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Few women paint in oils - why?

May 12, 2014

I'm a woman who paints in oils and here's a question I've pondered, over the decades of my career: why do so relatively few women choose this medium? Now, I may have the answer...

In the chronicles of Art, the female practitioner appears only in the last few hundred years. Much can be made of this oversight. Words enough to bury rational debate exist already and I'm not about to add to it.

The definitive book on the subject of women artists is, in my opinion, Germaine Greer's engrossing and readable 'The Obstacle Race,' first published in 1979. The book reveals a long, inspiring history of women making pictures. They include the hobbyist along with the outstanding genius of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653.)

As Professor Greer's extensive research shows, many of the women whose paintings withstand critical scrutiny were aristocrats, opting for the convent to escape unwanted marriages. The cloister freed them to develop their talents in music, literature or visual arts. Architecture and sculpture, in marble or bronze, remained out of reach because such physical pursuits needed a presence in public, precluding women of those times.

  • For a modern case in point, consider Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921.) While working at the Harvard College Observatory, her observations of photographic plates comparing the brightness of stars led to a method of measuring the distance between the Earth and faraway galaxies. This allows accurate assessment of the size of the Universe. Two years after she died, her discovery was pivotal in Edwin Hubble's development of his famous telescope.

Here's the link between an American astronomer of the 19th century and the Italian painter of the 16th century.

  • Henrietta's sex banned her from using the telescopes or even entering the building where the male astronomers worked.
  • As a girl, Artemisia suffered a misfortune ruinous to a woman's prospects in the Italian society of her time.

However, Artemisia's strength of character turned tragedy into an opportunity for freedom beyond the hopes of her peer group. As a self-employed professional artist, she travelled to the courts of European kings who commissioned portraits and epic 'history' paintings. Her talents earned an income sufficient to support herself and the daughter who resulted from a brief marriage.
Speculation but little evidence exists to tell us about the great artist's talent as a mother or as a housekeeper. Today, she might be expected to conform to the 'Wonder Woman' stereotype of a working mother who 'does it all.'

  • And that brings me to the nub of my reasoning about why women painters often choose pastels and watercolours, acrylics and oil crayons, over oil paints. Often quoted obstacles of social custom, lack of time due to child-rearing, even the obvious expense involved, seem insufficient in the Western world of today. 

 I think it may be simpler than all that.

  • When women marry and have children, most of us at least try to become good housewives. No good housewife likes mess. Painting in oils is messy, smelly and takes time to set up and clean up after each session. I have to admit, I never was a really good housekeeper and I revel in the smell of distilled turpentine and linseed oil as I enter my studio each day. What do you think?©Dorothy Gauvin

 Dorothy Gauvin gives tips for artists, beginners and art collectors from her 35 years as painter and retired  gallery owner-director. Check out her advice on Oz-Writer at http://www.artofgauvin.com/blog

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