The importance of relations and social networks for women’s artists during the 1910s and 1920s

This essay is going to discuss the importance of relations and social networks for women’s artists during the 1910s and 1920s. In my analysis, I shall focus on Marie Laurencin; painter 1883-1956; and Romaine Brooks, painter 1874-1970. For addressing the importance of female professional and social life discrepancy, the two of the artists present essential examples. This paper outlines the social and professional background of the women artists at the beginning of the twentieth century and focuses on the aspect of the femininity of Marie Laurencin’s artworks and the discourse of lesbianism and masculinity of Romaine Brooks within the social circles in Paris. It uncovers the influences of these circles upon Laurencin and Brooks and examines different ways in which these female artists demonstrated their identities as well as it discusses the importance of their social lives and networks in their artistic development.

Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century obtained an important social role in male and female artistic lives. During the 1910s and 1920s, there were many changes within the spheres of the world. World War I, the rise of Cubism, the suffragette movement, poverty after the war and other economic, social and cultural changes affected the development of female artist’s lives. The professional career of a female artist was impossible to achieve without any financial support from her background, thus only middle-class women obtained adequate academic education. By 1910, as Gill Perry states, ‘mixed classes were available in most of the academies, which also provided contexts in which women art students first became associated with male artists who were members of early modernist groups and artistic networks’.[1] These changing aspects of social and educational life in Paris allowed women artists to become a part of the artistic society and create an individual women artists’ development. The city provided a platform for women ‘to construct alternative identities based on alternative domestic relations [and] establish alternative communities and social lives based on commonality of interest rather than family relations’[2]. Despite the fact that there was substantial progress accomplished in educational and art displaying opportunities for female artists during this period, ‘social and professional disadvantages were still much in evidence.’[3]

To examine female artistic style, this section concentrates on the main attributes of their artworks, that is the discourse of femininity, masculinity and creation of a new identity either of a female artist or the artist as a female. The modernist identification of a man as a genius refers to ‘his rarity, precocity, and vulnerability, but also his naturalness’[4]. The artistic genius was tightly connected to artistic professionalism. As an opposition to the male genius, the female artworks were described as elusive, sensible and derivative. The female artists were often accused of copying or echoing earlier masculine styles, which led to a depreciation of their art.[5] This Romantic form of the modernist professionalism led to the female alienation from the male construction of genius by disqualifying and marginalising the women’s creativity and interpreting the women’s limited ability to create an original.[6] Although Laurencin’s interest in past French traditional painting and Brooks’ fascination by the decadence of the nineteenth century were described as ‘derivative, deviant, old-fashioned and second-rate’[7], the social interconnections explain the significance of the feminine sexuality in art and the discourse of lesbianism within the avant-garde modernism.

Focusing on Laurencin’s approach towards the masculine attribute of the male genius, I want to emphasise her resistance against the exclusivity of the masculine artistic ability. As ‘she refused to be measured by the prevailing male models of success’[8], she positioned the feminine sensibility of her artworks above the conflict of gender and genius and proclaimed herself a female artist insisting on the femininity of her artworks. Guillaume Apollinaire, writer 1880-1918, said that ‘it was her femininity that became the artistic yardstick against which her work was measured. She brought ‘feminine art to major status’.[9] Laurencin was supported and promoted through contracts with established and well-financed dealers.[10] Berthe Weill, gallery owner, 1865-1951, exhibited Laurencin’s artworks alongside other female and male artists in the Gallery of Berthe Weill in 1908. Weill’s intentions were clear, ‘her [Weill’s] early patronage and active support of female artists seem to have involved a sense of indignation against the forms of critical and professional discrimination they suffered for their sex.’[11] According to Perry, ‘women artists were more often expected to gain access to avant-garde circles through their personal (rather than professional) relationships with better-known male artists’[12], thus the relationship between Laurencin and Apollinaire launched her participation in the Cubist group gathering around the Bateau Lavoir, which was at that time Pablo Picasso’s artistic studio. In 1911, the Cubists organised exhibitions in Gallery 41 in the Salon des Indépendants, where Marie Laurencin and many other women painters displayed their artworks alongside the male Cubist artists.[13] Here, Laurencin participated in the exhibitions alongside important male artists, however, criticised and marginalised by them for her feminine, elusive, exquisite, and nostalgic aesthetics.[14]

