Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists' by Nochlin Linda: Summary

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In the reading ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ written by Linda Nochlin, the author attempts to explain how the social and cultural biased system has obstructed women from partaking in and succeeding in the art field. She also reflects on the implications of the ‘perennial question’, shown in the main title of this essay, by laying down the historical groundwork for public understanding of male privilege and obscured feminine discrimination. Through her essay, Nochlin challenges future generations of artists and viewers to reevaluate not only the position of female artists on the field but also the viewer’s role.

Nochlin asserted that the discrimination against women in art had its consequences in achieving proficiency and, therefore, greatness. The social and cultural biased system made this possible by labeling women as unequal individuals and normalizing the social norm that women’s sole commitment is to the family. In other words, women were expected to drop their careers and commit themselves to love and marriage. Meanwhile, men were free to pursue their career endeavors. And during Nochlin’s timeline, most men weren’t yet ready to give up those privileges. According to the author, those who have privileges will inevitably hold on tight to the advantages they ensue, no matter how marginal they are. Hence, most men are reluctant to give up the ‘natural’ order of things in which their advantages are greater than women.

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This reality, found in the 20th century, took a worse turn in the 19th-18th century. In the 18th century, women weren’t even allowed to have a formal artistic education. Nochlin pointed this out by using an example. During a brief survey of life drawing sessions held in Rembrandt’s studio, it was revealed that the clientele were all-male artists (drawing from a female nude in the 18th century). This was not because women didn’t have the talent nor potential to draw just as well as their male counterparts, but because the social environment didn’t regard women as equal or as socially adequate to take the role of an artist and join an academy. There was no other role for women but a domestic role. Therefore, they also weren’t considered for artist fellowships, awards, or any form of encouragement. Another example of this reality is a photograph taken by Thomas Eakins around 1885, which reveals a female artist holding a life drawing session around a cow, which was the closest nude model that women could practice from without being banned from it.

In the 19th century, life drawing sessions for women were still an issue. Women artists could access live drawing sessions but with a clothed male as a model. The unavailability of a male model in the nude deprived women of the ultimate stage of artistic training. Therefore, according to Nochlin, this directly deprived of the possibility of creating major artworks. In the absence of a human figure to practice from, women restricted themselves to the minor fields of portraiture, genre, landscape, or still life. In this particular social and cultural environment rose the female artist Rosa Bonheur. She is a prominent artist of the 19th century and her work gained notoriety during a time when ‘animal painting’ became a popular field. Moreover, a major change in the social and institutional support for art itself was underway: the rise of the bourgeoisie and the fall of the cultivated aristocracy. This shift caused smaller paintings of everyday objects to become of great interest and high demand. Meanwhile, mythological or religious scenes with human subjects receded from public interest. Consequently, Rosa Bonheur’s naturalism and innate ability to capture an animal subject coincided with the bourgeois taste at the time. She also exhibited an independent and liberty spirit uncharacteristic of a ‘woman’, which immediately earned her the label of ‘tomboy’. At that time, any show of persistence, stubbornness, and vigor would be counted as masculine. This is a very interesting point to dwell on because, from a modern feminist viewpoint, Bonheur was also unapologetically combining her masculine protest with her self-contradictory assertions of ‘basic’ femininity. Meaning that she could dress in perfectly conventional feminine fashion but she had adopted men’s clothes as a comfortable working attire to produce art. In her own words, it was to facilitate work. Her work stands as an impressive achievement to anyone interested in the art of the 19th century. In the 20th century though, this changed considerably. It recognized the importance of model session study in the pedagogy and development of a talented woman beginner.

In the past, to the authors’ knowledge, there is no evidence of artists drawing from the nude model which includes women in any other role but that of the nude model itself. If for women there was no other role in art but to be nude models for male artists, it raises the question regarding the role of the woman viewer. The author opens this discourse by analyzing the female form in art. From a feminine viewer’s standpoint, it is conflicting which role to take when observing an artwork with nude feminine representation. Nochlin hesitated whether to assume the role of the male viewer or the female subject. To Nochlin, taking the role of the male viewer or the female subject doesn’t really feel applicable to the author. The author rejects both views and leaves this discourse open to challenge the public and calls for reflection on the women viewers’ role. She also points out how often they are left in a sort of limbo, oscillating between being the subject and the male viewer, never being the original male viewer from which the work was intended.

To sum up, we have to circle back to the main perennial question: why have there been no great women artists? (or physicists, mathematicians, composers, philosophers, or so few in any field). Thus, the so-called woman question, which is also regarded as the ‘woman problem’, shouldn’t insidiously supply its own answer “that there has been no women artist because women are incapable of greatness”. This would be an unfair answer since the author has incessantly outlined the historical implications of the social and cultural disadvantages of a woman. In this context, women were inherently deprived of encouragement, educational facilities, and rewards, therefore, it is almost incredible that certain women like Rosa Bonheur persevered and sought a profession in the arts. It is worth mentioning though that what most female artists had in common was an artist male relative who gave their daughters the needed encouragement to practice and ponder the possibility to pursue an art career. Nochlin’s discourse opened a door in her time not only to the reinforcement to escape the ‘natural’ woman’s role but to the expansion of the art field in terms of gender equality, in unmeasurable ways. It could be said that it was a group effort from certain strong-willed rebellious women who most probably were insidiously labeled as ‘masculine’ and were frowned upon because of social conventions, to try and steer away from the traditional view. This label has gradually shifted and diluted over time, and the same goes for the public’s understanding of male privilege and feminine discrimination in the art field, which was the author’s most pending concern. Accordingly, the perennial question raised by the author becomes a catalyst of continuous questioning over the ‘natural’ assumption of the woman’s role. Favorably this notion has shifted slowly in the last decade with more supporting and less apprehensive male peers of women’s potential. Thus, if provided with equal grounds socially and culturally, both genders, male and female, can competently and equally succeed. Hence, this catalyst not only provides a link to an awareness of equality in art but to other fields as well.

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Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists’ by Nochlin Linda: Summary. (2024, March 19). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/why-have-there-been-no-great-female-artists-by-nochlin-linda-summary/
“Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists’ by Nochlin Linda: Summary.” Edubirdie, 19 Mar. 2024, edubirdie.com/examples/why-have-there-been-no-great-female-artists-by-nochlin-linda-summary/
Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists’ by Nochlin Linda: Summary. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/why-have-there-been-no-great-female-artists-by-nochlin-linda-summary/> [Accessed 23 Jun. 2024].
Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists’ by Nochlin Linda: Summary [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2024 Mar 19 [cited 2024 Jun 23]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/why-have-there-been-no-great-female-artists-by-nochlin-linda-summary/
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