Throughout the 19th century, women were excluded from European art academies.
Art academies – Men only!
The alternative to academies was private tuition, but this was expensive and thus only an option for women from wealthy families.
The reason behind the limited educational opportunities for women was the bourgeois educational values of the day. Young women were encouraged to be creative and musical in the home, and their talents were fostered through private lessons, but it was unconscionable for a woman to have actual artistic ambitions – and certainly not on a professional level. Any attempts by women to embark on independent careers were nipped firmly in the bud. A young woman was encouraged to develop good taste, but not to acquire knowledge.
Paris – The art metropolis
A number of private academies in France, such as Académie Colarossi, Grande-Chaumière, Académie Julian and Académie Matisse, gave lessons to women artists from many different countries in “classes mixtes” – i.e. studying alongside men. At these private academies, women had to overcome many obstacles; conditions were poor and tuition fees were double what they were for men. But the opportunity to study in the art metropolis drew hundreds of women from around the world to Paris.
In 1897 the École des Beaux-Arts opened its doors to women, but it retained its very conservative views on what constituted “proper” art practice.
“Malweiber” – Disparagement of women artists
In Germany, it was almost impossible for women to study art as a serious academic subject. They could enter applied arts schools, but these had a poor standing. In many cities, women artists therefore took matters into their own hands, forming clubs with the express intention of opposing the exclusion of women from the art world. In 1867 the Verein der Berliner Künstlerinnen (Association of Women Artists in Berlin) was founded, with an affiliated school of drawing and painting. In 1882, women in Munich followed suit, with the Damenmalakademie des Münchner Künstlerinnen-Vereins. Another way for women to gain an art education was through the numerous private “ladies’ classes” on offer. These were very popular, despite the high fees and shortened training period for women. Many painters also offered private lessons in “ladies’ studios”, but they cared less about promoting women’s interests than about providing themselves with a more secure income.
Despite the unequal opportunities, many women doggedly pursued their artistic ambitions. Armed with brushes and canvases, they would swarm out to paint en plein air at art colonies in Worpswede, Hiddensee, Dachau and Murnau. These female artists were mockingly dubbed “Malweiber” by their male contemporaries – a term that roughly translates as “painter wenches”.
Paris was thus a shining beacon for any ambitious woman artist in Germany in the late 19th century. The Parisian studios may have been just as expensive and overcrowded as the ones back in Germany, but here men and women studied side by side, beginners next to experienced artists. Many German women artists thus journeyed to the French art metropolis, lured by the promise of an equal and internationally recognized art education – as well as a free, self-determined lifestyle far from their oppressively conservative home towns.
Notable German women artists who studied in Paris include Helene Funke, Julie Wolfthorn, Annemarie Kruse, Martha Bernstein, Marg Moll, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Mathilde Vollmoeller, Sabine Lepsius, Maria Slavona, and many more.
Conquering the academies
For decades, determined women artists in Germany and France protested vociferously against their exclusion from the public art scene, tirelessly campaigning to be accepted into art academies and organizations.
At last, in 1919, the Weimar Constitution granted men and women in Germany the same civil rights, meaning that art academies had to open their doors to female students. However, that did not automatically lead to social equality within the art world.