A Legacy of Female Artists


I promised that I would return to Negotiating with the Dead, didn’t I? It has thoroughly attached itself to my brain and I couldn’t be more pleased as I continue to read. Halfway through, one aspect that the text is not explicitly devoted to, though it permeates the pages and is signalled to by the author and her body of work, is the question of the female artist.


Today I am tackling the legacy of female artists. Though an important topic, my reference text is very much focused on white female artists, much to my chagrin. Hence it’s a narrow discussion, but I think significant in the greater conversation of trodden artists. So it’s a legacy, as my title indicates.

I have to start my post by quoting yet another personal anecdote by Atwood that so carefully alludes to the three subtopics I’ve chosen to analyze:

“One of my mother’s friends was more cheerful [than my parents when I said I wanted to be a writer]. ‘That’s nice, dear,’ she said, ‘because at least you’ll be able to do it at home.’ (She assumed that, like all the right-thinking girls, I would eventually have a home. She wasn’t up on the current dirt about female writers, and did not know that these stern and dedicated creatures were supposed to forgo all of that, in favor of warped virginity or seedy loose living, or suicide – suffering of one kind or another.)” (Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the Dead. Anchor Canada Edition. 2003.15)

It is important to remember the time period in which Atwood was born and raised. In the American 1950s women were being told that the only real vocation they should devote themselves to was that of housewife, and much of this spilled over the border. Note that the woman believes that writing will merely be a hobby for Atwood, and our author doesn’t have the heart to tell her the truth: that she aimed to be a serious female artist, though they were only afforded three alternate paths in life as far as society was concerned.

The Female Artist of the Past

How did these three choices come about? We can thank the Romantic Era (1785-1832) and the cult of the artist (cough male artist cough) that sprung up just after the first wave of the women’s movement got rolling (I always like to credit Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and John Stuart Mill’s 1869 essay The Subjection of Women as the two foundational texts of the first wave of feminism). Across history there have always been women of genius who proved themselves despite their sex, but as the Victorian Period commenced, then got well under way, there were women who realized that all women, when given opportunity, could be something more than what (the men of) society claimed.

Yes, I very much simplified women’s’ history there and gave a lot of credit to the Victorian Age for brevity’s sake.

In any case, as more women artists cropped up, the double standard of the female artist began to rear its head:


“If sacrifice was demanded of the male artist, how much more so of the women? What leads us to suspect that the fancifully embroidered scarlet letter on the breast of the punished and reviled Hester Prynne, in Hawthorne’s novel of the same name, stands not only for Adulteress, but for Artist, or even Author? A man playing the role of Great Artist was expected to Live Life – this chore was part of his consecration to his art – and Living Life meant, among other things wine, women, and song. But if a female writer tried the wine and the men, she was likely to be considered a slut and a drunk, so she was stuck with the song; and

better still if it was a swan song. Ordinary women were supposed to get married, but not women artists. A male artist could have marriage and children on the side, as long as he didn’t let them get in the way … but for women, such things were supposed to be the way. And so this particular way must be renounced altogether by the female artist, in order to clear the way for that other way – the way of Art.” (83-84).

And if you think this is an antiquated notion, that women must pick either a family or career but cannot hope to have both, and not be judged when they make their choice, I have to say you’re wrong in part. I was recently watching Beat Bobby Flay on the Food Network, and a female chef, who had to be just over thirty, said that the reason she wanted to beat Bobby was because she wanted to prove to everyone that she hadn’t made the wrong choice in deciding to become a chef even though she didn’t have a husband or kids. My heart crumpled for her.

The Latent Powers of Those Mythologies

But back to the Romantics and their double standard. Using The Picture of Dorian Gray as an example, Atwood proves that the female artists who chose Art were doomed in all ways. Though none more so than the women dissatisfied with the swan song. By trying the men, and inevitably falling for the men, they were choosing men over Art. And by devoting themselves to men they automatically forfeited Art. In the story, the actress Sibyl Vane falls in love with Dorian, but her passion for him subsumes her passion for her Art, to the point that she is no longer as fantastic an actress as she was before loving him. He loved her for her talent, without that talent she is nothing to him, so he deserts her. The only option left to her is suicide, since she doesn’t have the man or the Art any longer.

Note that no male artist, no matter how he dallied with women, ever had this happen to him. Take Byron, for instance. Male artists were lauded as the veritable priests of Art, shepherding the ignorant masses while being able to do anything and everything. The female artists were expected to sacrifice their very lives for their Art, for nothing less proved their devotion.

The female artists wouldn’t just lay down and die without a fight though, right? Atwood continues with:

“Love and marriage pulled one way, Art another, and Art was a kind of demonic possession. Art would dance you to death. … But you didn’t have to be a nun of the imagination or nothing. The feminine priest is not only nun but priestess, so you had a choice, and there was a difference. … Both the nun of the imagination and the priestess of the imagination may finish up in a non-living condition at the foot of Art’s altar, but the difference is the priestess takes someone else with her when she goes.” (85 & 88).


The prime example of such priestesses is the infamous Salomé, who used art to lure and destroy men. Because obviously, if women are good at Art it must be destructive to the male Art, right? Hardly. Unfortunately, these ridiculous beliefs so permeated society that many women fell into the mythology instead of trying to break away from it. Faced with no real choices, for none of the choices listed is a real choice, many succumbed to the pressures of the cult of Art.

The doomed female artist is an old trope, but it was a pervasive one –we only need to turn to Sylvia Plath to see it close to our time.

The Psyche of the Female Artist

Though our current artistic era is still rife with wisps of the Romantics, I like to think that we have come a long way. Though equality is far from near, female artists are no longer forced to choose between their art and family (for the most part). There is variation between those two extremes.

This doesn’t mean female artists shouldn’t be diligent in fighting for what they want. Atwood states, “The mythology still has power, because such mythologies about women still have power” (90). For every step forward women everywhere take, there is always someone waiting in the wings to push us back. Just look at the recent conversations about abortion rights in the United States, its like Roe v. Wade never happened.

Still, I’m holding on to the hope that despite the mythologies dumped on female artists for ages now is our time. Atwood brings up the current fashion of artistic self-loathing of certain male artists and their inability to live up to their own genius ideal –

“This psychic wound appears to be suffered largely by men. Women writers weren’t included in the Romantic roll-call, and never had a lot of Genius medals stuck onto them; in fact, the word “genius” and the word “woman” just don’t really fit together in our language, because the kind of eccentricity expected of male “geniuses” would simply result in the label “crazy,” should it be practiced by a woman. “Talented,” “great,” even – these words have been applied. But even when they really did affect their own societies, female artists have not often confessed to the ambition to do so. Consequently those of the present day don’t feel a slippage in their power or a demotion in their place on the world’s stage, and they may suspect that they’re doing better today than previously, so they don’t feel too puny by comparison with a horde of illustrious female ancestors.” (100-101).

As a female artist, it is fascinating to look at the legacy in these terms. I am relieved to live in the age I do because I neither want to be a hobbyist housewife nor a doomed nun or priestess –nor simply doomed. Female artists still have a long way to go, women in every vocation do, but to see how far we’ve come is inspiring.

As a third wave feminist I can’t help but think of female artists of colour who still have so many more hurdles to climb than I do. The latent powers of mythology, we need to focus on that one and we need to be dogged in our fight for diversity across all mediums. I guess what I’m saying is now that female artists are on the stage, we need to make sure we’re not keeping others off the stage as the many male artists did their best to do.

Salome (1890) by Ella Ferris Pell (1846-1922)
Salome (1890) by Ella Ferris Pell (1846-1922) Source.

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