I posed the question to a friend over the phone, eager to hear his response. Here at The Phillips, we’ve had a lot of fun celebrating Women’s History Month. The National Museum of Women in the Arts surfaced #5WomenArtists last year, and people everywhere followed suit. This trend is meant to introduce the same question I asked my friend to lovers of art: Can you, even the most enthusiastic museum-goer, name five women artists? My friend certainly struggled to answer the question. Some of his answers required hints from me, others were names of works which he could recall, but not artists. He eventually got to five and even named a sixth, then insisting that he likely could not name five male artists either. I heard a pause over the phone. “Actually, I probably could.”
The National Endowment for the Arts reports that 51% of visual artists working today are women. But according to The Guardian, a mere 3 to 5% of artworks in permanent collections of major American museums are by female artists. Understanding the statistic requires an understanding of the culture which has always surrounded it. In part, we must look at how male artists interacted with their female counterparts throughout history. Recently at the Phillips, we have had much to celebrate with the opening of Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle Époque. Toulouse-Lautrec’s fame resided largely in his depictions of French starlets like Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert. The subjects of his works were primarily women, and for a period of time Lautrec resided in a French brothel. A product of his time there was his album Elles; visual interpretations of the daily lives of prostitutes. The prints, four of which are presently on view at the Phillips, barely depict the presence of male figures, instead focusing non-judgmentally on the quiet, private moments of these women’s lives. A publisher of erotic magazines and prints, Gustave Pellet, published Elles in the spring of 1896, placing the sale price higher than any of Toulouse-Lautrec’s previous work. To male buyers, however, the publication was an unsexy flop, as one critic wrote, “The meaning of the work is still unclear to us; the desired effect cannot be seen. He portrayed vice, but not because he was attracted to it, since he avoided the obscene details.”
The point here is clear; even work by an accomplished male artist attempting to humanize women was once seen as utterly undesirable. Along with museums all over the world, The Phillips Collection will challenge visitors this month to name five women artists, to learn about their accomplishments, and to celebrate their work! The topic of female celebrity, power, and the public gaze in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work was the focal point of a recent Open Conversation we held in the galleries, led by Cristen Conger. Watch the video and let us know your thoughts!
Elizabeth Federici, Marketing & Communications Intern