It is in a shrinking spirit that I venture to suggest that woman has so far entirely failed to affirm her capacity in the pictorial arts, for I address myself to an audience which contains many sculptors and pictorial artists, an audience of serious and enthusiastic people to whom art matters as much and perhaps more than life. But it is of no use maintaining illusions; woman has exhibited, and is exhibiting, very great artistic capacities in the histrionic art, in dancing, in executive music, and in literature. There is, therefore, no case for those who argue that woman has no artistic capacity. She has. I select but a few out of the many when I quote the actresses, Siddons, Rachel, La Duse, Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry; the dancers, La Duncan, Pavlova, Genee; the literary women, the Brontes, Madame de Stael, George Eliot, Sappho, Christina Rossetti; among the more modern, May Sinclair and Lucas Malet.
At first sight, however, it is curious that I should be able to quote no composers and no dramatists; it is impossible to take Guy d’Hardelot and Theresa del Riego seriously. And the women dramatists, taken as a whole, hardly exist. This would go to show that there is some strength in the contention that woman is purely executive and uncreative; but this cannot be true, for the list of writers I have given, which is very far from being exhaustive, and which is being augmented every day by promising girl writers, shows that woman has creative capacity, creative in the sense that she can evolve character and scene, and treat relations in that way which can be described as art. If, therefore, there have been no women painters of note, it cannot be because woman has no creative capacity. It may be suggested that those women who have creative capacity turn to literature, but that is a very rash assumption. For creative men turn to any one of the half-dozen forms of art, and are not monopolized by literature; there is no reason, mental or physical, why the female genius should be capable of traveling only along one line. The problem is a problem of direction, a problem of medium.
My potential opponents will probably deny that there have been, and are, no women painters. They will quote the names of Angelica Kaufmann, of Vigee-Lebrun, of Rosa Bonheur, of Berthe Morisot, of Elizabeth Butler; the more modern will mention Ella Bedford, Lucy Kemp-Welch; the most modern will put forward Anne Estelle Rice; and one or two may shyly whisper Maude Goodman. But, honestly, does this amount to anything? I do not suppose that Lady Elizabeth Butler’s “Inkermann” or “Floreat Etona” will outlive the works of Detaille or of Meissonier, however doubtful be the value of these men; the fame of Angelica Kaufmann, though enhanced by the patronage of kings, has not been perpetuated by Bartolozzi, in spite of that etcher’s inflated reputation. Rosa Bonheur’s “Horse Fair” hangs in the National Gallery, and another of her works in the Luxembourg, but merits which balance those of Landseer are not enough; and Berthe Morisot walked, it is true, in the footprints of Manet, but did her feet fill them? The truth of the matter is that there has not been a woman Velasquez, a woman Rembrandt.
Now, as some of my readers may know, I do not make a habit of belittling woman and her work. My writings show that I am one of the most extreme feminists of the day, and I am well aware that woman must not be judged upon her past, that it is perhaps not enough to judge her on her present position, and that imagination, the only spirit with which criticism should be informed if it is to have any creative value, should take note of the potentialities of woman. But still, though we may write off much of the past and flout the record of insult and outrage which is the history of woman under the government of man, we cannot entirely ignore the present: the present may not be the father of the future, but it is certainly one of its ancestors. We have to-day a number of women who paint–the great majority, such as Mrs. Von Glehn, Ella Bedford, Lucy Kemp-Welch, and others who are hung a little higher over the line, are rendering Nature and persons with inspired and photographic zeal; others, such as Anne Estelle Rice, Jessie Dismorr, Georges Banks, are inclined to “fling their paint pot into the faces of the public.” Some do not abhor Herkomer, others are banded with Matisse; but though to be Herkomer may not be supreme, and though to be Matisse may perhaps be insane, it must regretfully be conceded that the heights of the Royal Academy and of Parnassus (or whatever the painter’s mountain may be) are not haunted by the woman painter. Without being carried away by the author of “Bubbles”, I am not inclined to be carried away by Maude Goodman and the splendours of “Taller Than Mother.” Lucy Kemp-Welch’s New Forest ponies are ponies, but I do not suppose that they will be trotting in the next century; they do not balance even the work of Furse.