Conflicted Selves: Women, Art, & Paris 1880-1914

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Johnson, Julie Anne
French History , Cultural History , Fin-de-siècle Paris , Women Artists , Women Writers
Scholars describe fin-de-siècle Paris as a city of dualities, and examine its past as a series of crises or a tale of burgeoning optimism and opportunity. Historians of women and gender have noted the limitations of this dualistic approach, and have explored new avenues of interpretation. Specifically, they have shown how the combination of positive and negative impulses created a dynamic space in which women could re-imagine and re-articulate themselves. While this approach illuminates the possibilities that existed for women in a complex urban landscape, it also indicates that fin-de-siècle Paris was a contested city, one fraught with challenges for women living in the French capital. If the mingling of crises and belle époque culture had stimulating results for women’s emergence into urban spaces, it had confusing and conflicting effects as well. My thesis shows how fin-de-siècle Paris was a contradictory city for women artists, at a time when both opportunities and constraints in their profession were at a premium. I examine the ways in which several notable women in the arts – painters Gwen John, Suzanne Valadon, and Romaine Brooks, sculptor Camille Claudel, and writer Rachilde – traversed this unsettling path, and evaluated their experiences through artistic representations of private life. Far from portraying the traditional sphere of domesticity, however, which was considered an important form of artistic expression among women at this time, I argue that their depictions of intimate spaces, bodies, children, and female selfhood, were complex and often ambiguous, and part of a larger attempt to grapple with the shifting nature of identity, both as women, and as professionals. John and Claudel created interiors that were signs of independence and artistic innovation, but also reflections of hardship; Valadon and Brooks invested images of the female and child’s body with strength and power, but also with pain and suffering; and Rachilde developed heroines who were unsuccessful in their attempts to create a unique sense of self. Taken together, these representations demonstrate that women artists did not easily articulate a vision of modern female identity at the turn of twentieth century, but rather, highlighted the inconsistencies of this experience.
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