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April 05, 2008

Painter Babes

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There were lots of really nice-looking gals around when I was in art school. That was back around 1960 when it wasn't considered a near-crime for women to snag a husband in time for college graduation. So a lot of sorority girls would major in art or music or Home Economics and, if all went well by their Junior or Senior years, walk the halls of ivy sporting a fraternity pin or engagement ring.

On the other hand, attractive female artists were nothing new, even by 1960. I could conjure up some possible causes such as social background and selective breeding, but will leave it to Comments for better-informed speculation.

Below are some examples for your consideration.

Angelica Kauffmann - self portrait - 1787
Kauffmann (1741-1807) was born in Switzerland and had a highly successful career working in several countries. Among other achievements, she was a founding member of London's Royal Academy.


Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun - self portraits c.1782 and 1790
Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) was also very successful, painting several portraits of Queen Marie-Antoinette while still in her twenties. She had to flee France after the Revolution, but returned a few years after Napoleon seized power.



Berthe Morisot - photograph and Portrait by Éduard Manet, 1870
Morisot (1841-95) was one of the original Impressionists. She came from a family with wealth, was painted on several occasions by her friend Manet, eventually marrying his brother Eugène.


Elin Danielson - self-portraits, 1900 and 1903
Danielson (1861-1919) was a Finnish artist whose biography can be found here.


Suzanne Valadon - drawing by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, photo
Valadon (1865-1938) began as an artist's model, posing for several Renoir paintings. She took up art and was largely self-taught, but received encouragement and tips from Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, who admired her drawing ability. She was the mother of painter Maurice Utrillo.

Elaine and Willem de Kooning, 1952
Elaine (1918-89), wife of Willem de Kooning for a time, is perhaps best known for her portraits of President Kennedy.

Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning

Birthday - self-portrait by Dorothea Tanning, 1942
Tanning (b. 1910) was the fourth and final wife of Surrealist painter Max Ernst. She changed from Surrealism to nearly-abstract painting and later became as writer as well.

What other artists qualify for this Pantheon?



posted by Donald at April 5, 2008


Vanessa Bell, a painter and Virginia Woolf's sister, was one of the prettiest women who ever lived, I think. Not all her photos show this well, but she was a smasher. Here's a link to a photo. , and another.

Posted by: alias clio on April 5, 2008 6:15 PM

Georgia O'Keefe was a looker.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 - 1653) wasn't classically beautiful but painted a helluva Caravaggio influenced picture, Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Which leads to the really interesting question: why has there never been a truly path breaking fountainhead woman artist, a School Of woman artist, as in Caravaggio, Poussin, Manet, Velasquez, Titian, etc., etc? Puzzling, in that women clearly are capable of achieving high levels of technical proficiency.
Of course, it's not puzzling to me, but then I'm not PC.*

*The answer is that women are not remotely interested in those abstract conceptual spatial concerns, including thinking about and wrestling with the nature of oil paint itself, which have obsessed those male painters who have achieved fountainhead status.

Posted by: ricpic on April 5, 2008 7:14 PM

Vigée-Lebrun gets my vote. What a babe!

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 5, 2008 8:53 PM

Anyone notice that in these paintings all of the women have strong chins? If you look at the photo of Dorothea Tanning in side-profile, she doesn't have one, but in the painting, she does. Artistic license?

Posted by: Bill on April 5, 2008 9:27 PM

ricpic, for goodness' sake. I'm not pc either, but anyone can see that painting and sculpture were difficult arts to get started in for anyone who wasn't making a career out of them. Oils, canvas, studio space, and lessons were expensive. Painting guilds in the high middle ages accepted women, but as painting/sculpting from "life" (nudes) became more important in art, women were increasingly shut out of studios for reasons of propriety.

In those forms of visual art to which women had easier access - embroidery, dress-making, interior decoration, gardening, tapestry-making, illumination etc. - they showed considerable skill and interest in exploring the possibilities of their materials. A few even achieved a level of greatness close to or surpassing that of men.

What women really lack is not so much ability in either of the senses you mention, as the single-minded focus on work that male painters, writers, etc. have. Few women are willing to let their lives fall apart in order to get their work done (though their lives may fall apart for other reasons). And that is one of the fundamental differences between the sexes.

Posted by: alias clio on April 5, 2008 9:29 PM

Ceceilia Beaux?

Tons of gals have been out there being dynamic about doing art for the last few decades, but I suppose we're focusing on the eras prior to the present.

"Artemesia," that movie about Artemesia Gentileschi, was pretty corny but also pretty interesting in the way it showed how Renaissance paintings got painted and how the studios operated. Some decent arty soft-core sex scenes too, if I remember right, and I daresay I do.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 5, 2008 10:58 PM

Vanessa Bell as a Pre-Raphaelite beauty! Dante Gabriel Rossetti would have swooned with lust! There's something pretty funny about that, given the less-than-admiring attitude of Ms. Bell and her circle towards earlier British art.

What's with all these 19th-century British babes and their firm jawlines and chins, anyway? During my years in Britain (1983-6) I didn't notice any such tendency among the London girls. Although I must admit that Dame Diana Rigg, one of the great beauties of the 20th century, had a marvelous jawline.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 6, 2008 11:09 AM

some of those women look good, but at least half of them have a certain 'mannish' quality. no doubt all of them were go'ers though.

