Pursuing Your Creative Passion: Lessons From Women Artists in History

How does one create space and time for creative work?

With so many duties to check off the list – making an income, meeting basic needs, maintaining emotional and physical health – there’s often not much time at the end of the day to do what we truly love.

This, I think, is the ultimate internal conflict of all creative beings. It has spanned centuries and mediums; genres and movements. It is the secret reason for seemingly unexplainable actions: quitting a job, ending a relationship, moving far, far away.

Recently, I found myself at an art exhibit focused on the life and work of female painters in the impressionist era. Here, I finally found some answers that I think may serve you well. Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism, is a traveling exhibit featuring the work of female painters who traveled to Paris to pursue artistic ambitions in the 19th century.

At the time most of these women were painting, merely existing was a chore. They were not allowed to frequent cabarets, cafés, bars, and other public spaces without the accompaniment of a male. The expectation to wed and have children was exceptionally unforgiving. Yet, they challenged these limits by creating bold, influential art that continues to inspire over a century later. Some of these painters remained unmarried; others learned to work within the constraints of their predetermined societal roles.

To understand what these women accomplished in their day – pursuing creative passions regardless of what people said or expected – is both refreshing and exhilarating.

Here’s what the life and work of women impressionists can teach us today:

women impressionism examples
Marie Braquemond (source: Tutt Art)

 1. Challenge expectations and find light in darkness

Women artists of the impressionist period were barred from working with live nude models, although the study of human anatomy was at the time fundamental to a lucrative career in art. Studying models nude was, of course, both dangerous and unladylike.

Excluded from the highest-paying ranks of the artistic profession, women were expected to focus on portraits, still life and domestic subjects. (After all, the home was where they belonged.)

Instead of giving up on their work, however, women of the era challenged the expectations of those who both doubted and restricted them. They rejected the realistic styles they were expected to paint and turned to impressionistic interpretations that capture seemingly ordinary scenes with intense emotion.

women impressionist
Young Mother Sewing by Mary Cassatt (source: WikiArt)

These efforts didn’t go unnoticed. The uncanny brushstrokes and energetic techniques women used to embody private live served “a stylistic challenge to the artistic dogmas of the Academy” according to the Denver Art Museum.

Marriage also posed a barrier to women of the period. Unlike American artist Mary Cassatt, who remained unmarried, French artist Marie Bracquemond faced the added challenge of a husband who didn’t support the impressionist style. Bracquemond’s accomplishments have often been forgotten in conversations about impressionist artists because her work was overshadowed by that of her husband (not because it was better, but because he was a man and she was not).

Still, Bracquemond persisted and was able to create a space for herself amongst impressionist legends.

Two of Bracquemond’s pieces:

Marie Bracquemond women impressionism
Under the Lamp by Marie Bracquemond (source: Intelliblog)
painting by marie bracquemond
Le goûter by Marie Bracquemond (source: how to talk about art history)

Women like Bracquemond and Cassatt used their creative passions as a way to overturn the very limits placed upon them. In capturing the essence of motherhood, childhood, and private life with both clarity and grace, they succeed at telling the story they alone could tell.

 2. Find your tribe (a.k.a. support system)

Women who went to Paris to pursue art in the mid 1800’s faced another obstacle: they couldn’t study at France’s most prestigious art academy, the École des Beaux-Arts. It was also unacceptable for them to attend the artist cafés where men often went to sketch and converse (the old-fashioned form of networking, perhaps).

As women have often done throughout history, the artists in France paid no mind. They simply formed their own spaces in which to collaborate. Forming a number of groups and associations, including the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs, they hosted their own galleries and even created female-focused weekly presses. This community encouraged women to apply to art colleges and institutions they were traditionally excluded from.

Eventually, their actions were noticed: women were accepted into the private art school Académie Julian in 1880. Here, they were allowed to participate in nude studies but were trained separately from their male classmates.

See this depiction of a women’s studio:

women impressionist era
The Studio by Marie Bashkirtseff

Support for creative ambition

Support from family also played an important role in a woman’s creative pursuits at the time. The impressionist artist Berthe Morisot, who is often seen as the leader of this influential movement, was both financially and emotionally supported by her family. In contrast to Bracquemond, Morisot’s husband, the brother of Edouard Manet, was her biggest supporter and ally.

Today, this shows how important it is to seek out a tribe of your own. Whether its a strong family support system, a creative lover or a group of bad-a** ladies, support is what keeps us going through it all. When you feel defeated, as women often do, supporters can hold you accountable for doing the work you love (and, by default, being happy).

3. Let your heart guide you…

…even when that is the harder path to follow.

Rosa Bonheur animal painting
The Lion at Home by Rosa Bonheur (source: WikiArt)

If there’s only one piece of advice we can learn from the women of this era, it’s to follow your heart.

Sometimes that means saying no to going out with friends, so that you can finally finish that piece you’ve been daydreaming about, while you’re stuck at a real job. Other times, it means moving on from someone who doesn’t understand your creative goals and dreams. Maybe it looks like cutting your hair short and wearing men’s pants (like Rosa Bonheur did when she wanted to paint at horse fairs and stockyards, places only men frequented at the time).

No one has ever said that following your heart – and sometimes even breaking it, as Cheryl Strayed might advise – is easy. But when creativity meets ambition, there isn’t a rule or an expectation that says what you should create, or where, or how. Realizing this is the secret key that unlocks an enriching creative life – opening the door to greater self worth and happiness for you and you alone.

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