When you think of famous artists, you probably first think of famous men, such as Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh or Leonardo da Vinci. However, when you think of famous works of art, it is likely that some of the first pieces to come to mind are depictions of women, whether it be da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” or Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.”
It’s a wonder how we can become so well acquainted with women in works of art, but never with women behind works of art. While you’ve probably heard of Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe, have you ever heard of Mary Cassatt, Hannah Hoch, Cindy Sherman or Yayoi Kusama? Do you know Yoko Ono from her performance art, or do you only know of her because of her relationship with John Lennon?
Many of these women worked alongside the great male artists that we study today, and yet, they get little to no recognition for their contributions. Is it any wonder, though, that women don’t get credit when they are treated like mere objects for the artist’s experimentation?
The female form, especially in the nude, has been a model for various movements, treated with no more respect than objects in still life and landscape paintings. While at first glance, the work you see may seem just like any other work, with careful observation and context, they start to become somewhat sinister.
Edgar Degas has painted many a woman in a tub, and the longer you look at them, the more you start to feel as though you’re intruding on something. “After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself,” “Kneeling Woman,” “Woman in a Tub,” “The Tub,” “The Bath: Woman Sponging Her Back” and “After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Nape” – six tubs too many.
In my opinion, it is incredibly evident that these six paintings were all done from the perspective of a man. Not one of these features the woman facing the viewer. Each of them has their back turned and are preoccupied, unaware that someone is watching them.
The viewer is not invited into this space of naked vulnerability. It feels as though they have intruded into it but have carefully kept their intrusion a secret. There is an air of predation, like a lion watching a gazelle.
Now, in comparison to Berthe Morisot’s “Woman at Her Toilette,” the difference between the two is immediately evident. The difference between these two paintings lies not only in the fact that Morisot’s subject is clothed, but that each subject is depicted with different degrees of respect.
Morisot sits the viewer at an angle that is equal to her subject. It feels as though the subject is not only aware of our presence, and that she, herself, has invited us in. We do not tower over her or intrude on her, but instead sit and watch as she does her hair. We are put in the position of friend and confidant, not that of a predator.
What strikes me the most with Degas’s depictions of women in tubs is that they encapsulate something that almost every woman has been afraid of at one time or another. From cameras in public restrooms, to strangers taking photos up our skirts, this sneaky look at women that Degas depicts is a reality for women everywhere. That, to me, is what Degas captures in those paintings – not the nude female form, the fear of being caught in the nude.
Degas is not the first male artist to depict women in this way, and he certainly was not the last. There are so many different artists and works of art that I could use as examples, but there’s no way to fit them all here.
Besides, you do not want to get me started on the futurism movement, which lists “contempt for women” as one of their main motivators. I hope they’re rolling in their graves at this article.
All this is not to say that we should give up on art history all together. I didn’t take on this subject as my minor just to throw it all away. What I am trying to say is that we should take care in what we romanticize when it comes to art. Just a little bit of context and your whole view of an artist will come crashing down.
On top of that, it is incredibly important that we pull female artists into the conversation of art history. There are so many insanely talented female artists who have contributed and worked alongside their male counterparts in almost every movement, and I think it’s finally time we give them space to shine.