'Making a Masterpiece: Bouts and Beyond' Exhibition Essay by Yindi Chen

Yindi Chen is a third-year student at the University of York, studying for a BA (Hons) in Curating and Art History. This essay grew out of her involvement, as part of her second year, in the York Art Gallery exhibition Making a Masterpiece: Bouts and Beyond. The exhibition, which runs from 11 October 2019 - 26 January 2020, was curated by Dr Jeanne Nuechterlein (University of York), with Dr Beatrice Bertram and Jenny Alexander (York Art Gallery).

Read more about the exhibition, including an introduction by Dr Nuechterlein, and another essay, by student Adele Carraro.

The Response of Female Artists to Gendered Stereotypes

In the history of images, women have commonly been represented in certain roles, such as a nude model, an eroticised figure, or the Virgin Mary. As Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin demonstrated, female stereotypes were traditionally defined by dominant male perceptions, and female artists have often been tacitly oppressed in art history, positioned as acknowledged outsiders in artistic production.[1] While the intellect and professional identity of female artists have often been in dispute, they have nevertheless challenged gender paradigms perpetuated by patriarchal concepts, and identified themselves with self-awareness in modern and contemporary art.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Etruscan Vase Painters, Manchester City Galleries

Figure 1. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 'Etruscan Vase Painters', 1871. Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 27.3 cm. Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester. Reproduced under CC licence BY-NC-ND, ©Manchester City Galleries http://manchesterartgallery.org/collections/search/collection/?id=1980.233

The subject matter of the female artist has appeared in several Victorian paintings. In Etruscan Vase Painters (Figure 1), Lawrence Alma-Tadema depicts decorative artisans painting vases in the setting of an ancient workshop, where the principal figure is a female artisan who leans back to contemplate her work.[2] Since Tadema encouraged his talented wife and daughter to engage in artistic activities, his awareness of woman's creativity and intelligence might have prompted him to envisage a female working in a vase painters' studio.[3] In the second half of the nineteenth century, women were able to apprentice or practise in family workshops with their father or brother.[4] However, the development of artist-families' studios did not mean women were treated equally to men in professional identities. There was a persistent assumption that art was not a vocation for women.[5] It was claimed that knowledge and intellectual attainment were part of women's moral excellence and merely made them desirable.[6] Invariably confined by patriarchal conventions, some images of female artists ignored their proficiency or real accomplishments. In Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks (Figure 2), McNeill Whistler depicts a woman painting a vase in a porcelain-filled studio. Her relaxed posture seems to imply that her art making is an amateur interest, and she appears as much a decorative object as the things around her. This impression of amateurism reduces the plausibility of a creative female persona, so that the attitude of the male painter towards his model remains debatable. While the depiction of female artists became more frequent in Victorian paintings, it seems inconceivable that society would truly advocate for women to celebrate art as their chief career.

 James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Purple and Rose..., Philadelphia Museum of Art

Figure 2. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 'Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks', 1864. Oil on canvas, 93.3 × 61.3 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. Image courtesy of and © Philadelphia Museum of Art https://philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/101800.html

The implementation of gender conventions was also the established norm in education of the period. Art institutions in England proved resistant to gender equality, denying women equal access to art education.[7] Although since the 1860s several art collages such as Royal Academy and the Slade School of Fine Art had started to accept female students, in most of them women could only draw from plaster casts or clothed models, whereas live nude models were off-limits. Only the Slade allowed women to take life classes, though at different times to male artists.[8] This attitude is reflected in John Haynes-Williams' My Pupil (1870) in its portrayal of the painter's female student painting from a marble bust, while he himself studies the unknown woman. The paradoxical practice that a woman could reveal herself naked as an object in front of men, but female students were forbidden to participate in the active study of recording any nude models, has been questioned.[9] This gender inequality reflected institutionally maintained discrimination against women and assured compliance with the principle of male privilege in art education.

While women were under the scrutiny of dominant male society and academia at that time, Laura Knight's Self Portrait with Model (1913) reversed the designated characteristics of both female artist and female nude. By representing herself in the process of painting a naked model – another artist, Ella Naper – Knight broke with academic tradition, testifying to her professional status as a female artist and subverting the conventions whereby men monopolised the depiction of female nudes.[10] Knight paints herself and Naper standing from the back as seen by someone entering the studio behind them. Such studio scenes featuring nude alongside clothed figures could be found in canonical modernist paintings such as Gustave Courbet's The Painter's Studio (1855). The female nude appeared as a classical object of male-dominated desire and a source of voyeuristic pleasure.[11] The usual erotic clues were eliminated in Knight’s Self Portrait with Model, and the male gaze was replaced by the trust between the artist and the model. It is evident that Knight's innovative practice reverses the sovereignty of men over the viewing right of women's bodies and denies the perception that woman is "a mere appendage" to men in the normative art establishment.[12] In Self Portrait with Model, the female model and the artist are transformed from objects subjugated and enslaved by the male creator into an independent actor and a self-aware creator.[13] Knight liberates women from the way they have been judged in society and education, as the painting demonstrates the theme of female emancipation.[14]

Responding to the gendered representation of women, performance artists attacked female stereotypes as well. Carolee Schneemann's Interior Scroll (1975) reveals the attitude inflicted on women by the painting tradition, in which female models are observed as objects of desire and possession through the male gaze. Inscribed as an eroticised body, the stereotypical model poses for the private enjoyment of the presumed male viewer to enjoy; or, reduced to physicality, the female body becomes an anatomical object for pedagogical use. In Schneemann’s performance, while standing naked in front of mostly-female audiences, she adopted life model action poses while applying dark paint on her face and body. After reading from her book on Cézanne, Schneemann pulled a scroll of paper from her vagina and read from the text of the paper, which recounted a conversation contrasting women's bodily processes with traditional male notions of rationality.[15] Schneemann’s performance could be seen as “acting out the patriarchal fiction of the female gender” and ironizing the “relationship between the female body and the cultural attributes of the female gender.”[16]

