Arts & Culture

Impressions of women

5 min read

Scholar uses Impressionist artists to gauge women’s status

Don’t know much about history? Try studying art.

More than ever, the Harvard Art Museum is making it easier for scholars and students to use its permanent collection (more than 250,000 works) to shed light on a variety of disciplines.

Since January, museum educator Kelsey McNiff ’98 has been director of the academic partnerships program, designed to reach across intellectual borders to offer art as a touchstone to learning.

Those studying the classics at Harvard already make regular forays into the art world, she said, but now there are lively dialogues with scholars of Romance languages, anthropology, music, history, and literature.

McNiff, who has a doctorate in modern French history from Princeton University, put the art/touchstone idea to a test in a public gallery talk on Saturday (June 20). Using a close study of three Impressionist paintings, she cast light on the lives of women in 19th century France.

Arrayed behind her in a fourth-floor gallery at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum was what she called “a perfect intersection” of works. Each in its own way, she said, illuminates the emergence of women from the confines of the domestic sphere into the fullness of French society.

McNiff started with Camille Pissarro’s “Shrove Tuesday on the Boulevards” (1897). It’s a view from afar of a parade along a grand thoroughfare in Paris, a city that had been widely redesigned just a few decades before. An urban crowd presses beneath sketchy trees and uniform buildings. Men and women are indistinct, in a sign of what she called “this new parity … of modern life.”

Still, that gender parity was not yet complete. McNiff quoted from contemporary documents — the historian’s usual grist — to show that men still largely identified with the public sphere, and women (if reluctantly) with the private.

In an 1863 essay, Charles Baudelaire evoked what McNiff called “the freedom, energy and spectacle [of a man’s] incognito freedom” in the emerging café culture of the day.

“The crowd is his domain, just as the air is the bird’s and the water is that of the fish,” wrote Baudelaire of men in Paris, where he might “establish his dwelling in the throng” and partake of its “enormous reservoir of electricity.”

On the other hand, McNiff quoted an 1873 passage from the diaries of Marie Bashkirtseff. The Ukrainian-born painter and early feminist lived in Paris, but was frustrated at the exclusions gender forced on her.

“What I long for is the freedom of going about alone,” she wrote — yet even to tour the Louvre she had to wait for “a lady companion” or her family.

“You get a sense,” said McNiff of the two passages, “there are very different experiences of this city.”

There was another subtext to Pissarro’s painting of a distant wide boulevard ringed by crowds, she said. Just 25 years before, the specter of revolution had haunted those same streets, when rioting communards had seized control of Paris.

As many as 20,000 were executed in May 1871 during a period called “Bloody Week.” The unrest ushered in France’s Third Republic, in whose conservative shadow Impressionism took root.

In Edouard Manet’s “Skating” (1877), the city crowd fades into the background. Dominating the painting’s center is an ornately dressed woman, who has turned from the skating rink to stare boldly outward. Almost as an afterthought, she holds the hand of an indistinctly rendered child.

To one side, behind the honey-haired figure, is a severely dressed woman whose gaze might echo France’s “moral order government,” then in power.

McNiff called the younger woman’s pose and costume “rebellious” — a sign of a simmering cultural revolution that, in part, made gender roles increasingly “illegible.”

“Art is a disruptive act, in a way,” she said. “When things become illegible, they make us uncomfortable.”

The third painting in McNiff’s oblique tour of a changing France was Pablo Picasso’s 1901 “Mother and Child.” (Like the others, it’s part of the Fogg Art Museum’s permanent collection, some of which is now on display at the Sackler during a multiyear renovation of the Fogg.)

The Blue Period work struck a sober note. In place of Manet’s resplendent woman in a gay Parisian crowd, Picasso depicts a sober, quiet intimacy. A slender woman in blue robes holds a child wrapped close to her. The only light, on their faces, is as soft as candlelight.

“Mother and Child” is a timeless image, shaded by modern ironies. The painting, McNiff said, was inspired by a visit Picasso made to a hospital for women (many of them prostitutes) sick with venereal disease.

By 1901, in the wider world of France, options for women were expanding as they took their places as teachers and workers in an emerging middle class. And they shopped for upper class-like clothes in what McNiff called the “consumer democratization” of new department stores that offered payment plans — credit terms that, in effect, concealed class.

But meanwhile, she said, “a lot of that ‘official culture’ conversation ignores working class women.” In his 1901 painting, Picasso countered that neglect, sketching for the viewer, perhaps, the underside of gender liberation.

“It feels very honest,” said McNiff of the somber painting, with its shades of tenderness and tragedy. “It’s giving us a glimpse into a space we might not see.”

Here is a case of art illuminating history, which after all is a discipline devoted to “trying to imagine times different than our own,” she said. “It helps us make that imaginative leap.”