A theme that continues to pop up in our discussions since reading Woolf has been the material means needed to become an artist. Before artists can even reach the obstacles of disseminating their works, being recognized, and being appreciated as more than just a woman artist, they must first have the means to master their craft. If we look at the six artists featured in The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, we can see how economic or societal advantages allowed them to pursue careers in art. Rosa Bonheur’s father had an art school, which gave her the opportunity to learn and make connections. Julia Margaret Cameron was in a financial position where she could afford a camera and maids to help her in a dark room. She could afford to spend all her time taking photos, and she had the social connections to take portraits of famous men, like Charles Darwin. Mary Cassatt was also upper class, which enabled her not only to make art, but also to collect art. Camille Claudel was financially supported by her lover, Auguste Rodin.
Of course the flip side to these stories is how the financial support was often out of the women’s hands. For example, once Claudel broke off her relationship with Rodin, her popularity as an artist fell into decline. Then, once her father died, her brother forced her into an insane asylum. Not only was her art dependent on the financial security of a sexual relationship, but her freedom was dependent on the support of her kin. Similarly, when Julia Margaret Cameron’s husband was made governor, she essentially abandons her art to serve as a wife, first and foremost.
The stories that do not fit with this trend are those of Harriet Powers and Edmonia Lewis – which are interestingly enough the two Black artists featured in the article. Edmonia Lewis’s brother had the means to send her to Oberlin, but the experience did not benefit her artistic career. Harriet Powers was discovered by a white art teacher (who, in a way, used her financial and social means to support Powers’ art), but was not in a position to consider art as a viable career choice anyway.
It’s interesting to think about the Guerilla Girls’ approach to highlighting these women in history. I personally have never taken an art history class so I am not sure how much their article differs from or subverts the usual textbook layouts, but they focus much more on the artists’ lives than on their works. Instead of just writing specifically on their artistic contributions and notable styles, or who influenced them and who they in turn influenced, the articles provide short biographies on each woman. In this way, the Guerilla Girls are emphasizing the struggle each faced and the role of social and financial power in each one’s relative success.