Whereas Schneemann illuminates the masculine subjectivity imposed on women in art history, Ulrike Rosenbach directly refuses to conform to women's cultural images in her Glauben Sie nicht, daß ich eine Amazone bin (Don’t Believe I'm an Amazon) (1975). In this video, the artist poses as a female warrior, shooting arrows at a representation of a late-medieval painting, the Madonna of the Rose Bower by Stephan Lochner. Two cameras separately recorded the Madonna and Rosenbach's faces, which are superimposed on each other, thus juxtaposing "two anachronistic clichés of women".[17] Rosenbach not only attacks the oppression of women imbedded in patriarchal Christianity, but also reveals the violent "Amazon" as a male construction designed to distinguish women as men's natural opposite. The classical mythological figure of the Amazon served to “conflate female gender with the image of the outsider and with characteristics typical of the male”.[18] This combination of gender identities questions paradigms and the position which women have been allocated by masculine society. By juxtaposing the cultural stereotype with her self-image, the video monitor plays the role of a mirror. While the mirror motif could be interpreted as a tool for the feminist revolt against submission and oppression, critics have suggested that it is imbued with the construction of narcissism.[19] However, in Rosenbach's performance, the self-reflection represents more than narcissism, but feminine appearance in association with the consciousness of her artist identity. By striking arrows into both figures, Rosenbach attempts to criticise both the iconographic female stereotype and herself. It indicates her independence and self-awareness: the female artist not only questions the way men view her, but the way she views herself.

Valie Export argues that "the oppression of women is reflected in male ideals of women. The history of images can therefore be connected with the history of women".[20] By reconstructing the normative disciplines of traditional images, female artists disrupt the relationship of women to the dominant system of representation. Knight merges the roles of artist and model to attack the social and academic hierarchy of gender, and Rosenbach embodies self-reflection and self-critique to show her dissatisfaction with the stereotype of womanhood. Beyond the level of self-portrayal, these feminist works develop an autonomous feminine identity, refusing and changing roles created by patriarchal culture.


  • Case, Sue-Ellen. Feminism and Theatre. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  • Cherry, Deborah. Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists. London: Routledge 1993.
  • Export, Valie. "Aspects of Feminist Actionism", New German Critique, no. 47 (1989): 69-92.
  • Forte, Jeanie. "Women's Performance Art: Feminism and Postmodernism", Theatre Journal 40, no. 2 (1988): 217-235.
  • Liversidge, Michael and Catharine Edwards ed. Imaging Rome: British Artists & Rome in the Nineteenth Century. London: Merrell Holberton, 1996
  • Mill, Harriet Hardy Taylor, and John Stuart Mill. Enfranchisement of Women. London: Virago, 1983.
  • Morden, Barbara C. Laura Knight: A Life. Pembroke: McNidder & Grace, 2013.
  • Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” In Women, Art, and Power: and Other Essays, Linda Nochlin, 145-178. London: Thames & Hudson,1989.
  • Pollock, Griselda. Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art's Histories. London: Routledge, 2006.
  • Schama, Simon. The Face of Britain: The Nation Through Its Portraits. London: Viking, 2016.
  • Wahl, Chris. "Between Art History and Media History: A Brief Introduction to Media Art." In Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art, edited by Julia Noordegraaf, Cosetta G. Saba, Barbara Le Maâtre and Vinzenz Hediger, 25-58. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013.

[1] Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists”, in Women, Art, and Power: And Other Essays, Linda Nochlin (London: Thames & Hudson, 1989), 145-178; Griselda Pollock, Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art's Histories (London: Routledge, 2006).

[2] Michael Liversidge and Catharine Edwards, eds, Imaging Rome: British Artists & Rome in the Nineteenth Century (London: Merrell Holberton, 1996), 138.

[3] Simon Schama, The Face of Britain: The Nation Through Its Portraits (London: Viking, 2016), 399.

[4] Deborah Cherry, Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists (London: Routledge, 1993), 21.

[5] Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists", 160.

[6] Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists", 161.

[7] Cherry, Painting Women, 53.

[8] Schama, The Face of Britain, 399-400.

[9] Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists," 158.

[10] Schama, The Face of Britain, 415; Barbara C. Morden, Laura Knight: A Life (Pembroke: McNidder & Grace, 2013), 108-9.

[11] Jeanie Forte, "Women's Performance Art: Feminism and Postmodernism", Theatre Journal 40, no. 2 (1988): 228.

[12] Harriet Hardy Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill, Enfranchisement of Women (London: Virago, 1983), 23-24.

[13] Valie Export, "Aspects of Feminist Actionism", New German Critique, no. 47 (1989): 71.

[14] Schama, The Face of Britain, 417.

[15] Forte, "Women's Performance Art", 221-223.

[16] Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 57-58.

[17] Chris Wahl, "Between Art History and Media History: A Brief Introduction to Media Art", in Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art, ed. Julia Noordegraaf, Cosetta G. Saba, Barbara Le Maître and Winzenz Hediger (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013), 33.

[18] Case, Feminism and Theatre, 9.

[19] Export, "Aspects of Feminist Actionism", 85-86.

[20] Export, "Aspects of Feminist Actionism", 87.

Published October 2019

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