To explain the importance of the relations and social networks for Marie Laurencin, I want to concentrate on the painting Group of artists (Fig.1) bought by Gertrude Stein, art dealer 1874-1946. This purchase was a milestone in Laurencin’s artistic career as the painting became a part of Stein’s highly estimated avant-garde collection.[15] Elliot and Wallace claim that ‘such prestigious company [of works by Cezanne, Matisse, Braque and Picasso] did much to enhance the reputation of so young an artist’.[16] Laurencin expressed the importance of her relationships in the Cubist society by painting herself with Apollinaire, Fernande Olivier, painter and model 1881-1966, Picasso and their dog Frika.[17] The significance of the group members in Laurencin’s life was also demonstrated in the painting Apollinaire and his friends (Fig. 2). Perry argues that the painting ‘has little in common with the early Cubist techniques of Picasso and Braque’[18]. Although she became a part of the Cubist movement through her social connections, she developed her own artistic style based on her femininity and ‘drew on more conventional […] literary aesthetics in her visual narrative’ and ‘she explicitly likened her pictures to stories’[19] as demonstrated in the paintings Group of Artists and Apollinaire and His Friends. Cottington suggests that ‘she was uniquely positioned both to understand the range of innovations being pursued in the two milieus and to contribute to their furtherance. Instead, she differed to her colleague’s ambitions […] by accepting the mantle of peintre féminin [women painters], indeed exaggerating the attributes of a constructed femininity in personal as well as aesthetic terms.’[20] Thus, for Laurencin, the importance of social networks and relations played a significant role in gaining the status of a female professional artist while demonstrating her own feminine artistic style.

The female artists’ search for the artistic style during the avant-garde modernism also coincides with construction of lesbian identity. Strikingly, Romaine Brooks, as a modernist woman and artist, was not a member of any of the famous female artistic communities in the 1920s and certainly did not participate in social network seeking in Paris. It is important to mention that she refused to be marginalised as a women artist and, as Latimer claims, she did not want to be a part of the women shows organised by the association of Femme Artistes Modernes.[21] However, her sexual and artistic identity was defined exclusively by a lesbian culture of Paris, the Salon of Natalie Clifford Barney, poet 1876-1972 and her close love relationship with Barney. In contrast to Laurencin’s adoption of feminine style, Brooks ‘refused the invisibility of the woman artist and aggressively adopted the coherent marginality of an already outmoded masculine avant-garde’[22] through making her lesbianism prominent.

The cross-dressing, as a certain code for lesbians in Paris, moved the perceptions of female modernist sexuality from the private to the public sphere and gave women artists the opportunity to ‘claim male social privileges’[23]. Furthermore, Brooks’ artistic methods constructed ‘a modern feminine subject’[24] through ‘revitalising an iconography of distinction codified in the previous century’[25]. Brooks was inspired by ‘old-fashioned symbolist styles’[26] which she demonstrated in the painting of Barney L’Amazone, from 1920 (Fig.3). The portrait where, as Bridget and Wallace argue, Brooks ‘almost allegorically provided [the audience] with many insights into Barney’s life [and] established her as an independent entity [27], demonstrated her aim to express the subject-matter through the identifiers of Barney’s lesbian salon and their personal relationship.

Focusing on her Self-portrait (Fig.4), Lampela argues that ‘Brooks broke out of the feminine identity and designed a lesbian identity: a desirable woman in a tailored suit who looks directly at and reveals all to the discerning female viewer.’[28] By painting portraits of prominent figures of lesbian artistic and literary world of Paris using masculine dark grey colours and the self-portrait from 1923, where she is ‘looking Byronic in her remote melancholy and in her revolt against social conventions’[29], she unified the categories of masculinity and femininity[30] and established an autonomy of her sexuality. Moreover, she created a sexual identity of the Parisian lesbian elite through ‘escaping the strictures of societally defined femininity by appropriating the costumes [she] identified with freedom’[31], when painting the women in their determination to cross-dress. Brooks masculinised the femininity of women painters through her lesbianism as a distinguishing feature and one that differentiated her work from traditional patterns of feminine practice.[32] Thus it is important to emphasise the cruciality of the social relations through which she identified the sexuality and identity of her artistic practice and the lesbian society as a whole.

To conclude, both artists examined above are effective in demonstrating the importance of relations and social networks for women in Paris during the 1910s and 1920s. Even though ‘it is almost a definition of the avant-gardes of the twentieth century that [artistic circles] consist of a self-defined (male) group against whom, no matter how strong the evidence is of women’s participation, women remain a marginalised’[33], after World War II Paris offered women access to social networks through galleries, dealers, salons and different communities. Marie Laurencin and Romaine Brooks employed these opportunities, however, in completely different ways. Apollinaire wanted to ‘present the Cubists, no matter of what tendency […] as the most serious and most interesting artists if the epoch’[34] and introduced Marie Laurencin to the Cubist circles through their private relationship and important dealer networks. Due to these social connections, she acquired the status of professional artists while demonstrating her feminine artistic practice. Romaine Brooks ‘aimed to establish her lineage as a notable artist while visualizing new social and cultural horizons for women of her disposition and standing’[35] and through the social connections and relationships she was able to find her artistic self-expression that in her unique artistic way unified the sexuality of the lesbian community. Over a period of twenty years, the categories of femininity and masculinity were slightly re-assessed through social, cultural, economic and political changes within the society.[36] Despite marginalising the female artistic practice, women succeeded in building their artistic careers and practices through their personal relations and social networks.

fig 1

Fig.  1.  Marie  Laurencin,  Group  of  Artists,  1908.  Oil  on  canvas,  64.8  x  81.  The  Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection, Maryland.

fig 2

Fig. 2. Marie Laurencin, Apollinaire and His Friends (also called Meeting in the Countryside), Oil on canvas, 130 x 194 cm. Musée national d’art modern, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France.

fig 3

Fig. 3. Georgia O’Keeffe, Special No. 9, 1915, Charcoal on paper, 63.5 × 48.6 cm, The Menil

Collection, Houston.


