Painting Modern Lives

Changing roles for women

Women seeking to become professional painters faced significant barriers, such as being ineligible for academy membership or barred from life drawing classes – these were considered ‘improper’ for a woman. However, in art as in society, the perceived roles and status of female artists gradually changed during the course of the 19th century.

Danish artist Anna Ancher (1859-1935) is regarded as one of the Denmark’s most important Impressionists. She was born in Skagen, Denmark’s northernmost and remotest region, and studied drawing in Copenhagen and Paris (in the studio of Puvis de Chavannes). After marrying fellow artist Michael Ancher in 1880, Anna continued to paint the landscapes and people of Skagen, defying the convention that married women should devote themselves to household duties.

The Artist's Mother Ane Hedvig Brøndum in the Blue Room shows several characteristic traits of Ancher’s painting: a deep interest in colour and light, an emphasis on the picture plane rather than the illusion of depth, and the depiction of everyday subject matter. Explore more of her art on Europeana here.

Swedish artist Hanna Pauli (1864-1940) studied in Paris from 1885-87, where she met her husband-to-be, fellow artist Georg Pauli. She was strongly influenced by French painting en plein air, as is evident in her celebrated picture Breakfast Time.

Pauli’s portrait of her friend, the Finnish sculptor Venny Soldan-Brofeldt, was painted in their shared studio in the Montparnasse district of Paris. Soldan-Brofeldt is shown in the midst of the creative process, sitting on the floor holding a small lump of clay. At the time, it was unusual to depict a woman sitting in this informal manner and it was considered improper for bourgeois women to dress and behave like this. Pauli’s portrait depicts a woman free from these social constraints. Kristoffer Arvidsson from the Gothenburg Museum of Art provides wider context for the picture: ‘Female artists’ friendships were important in a male-dominated art world, where women artists were often regarded with suspicion or scornful forbearance. In Paris, many Nordic women artists found a freedom that was denied them on their return to their homelands in the 1890s.’

We had no major debts at the time. The studio was extremely cold and damp; my Finnish friend had to sit wearing a muff when I painted her. The material side of life troubled us very little at all… My friend and I almost always plodded around in slippers; it saved so on shoe-leather and it was so very comfortable.

Hanna Pauli

Finnish artist Maria Wiik (1853-1928) studied at the Drawing School of Helsinki before enrolling at the Académie Julian in Paris, one of the few private schools accepting women at the time.

The title and subject of her painting Out into the World, which depicts two generations of women in a domestic setting, hint at changing social roles for women. The picture won a bronze medal at the 1900 World Exposition and was also included in the 1905 book Women Painters of the World, the full contents of which can be read online at Project Gutenberg.

Having trained as an artist in her native Sweden, Sofie Ribbing (1835-1894) lived and worked across Europe in Rome, London and The Hague. In her art, Ribbing realistically portrayed domestic scenes from everyday life.

Boys Drawing, 1864, is a highlight of both Ribbing’s work and mid-19th century Swedish painting. Its delicate rendering of the soft light falling over the boys creates an atmosphere of intimacy and quiet concentration.