Lois Mailou Jones, Les clochards, Montmartre, Paris, 1947, casein on wood, 53.3 x 90.2 cm, © Smithsonian American Art Museum
At the turn of the 20th century, the Paris of the Third Republic had not yet ceded its place as the world capital of art. Artists from across the world arrived in the city to study and to create in the heart of modern avant-garde circles. This interest in France was especially due to the various universal exhibitions organised in Paris, as well as the École des Beaux-Arts and the network of private academies that opened during the second half of the 19th century, such as the Académie Julian, the Académie Colarossi, the Académie Vitti and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. These were places that not only broke from pictorial tradition, where students learned from artists of the time, but also places that broke from societal norms: academies allowed women to access professional art education, even offering life drawing classes. The entrance examination for the Beaux-Arts, on the other hand, was not open to women until 1897. In these training spaces the integration of foreign artists initiated an enriching dialogue between French art and movements from all over the world.
These schools were highly social places, with foreign artists taking part during their Parisian sojourns, making the richness of these institutions in which women artists actively participated: Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) and Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973) frequented the Rue du Dragon where the Académie Julian was located, while Hanna Hirsch-Pauli (1864-1940) and Ellen Thesleff (1869-1954) preferred Colarossi’s teaching. E. Thesleff nourished herself on the French Impressionist and Expressionist traditions, while after her studies Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) rejected it, preferring the German legacy. Some women entered these coveted places thanks to scholarships, which in the early 1880s enabled the Finns Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) and Elin Danielson-Gambogi (1861-1919), followed in 1913 by the Swedish Siri Derkert (1888-1973), to attend classes at schools in the Montparnasse district. In the 1930s Augusta Savage (1892-1962) studied at La Grande Chaumière thanks to financial aid obtained after a struggle with the admissions committee, which made her the first African American to benefit from this type of support. After her, Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998) also studied in Paris.
The presence of foreign artists in the French capital was striking. Thus in 1908 the New Zealander Frances Hodgkins (1869-1947) became the first woman to teach at the Académie Colarossi and Fang Junbi (Fan Tchun-pi, 1898-1986) was the first Chinese woman to study at the Beaux-Arts and in 1924 she became the first woman to exhibit at the annual Salon of French Artists. They also invited themselves into the cultural life of the city and into artists’ studios. For example Russian sculptor Anna Golubkina (1864-1927) studied in the studio of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and English painter Gwen John (1876-1939) posed there to earn her living. Their presence marked the sculptor’s production. Artists were also involved in contemporary movements, such as Marianne von Werefkin (1860-1938) who worked alongside the Nabis group. Circles also formed around nationalities. Irina Codreanu (1896-1985) socialised with Romanian artists and wrote in the avant-garde publications circulating amongst the group. Marie Vassilieff (1884-1957), who came to Paris on a scholarship, founded the Académie Russe (renamed the Académie Vassilieff) of which she was the director, to welcome her compatriots.
The women artists who worked in Paris around 1900 have been celebrated in exhibitions such as Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian that took place at the Dahesh Museum in New York in 1999-2000, as well as the travelling exhibition Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900, that first opened at the Denver Art Museum in 2018. Their history has also been the subject of several in-depth studies, such as Sisters of the Brush: Women’s Artistic Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris published in 1994, in which Tamar Garb revisits the lives of these artists, their relationships and their contribution to the history of art.