Viewing the world through a paintbrush
May 6, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
This ongoing period of isolation has made me appreciate the little things in life. Things like a cool breeze in the morning, the sound of a bird happily announcing the start of a new day, or the way the sun affects a tree’s color. Perhaps when your world gets smaller, you notice what’s in your world with greater clarity. I’m discovering a newfound appreciation for nature and it’s inspiring my painting. Doing something tactile feels even more liberating during this strange time. As I was working on a canvas this morning I was thinking of the women who painted before me. I really enjoyed getting to know Alice Cleaver, but what other brushstrokes paved the way for my artistic freedoms? Who else found comfort viewing the world through a paintbrush? Join me as we learn more about amazing female landscape painters and tell us about your favorite artists in the comments below…
I take for granted that as a modern woman I can come and go as I please. If I want to go for a hike in my quest for natural inspiration, I can set out and do it. (Of course, these days, that hike includes social distancing.) But at the turn of the 19th century, if wanderlust struck, the female traveler had to jump through extra hoops. This was not an era of simply walking out one’s doors with an easel and a smile. The Victorian female artist needed to fit her itinerary into the mold of social protocol. (And this is saying nothing of the fashion requirements – the layers and footwear alone served as a deterrent to leaving the beaten path!)
But for some women, especially women born into creatively-minded families, their dreams were not so easily dashed. As we’ve learned in previous features, artistic endeavors were a key part of a proper lady’s education. But stoic academies were reluctant to admit female students and women who dared to step outside of the “hobbyist” realm were greeted with rejection. (In one particularly telling example, the early work of the talented artist Elizabeth Gilbert Jerome was burned. I couldn’t even imagine – that’s such a traumatizing experience – but Elizabeth continued to create. Talk about strength!) We’ve read before about the mistreatment of female authors during this time, but it appears that any act of creation was seen as tantamount to treachery. Yet there were early champions and advocates of female painters. Some 19th century male artists recognizing talent when they saw it, mentored female protégés and helped them gain exposure and patronage through exhibits. I suspect if you could travel back in time to be a fly on the wall of these shows, the viewers never suspected that the artists were of the fairer sex. The public expected female-created landscapes to focus on flowers, but many of these artists painted complex, sweeping vistas on a scale akin to their male counterparts.
What stands out to me, when I first view a piece by one of these ladies is their mastery of the canvas. Their work envelopes you, carrying you away to that particular piece of land, to that specific panorama. It’s quite magical (and I think it’s incredibly special) that their artistic choices communicate across generations. Their perspective and point of view is just as fresh as if the paint were still wet. Without question, viewing art is an intimate and individual experience. To one person the placement of sun and shadow speaks to them or to another, the choice of color sparks a new thought. These Victorian ladies had a message to share with the world, with us, and it’s really wonderful that they created despite societal barriers. I would love to delve into the stories of these pioneering ladies, presenting detailed biographies alongside an example of their work, but alas their existence has largely slipped through the cracks of time. If you try to Google search some of these artist’s names, only a blurb will greet you. In fact, one of the more robust Wikipedia pages even states that not much is known about Sarah Cole’s personal history and collection of work. The author admits that her life and achievements remain shrouded in mystery, but I like to think that she is revealing her story through such pieces as Mt. Aetna (seen at the top of this article).
I’m happy to report that Sarah and her peers are experiencing a revival of sorts in this new century, but it has me thinking about the meaning of art. In the absence of a personal presence, in the lack of a live interaction, art steps into the void. Paintings can say as much about the subject as it says about the artist. Knowing that these women fought to document their view of the world already says a lot and I’m excited to see what museum curators unearth over time about this often overlooked group of artists. Dear reader, if you’re a creator of art, what do your compositions say about you? If you’re using the current solitude to create, are themes emerging that reflect this particular moment in time? For the Victorian female artist, I think the message was one of hope, bounty, and grandeur. I, for one, will strive to channel that as I get ready to paint my next canvas…