Historian considers dearth of great women artists

Eileen Costello, Ph.D., lectures at Scarsdale Woman’s Club March 27.

The title of the Scarsdale Woman’s Club program, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists,” is adopted from the landmark essay of the same name, written by art historian Linda Nochlin in 1971. Eileen Costello, Ph.D., explained the project’s origins before a crowd of about 55 people at the Woman’s Club March 27.

Nochlin was at Vassar College when gallery owner Richard Feigen asked her a dubious question, Costello said. “I would love to show women artists,” he said, “but I can’t find any good ones. Why are there no great women artists?”

In her hourlong presentation, Costello provided an overview of Nochlin’s essay considering the exclusion of women from the art historical canon.

Costello has a varied résumé in art history. She is the editor and project director of “Jasper Johns Catalogue Raisonné of Drawing,” which was published last year by Yale University Press. She has taught 19th- and 20th-century art at Hunter College and City College of New York, and lectured at The Modern Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Her expertise has been solicited for numerous exhibitions, catalogs, book reviews and journals.

“She’s a very busy lady,” Diane Meyer, the woman’s club art chair, said in her opening remarks, “and in spite of her busyness, I’m honored she has taken time out to come and talk to us today.”

Costello began by contextualizing what it means to be a “great artist,” a notion Nochlin argued was slanted toward a white, western, male perspective.

According to Nochlin’s findings, “It wasn’t lack of talent that had prevented women from partaking in the art world,” Costello said. “Instead, it was deeply rooted social, cultural, political and educational barriers that had made it virtually impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence or success on the same footing as men, no matter what the level of their talent or genius.”

Costello examined those barriers, peppering in anecdotes about women artists from the 19th and 20th centuries. Women were encouraged to stay within the boundaries of genre painting, Costello said, which consisted of still lifes and portraits depicting domestic life. They were denied access to social art gatherings, which allowed artists to network with patrons. Very few women had access to a formal artistic education, Costello noted, which included an understanding of mathematics, perspective, ancient art and anatomy, particularly the form of the male nude model.

While such study was considered critical training for rising artists in the 19th century, it was also highly inappropriate for women to attend or participate in such sessions. “It’s as if a medical student were denied the opportunity to dissect or even examine a naked human body,” Costello said.

Many participants were amused when Costello presented a photograph taken by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), which depicted a women’s modeling class in 1882. In it, the women are studying the anatomy of a cow in lieu of a human model. “Or perhaps a bull or an ox,” Costello said. “The nether regions are obscured in the photograph, so it’s hard to tell.”

After the presentation, several attendees cited the photograph as the standout moment from the talk.

“Fancy having to do that,” Ruby Woosnam said. “So we have come a long way.”

Costello also described women whose art transcended conventions, such as Margareta Haverman (b. 1693), whose oil painting “A Vase of Flowers” was challenged as “too good” to be believed from a woman artist, and Rosa Bonheur (b. 1822), whose mammoth piece “The Horse Fair” became the most popular painting of the century.

Joan Kehoe was enticed to attend the talk because she loves art and the Woman’s Club programming, she said. Angela LaMarca was struck by the event’s title. “I thought it was a fascinating question,” she said. LaMarca called the program “informative” and “fun,” though her takeaway was somber.

“What I found out today is that women had to struggle ... to be the artists they are,” she said, “and to get the recognition they so deserved.”

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