Author Archives: Katherine Jentleson

Blindspots in the Male Gaze (Pinboard #1)

Morris Hirshfield The Artist & His Model 1945 (source: artstor)

A nude female model stands atop a trapezoidal bed, which is spread with a coverlet patterned in jewel tones. As she clings to a richly ornamented bedpost, she unveils a body whose blankness contrasts starkly with her densely drawn, fiery red mane of hair. The mustachioed artist looks on, nattily dressed in a deep blue robe. Although he holds his palette in one hand and three brushes in the other, the only canvas in sight is one that has already been painted. It hangs above his head, bearing a scene in which a kidney-shaped cat pursues a butterfly.

The Polish-American artist Morris Hirshfield (1872-1946) completed this work two years after his 1943 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Peyton Boswell, the founder of Art Digest, famously slammed the show, titling his review “The Master of the Two Left Feet,” a dig at Hirshfield, who had run a slipper manufacturing company where left-footed prototypes were used; Boswell points to this fact as the reason that Hirshfield could only paint left feet.  After the Hirshfield debacle, MoMA director Alfred Barr, Jr.  stopped organizing shows for artists like Hirshfield who had never received formal training.

The surreal nakedness of the female model is the most striking element of this painting. Throughout Hirshfield’s work, female bodies appear as gleaming white-pink canvases on which Hirshfield warily paints, going so far as to limn breasts and buttocks but steering clear of vaginas. Hirshfield’s painting thus illustrates an example of the self-limiting male gaze. Hirshfield, either because of a lack of skill or a sense of propriety (or both),  casts a sheepish gaze that seeks nakedness but can’t fully abide its radicalism. Hirshfield both takes advantage of the precedents set by art history, which has permitted male artists access to female bodies for centuries, and balks at this license.

Academic Limitations and Market Opportunities

Johann Zoffany The Academicians of the Royal Academy 1771-2 (source: artstor)

Although this week’s readings from Gender and Art ranged in subject matter from the masculine and nationalist attributes of English architecture  to the role of women in European academies, the latter topic took center stage in our discussion. I began with a proposal that tropes such as “double standards” and “the glass ceiling,” which describe the obstacles that prevent women (and other groups) from achieving equity in the workplace today, can also be applied to the 18th-century French and English academies. These academies functioned as gatekeepers, vetting members for skill and largely excluding women and non-white artists, although Jade made the great point that in Johann Zoffany’s The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771-2), a Chinese Academician appears in one of the figure groupings at the far left of the picture.  Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, however, the two women in the Royal Academy, were excluded from life classes and appear only as portraits that are nearly lost in the background of this busy scene.

Jean-Antoine Watteau The Shop-Sign of Gersaint 1721 (source: artstor)

As our discussion moved to the female members of the French Academy Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, we honed in on the idea that the academy was not the only institution vetting artists or dictating the ideal subjects of their output. As we explored the situation of Vigée-Lebrun, who was married to the art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun (the same Lebrun who was a crucial force behind the Louvre, as Jess pointed out), we made room for the powerful role that market forces played in the art world of this era. History painting represented the apogee of painting within the academy, but portraits and still lifes that testified to the power and wealth of private patrons dominated the market.

Women artists who were associated with these “lesser” painting categories would thus have received reinforcement from the commercial marketplace that they did not get from the academy. And as Jade and Professor Powell brought up, France’s dominant salon culture also meant that women played an important role as consumers and tastemakers outside of the academy, as reflected by the powerful women in Watteau’s scene of shopping in the gallery of Gersaint, another important 18th-century French art dealer. As the above juxtaposition of Zoffany’s academy and Watteau’s marketplace shows, while women did not occupy strong positions in academic spaces, they were compelling figures in the market settings.