[1] Perry, Gill. ‘Professionalism, training and ‘the spaces of femininity’, Women Artists and the Parisian Avant-garde: Modernism and Feminine Art, 1900 to the Late 1920s. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995. p.19

[2] Elliott, Bridget, and Jo-Ann Wallace. ‘Conclusion’, Women Artists and Writers: Modernist (im)positionings. London: Routledge, 2016. p.164

[3] Perry, Gill. ‘In the wings of modern painting: women artists, the Fauves and the Cubists’, Women Artists and the Parisian Avant-garde: Modernism and Feminine Art, 1900 to the Late 1920s. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995. p.73

[4] Elliott, Bridget, and Jo-Ann Wallace. ‘The Making of Genius’, Women Artists and Writers: Modernist (im)positionings. London: Routledge, 2016, p.91

[5] Elliott, Bridget, and Jo-Ann Wallace. ‘Fleurs du Mal or Second-hand Roses?’, Women Artists and Writers: Modernist (im)positionings. London: Routledge, 2016, p.34

[6] E. Bridget, J. Wallace, ‘The Making of Genius’, p.111

[7] Elliot and Wallace, ‘Fleurs du Mal or Second-hand Roses?’, p.34

[8] E. Bridget, J. Wallace, ‘The Making of Genius’, p.92-93

[9] Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art and Society, ‘Modernist Representation: The Female Body’,1910-25’, 2nd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996, p.296

[10] Perry, Gill. ‘The Art Market and the School of Paris’, Women Artists and the Parisian Avant-garde: Modernism and Feminine Art, 1900 to the Late 1920s. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995, p.89

[11] Perry, Gill. ‘In the wings of modern painting’, p.43

[12] Perry, Gill. ‘In the wings of modern painting’, p.49

[13] Perry, Gill. ‘In the wings of modern painting’, p.63

[14] E. Bridget, J. Wallace, ‘The Making of Genius’, p.106

[15] E. Bridget, J. Wallace, ‘The Making of Genius’, p.103

[16] E. Bridget, J. Wallace, ‘The Making of Genius’, p.103

[17] Perry, Gill. ‘In the wings of modern painting’, p.63

[18] Perry, Gill. ‘In the wings of modern painting’, p.63

[19] E. Bridget, J. Wallace, ‘The Making of Genius’, p.107

[20] Cottington, David. ‘Changing perspectives: modernity and simultaneity’, Cubism and Its Histories. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004, p.98

[21] Latimer, Tirza True. ‘Two Romaine Brooks: Portraits That Look Back’, Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005. p.49

[22] Bridget and Wallace, ‘Fleurs du Mal or Second-hand Roses?’, p.41

[23] Bridget and Wallace, ‘Fleurs du Mal or Second-hand Roses?’, p.50

[24] Latimer, Tirza True, ‘Two Romaine Brooks’, p.51

[25] Latimer, Tirza True, ‘Two Romaine Brooks’, p..44

[26] Bridget and Wallace, ‘Fleurs du Mal or Second-hand Roses?’, p.43

[27] Bridget and Wallace, ‘Fleurs du Mal or Second-hand Roses?’, p.43

[28] Lampela, Laurel, ‘Daring to Be Different: A Look at Three Lesbian Artists’, Art Education 54, no. 2, 2001, p.48

[29] Gubar, Susan, ‘Blessings in Disguise: Cross-Dressing as Re-Dressing for Female Modernists’, The Massachusetts Review 22, no. 3, 1981, p. 500

[30] Gubar, ‘Blessings in Disguise’, p.479

[31] Gubar, Susan, ‘Blessings in Disguise’, p.479

[32] Latimer, Tirza True, ‘Two Romaine Brooks’, p.50

[33] Deepwell, Katy. ‘Introduction’, Women Artists and Modernism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998. p.5

[34] Guillaume Apollinaire, Chriniquws d’art, quoted in Gill Perry, Women Artists and the Parisian Avant-garde: Modernism and Feminine Art, 1900 to the Late 1920s. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995. p.60

[35] Latimer, Tirza True, ‘Two Romaine Brooks’, p.51

[36] Cottington, ‘Changing perspectives’, p.13


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