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Gender Observations

I was looking though the latest issue of American Art Collector Magazine recently (which is a monthly catalog of all the contemporary realist art gallery shows in the US) and I started to notice I could often tell if a painting was done by a man or a woman instinctively, without reading the name.

I decided to test myself, by looking at the painting and covering the name and then guessing the gender of the painter, and was shocked to find I was correct most the time.

I have no idea what makes a woman's painting look like a woman's painting, do you? It was based more on a feeling than anything else, certainly not ability or subject matter, but just an approach. Whether still life, figure, or landscape, I could tell. Figure I'd say is the easiest to identify, landscape the most subtle, but all are discernible.

I've looked at this magazine a LOT over the last year or two, I pore over every page every month and make notes of galleries and artists to watch, and I think it's been helpful to train my eye to recognize trends and styles in the realist movement. I noticed a couple months ago I could recognize different areas of the country sometimes (different "schools of training" etc). I can also tell who has studied with or been inspired by whom (David Leffel and Malcolm Liepke have apparently huge followings because it seems every issue has a splashy, red-nosed New York-style sprite drinking a martini, or a still life with a spray of "silver dollar" willow receding into black with some scattered grapes...). I also feel I can tell if someone has studied the Florence School/Bargue/Sight Size method.

But I didn't realize till just this month that gender is so obvious. Every painting is pretty clearly executed by a male or female hand. Of course this isn't a scientific study, just a feeling, but try it and maybe you can tell, too.

It also brings me to my other gender observation. Is it possible to paint a female nude without SOME aspect of sexism? It seems to me to be nearly impossible to paint a female that does not reference thousands of years of art history and have some element of a female stereotype implicit in the image.

How does a woman paint a woman without referencing how men have always painted women?

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Reader Comments (9)

That is so interesting! I'm going to have to try it. I've also noticed that different regions seem to have different color palates. People in South Florida tend to use those necco wafer colors, in New England more greys, blues, earthy colors.

December 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLucy King

It would be more accurate, I believe, to say that people are generally incapable of not applying their prejudices to their renditions of any of humanity - male or female.

As to the difference between male and female ... I haven't a clue as to the what and why. Nature vs. Nurture is a debate without end.

December 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterscott

Hi Scott, I agree, a human can't paint another human (much less a naked one) without overlaying a set of judgments and definitions - prejudices. It's inevitable.

But I do think there is a shade of difference between the dilemmas of a male painter and the dilemmas of a female painter.

Women have for most of history been the subject of painting rather than the executors. It's inevitable we carry some sense of that into our paintings.

I realize men feel the weight of history as well. But I do think there's a difference.

December 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

A student claiming to see a difference in paintings done by women vs. those done by men at the art college I went to would not have made it out of the building alive. I am serious.

I remember reading somewhere how people had a hard time attributing some paintings either to Judith Leyster or to ugh, that Dutch dude whose name escapes me. And they would write in glowing terms about the vigor and confidence of a painting when they thought Dutch Dude did it, and then slag the painting for being tentative and feeble once it was decided Leyster did it.

I was going to post that I have no urge to paint women naked because there is basically no way to paint a female nude without the weight of history crashing down on it, and then I had an idea for a painting with naked women in it, and now I have to face the fact that I am a hyporite. Unless I find a way to make them into subjects instead of objects. The solution I thought of so far is that they would be wearing hats that are visibly an element of a uniform, and somehow I could get across that the nudity is a uniform as well. But not completely. Stay tuned.

December 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSpatula

Why is it inevitable?

December 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterscott

Why is it inevitable that as a woman artist I carry a different sense of history into my paintings than a man does, is that what you are asking me?

December 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

Spatula -

Yes, it is dangerous territory to claim to see a difference in paintings by women versus paintings by men, and it would have been a big deal to bring in up in any of my art classes too.

I wouldn't begin to attempt to generalize a theme of what that difference is; the differences between individuals within any group are more varied than the differences between the groups.

Which is why I was surprised I COULD tell the difference. I don't think the difference can be described or analyzed, but somehow I just knew when I was looking at woman's painting versus a man's.

On painting women:

"Unless I find a way to make them into subjects instead of objects."

Exactly the dilemma.

December 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

"On painting women:

'Unless I find a way to make them into subjects instead of objects.'

Exactly the dilemma."

I've been thinking about that more, and I think there might be a way into being able to do so, and it has to do with empathy and compassion for your subject. There are some paintings, though done by men, that have this quality, and strike me as being from the woman's point of view. The best example I can think of is the bartender at Folie Bergere by Manet:

Mind you, she's clothed. Another one that pings me as "subject, not object" is Joan of Arc by Bastien-Lepage. It is my most loved painting in the entire Metropolitan. I can't explain it. In a building choking on masterpieces, I love roomfuls and roomfuls, and of them all, I love that one best. I can stand in front of it for hours. No less than two men in camel-hair coats tried to pick me up one time I stood looking at it, that's how long I was in one spot.

But I digress. And again, she's clothed. But somehow, those two paintings show a woman's point of view, not just the woman - they look with her, not at her.

If I can paint my milkmaids (they are milkmaids; god, could this get more estrogenic?) with this quality, maybe even nudity might work? I'm also considering having them wear coveralls...

December 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSpatula

Interesting stuff. Im glad I found your blog and your work.

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan
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