Penn State

Karen T. Keifer-Boyd - Professor of Art Education & Affiliate Professor of Women's Studies, Penn State University Park

Book Title: Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology

Author: Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock

Book Description:

In 1981, when I was a recent graduate with a B.F.A. in painting from the Kansas City Art Institute and in the beginning of a career as an artist and art educator, I read Parker and Pollock's (1981) Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology. This book provides a history of the power and privilege awarded male artists, and the stereotypes and biases against women artists that I, along with others, have sought to change over the past 25 years. We follow in the footsteps of the "old mistresses" discussed in this book. I have used the book as text in my teaching and encourage everyone interested in art and social responsibility to read this thought-provoking book.

Parker and Pollock's book, Old Mistresses: Women, Art, & Ideology (1981) presents the historical erasure of women artists from the Middle Ages to the 1970s in the 20th-century practice of gendering valuable art as MASTERpieces. "Masterworks" have been privileged since art left the realm of the trades in the Renaissance, and because it was often unthinkable to attribute master works to women, consequently artworks by women were sometimes attributed to a man.

In order to get into history books, women artists sometimes changed their names to androgynous ones, or used their brothers' names. For example, Lee Krasner (1908-1984) tried to avoid female stereotypes by looking like and painting like a man. Historically, when art is known to be done by a woman, the work has diminished in popularity, monetary value, and aesthetic worth.

At times the artist herself was re-discovered after having her "strong" artwork attributed to a man. One example of reattribution is the work of Constance Blondelu Charpentier (1767-1849) and her Portrait of a Young Woman, now titled Mademoiselle Charlotte du Val d'Ognes (Parker & Pollock, 1981). This work was originally thought to be by the Neo-classical master Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). It was purchased in 1917 for $200,000 and bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum where it originally received serious praise from international connoisseurs and scholars and was called "a perfect piece, unforgettable" (Parker & Pollock, 1981, p. 106). This artwork kept its status until 1951 when Charles Sterling published an article re-attributing the painting to Charpentier. Because Charpentier was a woman and hence not a Master, the painting needed to be re-evaluated. In 1964, James Laver wrote in the Saturday Evening Post:

meanwhile the notion that our portrait may have been painted by a woman is, let us confess, an attractive idea. Its poetry is literary rather than plastic, its very evident charms, and its cleverly concealed weaknesses, its ensemble made up from a thousand subtle artifices, all seem to reveal the feminine spirit. Although the painting is extremely attractive as a period piece, there are certain weaknesses of which a painter of David's caliber would not have been guilty. (Parker & Pollock, 1981, pp. 106-107)

What was formerly a "perfect piece" by David was considered to have "certain weaknesses" when it became a Charpentier.

This book raises questions that I continue to ask in my research, teaching, and life regarding: Who sets the criteria for good art, and who has the privilege to become an artist today? What is recognized as art medium? Whose work is considered significant art and why?


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