Why were so many female artists airbrushed from history?
by Nell Frizzell
19 May 2014
Annie Kevans, who first painted well-known men as boys, is now portraying women who should have been famous
By the time Virginia Woolf wrote, "For most of history, Anonymous was a woman," the world was ready to recognise her for it, working as she was in an era when a few successful women at least could be celebrated by later generations. The same could not be said for Sofonisba Anguissola or Angelica Kauffman.
If those names don't mean a lot to you (Anguissola was a leading painter in the Italian Renaissance, while Kauffman's canvases made her the toast of Georgian England), don't blame Annie Kevans. She has now painted more than 30 portraits of successful women who have been smudged out of the history of art for a new exhibition. Women like Victorine Meurent, who was an artist in her own right as well as one of Manet's muses, or Suzanne Valadon, who became the first female painter admitted to France's Société Nationale des Beaux Arts are among the women who are only now being singled out by later generations (Kevans's work follows the BBC's recent Story of Women and Art).
Kevans's portraits, on oil-primed paper, with loose, thick lines, muted backgrounds and immediate, direct eyelines, are created from the few pictures that survive of these largely forgotten women.
"For hundreds of years there was this very strong control over the canon and [the male-dominated establishment] didn't want women written into it," says Kevans, when we meet in her small, portrait-lined studio in north-east London. Her project was partly inspired by the realisation that she, too, could be erased from our collective cultural archive. "As a contemporary artist, there are still concerns. I do think, what if that happened to me?"
She may paint in soft pastel tones, but Kevans rejects any idea that this is women's art. "The idea of 'feminine art' is stupid. Like the idea that pastels are feminine – what about Damien Hirst's butterflies or his pastel dots? There are loads of male artists doing far more 'feminine' things than I'm doing."
Kevans was recently commissioned to paint a series of Jean Paul Gaultier's muses – including Madonna, David Bowie and Amy Winehouse. She first came to public attention after Charles Saatchi bought her entire St Martin's degree show, Boys, in which she painted famous dictators like Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot as young children.
"It was the first time that I thought I actually could be an artist," says Kevans, 41, who started studying art only after doing a degree in arts management. "I believed that you couldn't make a living out of art. I was working part time for the V&A Museum of Childhood when I did Boys, but struggled because it was so badly paid. So I decided to quit and get a part-time job as a legal secretary because it paid much more. I was working just four hours a day, which meant I had the whole day to paint.
So why does Kevans think Anguissola, Meurent and the rest have been written out of art history? She lays much of the blame on the mainly male academics who compiled what we think of as the artistic canon. "There hasn't been enough research into female artists and attributing their work properly. So when historians see a fabulous painting they tend to attribute it to a well-known man."
Moreover, critics living at the same time as these women not only ignored female artists, but treated them with a combination of condescension and distrust. "Critics just didn't take women seriously," says Kevans. "Because a lot of women were married to other artists, people assumed they were helped by their husbands. But, actually, those women were artists before they were married; indeed, that's how they met their husbands."
All this has made Kevans's job harder."I don't like painting people if I don't know anything about them," she says. "I do a lot of reading before I start. I couldn't just paint someone from a picture in a magazine – I have to have an idea of who they are." But how do you discover someone who is barely present in the records?
"I'll start reading up on one artist and then discover another and another," explains Kevans. "This morning it was Mary Beale; she was, according to the Tate website, the first professional woman artist in England, back in the 17th century. She was really successful and her husband was her assistant – I couldn't believe I hadn't heard of her." She also refers to the catalogue from an exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC, as her "bible"
Then there are letters and other ephemera. "Giulia Lama was another early painter about whom there is no information apart from this one letter by the Abbé Conti, where he says: 'Her work is full of poetry … The poor woman is persecuted by other painters but her virtue triumphs over her enemies. It is true that she is as ugly as she is witty but she speaks with grace and polish so that one easily pardons her face.'"
In the face of this casual misogyny, this undermining and trivialisation of women's achievements, Kevans has depicted artists whose success is beyond dispute. "They were doing altar pieces, which were considered higher status than just portraits. And if they were doing portraits, they were of the Pope, or the king and queen. They were successful both financially and in the quality of their commissions."
Once Kevans has researched her subject, she begins to paint directly on to the paper – no sketches, no roughs. In her studio, she walks me through her process. "In the case of Mary Beale, I'm drawn to one of the pictures because it's quite similar to my own style," she says, as she lays four printouts across her desk. "I like the fact that the eyes are really clear. Her nose is completely different in one portrait to how she paints it in her self-portrait. So I'll pick aspects – the pose, the hair – that I like from these different pictures.
"I start with a very pale, diluted brown so it's almost invisible. And I use a lot of cotton buds and loo roll as I amend it along the way. I also use the mirror a lot – I'll hold the picture up to the mirror to see it with fresh eyes. When I'm sure everything is in the right place, then I'll go on with thicker paint. I also photograph it with my iPhone so I can see it as a very small image, at a distance, to see if anything stands out. I know it's finished when there's nothing left that I want to change."
In an era when painting, portraiture and the female artist are still regularly dismissed or marginalised – only one in four of this year's Turner prize nominees are women and none of them work in portraiture or painting, while only 5% of commercial London galleries show an equal number of male and female artists – that is precisely what drew Kevans to the idea. "I think I'm just naturally rebellious," she says. "When someone says I can't do something, I'm immediately interested. I was told that portraiture is dead and that painting is dead; that just made me want to do it more."
Angelica Kauffman by Annie Kevans (below). Photograph: Courtesy Of The Fine Art Society