Posted by: cjm on April 6, 2008 11:26 AM

I think the Scottish artist Lucy McKenzie is rather charming. She appeared on at least three occasions in the magazine Barely Legal.

Posted by: Saint Russell on April 6, 2008 11:41 AM

Yep, Vanessa Bell won the gene lottery instead of her sister, Virginia Woolf.

Georgia O'Keeffe was okay in the face department. But from the Stieglitz photos that suddenly bloomed a few years ago, we know in full detail that she had a nice shape, even when entering middle age.

Beaux was attractive and held her looks even beyond middle age. Like Sargent, with whom her work can be compared, she had a sex life that either wasn't one, or else was elusively undocumented.

As for those Victorian gals with faces like those on Greek statues, I almost never see them. Though Rossetti's main muse, Jane (Burden) Morris did indeed look like that: there are photos.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 6, 2008 11:50 AM

I always kinda liked Vanessa Bell's art, as well as her house-decorator's sense. Sexy rich-hippie boho stuff, a favorite style of mine ... Don't like a lot of the attitudes and smugness and snobbishness, of course. But the style's pretty great, IMHO.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 6, 2008 11:56 AM

Photos of Virginia W. in her teens, before illness and (near) eating disorders had taken their toll on her looks, show a very pretty young woman. Not so beautiful as her sister, or not beautiful in quite such a ripe, melting, sexy way - but still very pretty. Young men who met them then were universally agreed that they were both ravishing.

About turning up their noses at earlier English art: the Bloomsbury painters were trying to bring continental flair to England, and like most innovators they reacted too strongly against the past. But in any case, the reason why Vanessa Bell looks like a pre-Raphaelite beauty is not ironic at all: she was one, by inheritance. Her mother's family was friendly with both Burne Jones and G.F. Watts, and her face is said to have been one of the inspirations for the "Burne-Jones type".

Regarding the hard jawlines of English women: that's a class thing. The upper-middle and aristocratic classes in England usually descend from Anglo-Norman families; their features are quite distinctive and recognisable. At least that's the explanation I've heard. Several of the Mitford sisters had it; Camilla Parker-Bowles, now Princess of Wales, has it, and so do the late Princess Diana's sisters; I don't think Diana herself did.

Posted by: alias clio on April 6, 2008 2:32 PM

My education continues! Thanks Donald!

Posted by: Lester Hunt on April 6, 2008 3:02 PM

Apparently, women can't be bothered - women...lack...the single minded focus on work that male painters, writers, etc., have - or they're too sensible - few women are willing to let their lives fall apart in order to get their work done - to do great things.

An admission that they don't get great things done because they're, wait for it...better than men!

Bottom line? An admission that they don't get great things done.

Posted by: ricpic on April 6, 2008 4:04 PM

ricpic, that's total bs. I didn't say women "can't be bothered" and my lines cannot be interpreted that way. Single-mindedness is partly a matter of one's opportunities and I daresay partly a matter of genes.

In any case, you're overlooking the great things women artists have done, in those areas which I already mentioned. You also entirely missed my point about women not being allowed into studios to paint once studies from the nude became a de rigueur part of an artist's training. Prior to that, which occurred in the Renaissance, women were able to enter artists' guilds and did, but most painters from the period before the Renaissance were anonymous craftsmen/women, whose names have not come down to us.

And I didn't say women were morally superior to men, either. They had different responsibilities and different limitations on their movements, that's all.

Posted by: alias clio on April 6, 2008 6:01 PM

The upper-middle and aristocratic classes in England usually descend from Anglo-Norman families; their features are quite distinctive and recognisable. At least that's the explanation I've heard. Several of the Mitford sisters had it; Camilla Parker-Bowles, now Princess of Wales, has it

Wasn't Camilla descended from a long line of thoroughbred horses?

Posted by: Peter on April 6, 2008 8:38 PM

Valadon was Erik Satie's lover for a time. The episode is obscure, but Satie had no other relationships that amounted to anything.

Alias Clio is on the money. Music and painting were family businesses run on the apprenticeship system, and they needed startup money. Women were more successful in literature because writing just needs paper, ink, and time.

Posted by: John Emerson on April 6, 2008 9:27 PM

How come there is not a hot-list of male painters, categorized by looks? Why the emphasis on babe-ness when it comes to women artists?
It matters not a whit that Toulouse-Lautrec was physically not toothsome as a male specimen, he was a sublime painter of great sensibility and acuteness. The sculptor Louise Bourgeois is also a gnome-like little woman, but so what? She is a powerful artist. And of course, there was Louise Nevelson, who looked like some antique hooker on the docks, but pretty powerful as a sculptor. G

Posted by: Gabriella Morrison on April 7, 2008 5:30 PM

Gabriella -- We had a female Blowhard for a while after Friedrich had to reduce his contributing and, if she was still actively with us, perhaps she'd be best at turning up paint-stained guy hotties; but that's outta my league. Umberto Eco recently came out with a book on ugliness, so maybe we ought to try recruiting him to guest-blog a piece on "Piggy Painters" to be "fair" and all that. In any case, I never equated good looks with ability. Just thought it'd be interesting to point out that some artists aren't much worse to look at than their products.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 7, 2008 7:23 PM

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