Why writing has been kind to women … while art has been a bitch

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

I know it’s a Sunday. It’s a day of rest for most of you. You’ve had a long working week, you spent yesterday catching up on chores and now all you want to do is chill and laugh at cat videos.

But, I’m going to be very mean to you. We’re going to have a little quiz – so do some star jumps, down your espresso in one and get those neurons firing. And no copying the answers, because I’ll know. Ready? Here we go.

First job: Make a list of all the female authors you can think of. Done that?

Right. Now, name all the female artists you can think of. You can have painters, sculptors, graphic artists, ceramicists – any discipline. Come on, you can do it. List complete? Great.

Now, put your two lists side by side.

I wouldn’t mind betting that (unless you’re an art historian or an expert in gender studies) the number of writers you can name outweighs the number of artists by quite a margin.

Now, do the same exercise but with men.

Even if you struggled (and bearing in mind that if you’re here, you’re probably of the bookish bent) I’m guessing the numbers of artists compared to writers was more equal for men than for women.

Well done. You’ve all worked very hard. Take a gold star and sit back and relax.

The truth is, there just haven’t been many famous female artists compared to writers. You may wonder why this is. Why has writing been traditionally more kind to women than art has? I have some ideas on the subject.

Now, when I say ‘artist’, I mean a professional artist, someone who earns money from their endeavours. There have been many female amateur artists over the centuries – sketching and water colours being acceptable accomplishments for the refined young lady (along with the pianoforte, being able to sing tolerably well and sew a neat seam – you can’t say those girls didn’t know how to have fun.)

A gal might be able to turn out a landscape a la Mr Constable (if she was allowed out, because God forbid she ruin her death-like complexion by getting all tanned and freckly) but to be a professional artist takes time, takes tuition – takes getting an eyeful of a lot of naked men.

You see, this was a young lady’s problem.

Traditionally, an artists’ training begins and ends with the human body, especially at a time when ‘history painting’ (large scenes with multiple characters, usually depicting Biblical or Mythical tales) was the highest form of artistic expression. There are a lot of naked or semi-naked figures in these paintings and all of them taken from life.

And who is going to let their daughter sit in a room with naked men all day? Surely the seeing in itself would drill into the brain and stir depravity in the poor, weak creature’s breast and Lord knows, we all know how easily led women are. Before you know it they’ll be wanting to leave the house unaccompanied and demanding the vote.

Apart from the nakedness, the life of an artist was generally pretty depraved, violent, alcoholic (Caravaggio managing to cover all these bases on his own), and later Bohemian, and absinthe and opium-filled. And to be successful, a woman would have to dirty her hands fiscally, approaching clients, being involved in the art market. Not the life of a lady.

Now writing, well, that’s a different kettle of haddock altogether.

Female education – where it existed at all – at least enabled girls to read and write. One thing most young ladies did a lot was write letters, so they were used to handling words. And they read (only good, clean books, of course – nothing mucky or full of too many complicated ideas that might twist their brains into flesh Slinkys).

Writing is a solitary process – as many of you can testify. You can do it by yourself, alone in a room. You don’t need fancy academies to teach you – you just need imagination, practice and to learn from other writers.

But, you say, the young lady still needs to contact a publisher if she wishes to earn some filthy lucre from her endeavours. Yes, she does. But she doesn’t actually have to meet him – she can write to him. And most importantly in the days when even writing to stranger might be considered disreputable, you can do this under an assumed name.

The Bronte sisters famously wrote under male pen names at the start of their careers (unsurprising as their books are stuffed with madness, ghosts, destructively obsessive love and enough suppressed sexual energy to power a season at Blackpool illuminations) as did many other women. And even the bold Jane Austen only signed her books as ‘A Lady’ rather than using her actual name.

And, I think you’ll agree (especially as they were probably on your list), these women were rather good at stringing a few sentences together.

So let’s hear it for writing, for its secret, solitary nature – without it, women would have spent centuries in the creative wilderness.

Do you think I’m right about women in art? Do you disagree? Throw your five penn’uth in, do.

If they weren’t on your list, do check out the work of some women who were successful in the male orientated art world: Sofonisba Anguissola (official court painter to Philip II of Spain), Artemisia Gentileschi (whose Judith slaying Holofernes is one of the most vibrant, gory depictions of the story in art) and Louise Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun (who fled revolutionary France after being portraitist to Marie Antoinette).

Their work rivals that of any contemporaries, whatever their gender.


5 thoughts on “Why writing has been kind to women … while art has been a bitch

    1. Frida Kahlo – a very nice call and I’m sure there must be a lot more modern women artists too, but my memory’s so shot away, I can’t think of any. Rachel Whitereed – that’s it.
      Thanksfor taking part, lovely. A quiz on a Sunday – what was I thinking?

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It may also be about materials and funds, as well as training. After all, editing only takes paper, pens, and ink which would be on hand, whereas most forms of art require specialist equipment which might well not have the money to buy…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very good point. I also think most of the women authors we know from before the twentieth century (and perhaps beyond) were from the ‘comfortable classes’ – the middling sort who received a basic education and then as adults had the time to write rather than having to work in a mill or on the land. But then that goes for male creatives as well as female ones. I often wonder how many geniuses have gone undiscovered, how many great works have gone unwritten, because that person was unlucky enough to be born into the wrong family. A sad thought.


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