“Only a woman has the right to rigorously practice the Impressionist system,” Téodor de Wyzewa wrote in an 1891 article. The art critic made the claim that the French
style celebrated superficiality in a way that was intrinsically—and unflatteringly—feminine. “She alone,” he continued, “can limit her effort to the translation of impressions.” Other art critics joined de Wyzewa’s chorus, belittling the Impressionists for a new art form they felt suggested the limited capabilities of women, not the sharpened skills of men.
An independent group of artists that staged exhibitions outside the established Paris salon system, the Impressionists were indeed radical, and not easy for critics to love. They prioritized studying the effects of light in small-format works predominantly painted en plein air with unblended colors rendered in soft, broken brushstrokes. Instead of aspiring toward monumental history painting—then considered the pinnacle of artistic achievement—the Impressionists, with their countless views of contemporary Paris, argued that modern life was itself a worthy subject.
This focus on quotidian subject matter helped open the door for female artists. Women had traditionally been prevented from attempting history painting, since the requisite knowledge of human anatomy was considered too ambitious for a woman. Instead, they were pushed toward painting less formal works illustrating daily life, a theme that became synonymous with the Impressionists. Indeed, it was one of the first art movements to include a woman as a founding member.
Yet only five women participated in the entire sequence of eight Impressionist exhibitions (two of whom used pseudonyms and only participated once). Other female artists studied and adopted the Impressionist style, but were formally excluded from the movement. Below are seven artists who exercised their feminine “right to rigorously practice the Impressionist system.”