Published on 21/02/2018
THE WORK OF a woman artist is ‘like a man’s, only weaker and poorer’. So said Sir William Fettes Douglas, President of the Royal Scottish Academy, in 1885. This comment seems ludicrous today but it was very likely received wisdom at the time. Even as recently as 2008 the late Brian Sewell, art critic, wrote, “There has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness.”
With gender equality very much to the fore and the anniversary of the first votes for women in the UK being recently celebrated, I was interested to check the gender balance of artists we exhibit at Tolquhon. A quick count of the artists on our website shows that of 163 individual artists there are 65 men and 98 women. That is 40% male to 60% female.
Perhaps we are discriminating against men. Are we unconsciously biased towards female artists? Do we find the work of female artists more appealing? Are there just more female artists painting? I suspect the answer may lie towards the number of women painting. Indeed, the majority of art school students are now female.
This was certainly not the case a century ago. As in so many spheres, women have had to struggle for equal opportunities and equal recognition. Young women may have been encouraged in earlier centuries in such ‘ladylike’ pursuits as painting watercolours or stitching needlework but they certainly were not encouraged to develop their skills professionally.
It is only relatively recently that women have been accepted into art schools on equal terms with men. Early female students were even denied life drawing. Partially draped models in segregated classes may have been permitted but not nude models. A number of female artists went to Paris where attitudes were more enlightened.
Kathleen Scott Kennet, sculptor, widow of Scott of the Antarctic, was educated in Edinburgh. She saw a nude male model for the first time in 1901 in Paris. “Before reason could control instinct I turned and fled, shut myself in the lavatory, and was sick,” she said afterwards. Perhaps the tutors had good reason to exclude women.
We were privileged to know one of the first female students at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen — Mary McMurtrie. We exhibited her work regularly until shortly before she died at the age of 101 in 2003. Indeed, she had a solo show with us in 2002, just after her hundredth birthday.
Mary McMurtrie was a remarkable woman. She was a plantswoman and had a passion for flowers. She became internationally recognised for her botanical art and she wrote and illustrated several books of wild flowers while also raising a family on her own (after she became widowed), running a nursery and restoring a 17C tower house.
Mary came first in her year at art school. When she graduated, she should have won the top prize of a study visit to Italy. But because it was assumed that a female would only go on to become a housewife, the prize was instead awarded to the male student who came second.
Although women now outnumber men at art schools, at the level of major exhibitions and awards for art, men still predominate.
Perhaps the last word should go to Dame Ethel Walker. At a party in 1938 to celebrate her appointment as CBE she was introduced as the country’s leading woman artist. “There is no such thing as a woman artist," she declared. "There are only two kinds of artist – bad and good. You can call me a good artist if you like.”