the Dolby Theater during the Oscars in 2020 when Pugh was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Amy is upfront: there is no dreaming of love for her.

“I’m just a woman. And as a woman, I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family. Even if I had my own money, which I don’t, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married,” she says. “If we had children they would belong to him not me. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you but it most certainly is for me.”

Little wonder then that Amy has realized the truth. This truth would’ve been known to real, non-fictional girls in the 19th century (and today), Nochlin said. “In literature, as in life, even if the woman’s commitment to art was a serious one, she was expected to give up this commitment at the behest of love and marriage.”

Nochlin did not deny that the struggle and sacrifice for achievement in the arts is something that both men and women artists have to contend with. She named Delacroix, Courbet, Degas, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec as among those who gave up the contentment of family life so that they could pursue their artistic calling. 

But none of them, she wrote, were denied the pleasures of sex and companionship by making that choice. They never had to feel guilty about the decision to forgo expectations for professional fulfillment. “But if the artist in question happens to be a woman, 1,000 years of guilt, self-doubt and objecthood have been added to the undeniable difficulties of being an artist in the modern world,” wrote Nochlin.

The Circumstance of Production

In college, I read Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists for a class on art and gender. Like all pieces of academic non-fiction read in school, it percolated in my brain for a few days. Eventually, I wrote the requisite reaction paper and participated in-class discussion. And then it slowly seeped away.

Re-reading it now, I am struck by its timeliness and its universality. The things Nochlin wrote remain true today. Barriers for women in art still exist, no matter how many of them can make a living out of the profession.

Holocaust Memorial by Rachel Whiteread. The artist is mentioned in “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Thirty Years After.

In 2006, Nochlin wrote an update to the essay entitled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Thirty Years After. While naming the achievements of resulting women artists, she discussed the role of feminist art history. She mentioned that those in the practice are often accused of “reducing art to the circumstances of its production – in other words undermining the ideological and, above all, esthetic biases of the discipline.”

This, Nochlin said, is a good thing. Art history should move forward from discussions of quality, the canon, and the visual offering. Who declared that the esthetic biases of art have to be what they are (this is a redundant question, of course, we know)? Why must we stick to these norms?

More feathers need to be ruffled, wrote Nochlin. “At its strongest, a feminist art history is a transgressive and anti-establishment practice meant to call many of the major precepts of the discipline into question.”

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