Rokeby Distance Drawing: Gibson Girls

Get ready for a total art history nerd post! The Rokeby Museum has given me access to their archive and I have been digging through the letters and images of Rachael Robinson (a 19th century illustrator).

Charles Gibson Rachael Robsinon Elmer Courtney Clinton
The Sweetest Story Ever Told, C. 1910, Charles Dana Gibson, Public Domain Image from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

As a teenager Rachael studied drawing in New York with her teacher Ernest Knaufft. In one of her letters back home she writes about seeing an exhibition of work by Charles Dana Gibson (image 2). From her letter we know that his work had a big impact on her art!

There is a new exhibition of Gibson’s pen drawing a little way from Mr. Knaufft. I have been twice, they are grand. I wish thee could have seen them. Some of them sell for $2.00. They are very large. Some 3 by 2 feet. I should think he is a young man yet. Some of his lines, on faces especially, are so fine you can scarcely see them. They have to be sent to Paris to be reproduced.

— Rachael Robinson Elmer to Robinson Family, March 5, 1893

Gibson was famous for his images of ‘modern womanhood’. At the turn of the century American women had better access to education and work possibilities than they had in the past. The role of the woman was changing and Gibson captured this evolution in his art.

rachael robsinon elmer ann robinson pen and ink charles gibson
Portrait of Ann Stevens Robinson Reading, c. 1891–1900, Pen and Ink, Rachael Robinson Elmer (1878–1919)

As an art student Elmer student and drew sketches of her relatives. The above image shows her mother Ann reading the pages of her father’s manuscript. Her author father was nearly blind at this point and her mother played a central role in his writing process. She corrected and re-transcribed his writing and corresponded with his editors.

gibson rachael robinson pen and ink
L to R: Portrait of Rachel Byrd Stevens, c. 1893–1903, Rachael Robinson Elmer (1878–1919), Box 19, Image 3357; Head of a Girl, c. 1882–1935, Charles Dana Gibson, Public Domain Image from Library of Congress

In a sense both artists recorded a modern image of womanhood. Yet they couldn’t feel more different. Elmer’s women feel old fashion compared to the “Gibson Girls”. But given a little context, her image of Ann is a much truer example of a woman at work.

Gibson’s depiction of 20th century womanhood isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s limited. He depicts the women he saw and knew in his affluent New York circle. Elmer’s art helps broaden our understanding of what social change meant for a different part of the country. Of course neither artist tells us much about the condition of BIPOC from this period. For me this comparison highlights the importance of seeking out new voices from history.

Art Education in 19th C. Illustration

I’m slowly pushing forward on an independent research project I started in the fall thanks to the curator Ric Kasini Kadour and the Rokeby Museum. My research is based on letters from a correspondence course in illustration (1891-1893) in which Ernest Knaufft of the Chautauqua Society of Fine Arts writes to his adolescent student Rachael Robinson Elmer.

As a trained academic artist, my contribution focuses on formal analysis of the drawing assignments and feedback. As part of my engagement, I am reenacting the main drawing assignment. I want to show how the course rejects the idea of drawing as a kind of image making and instead presents it as a form of research through observation. This idea of going beyond reproduction and striving for conceptual understanding is evidence of a philosophical rigor embedded in the illustrative tradition. 

Drawing Course

Drawing practices are taught in this course through a series of assignments that can be broken down into three categories: copying old master drawings, drawing from life and drawing from imagination. Throughout the letter’s Knaufft meditates on the theoretical difference of copying and drawing from life. He develops an argument in which he claims that copying teaches the artist the craft of drawing (theories on mark making), while drawing from nature teaches the artist abstract concepts related to scientific theories on light, optics and geometry. The art advocate and illustrator Andrew Loomis calls the later the Form Principal.

Throughout the course Knaufft assigns different old master drawings for his student to copy. Generally these drawings are from the French school and portrait images. As a follow up exercise Knaufft asks Elmer to recreate the subjects position and lighting, using herself as a model in front of the mirror.

He argues that true learning happens in this second drawing. That in trying to recreate the essence of an artist’s drawing from life, a young artist comes to understand the intention behind the effects in the master drawing.

#Study (WIP), Selfie, 2020, graphite on paper

In this way Knaufft makes an interesting theoretical distinction between craft and fine art. Craft is defined as an artist’s ability to learn a visual vocabulary used to replicate images. Fine Art is a search for knowledge through a process of observation that employs drawing as a kind of research tool.

Equal Access to Art Education

Also striking is the professional nature of Knaufft’s mentorship approach. This is illustrated by his detailed and direct criticism of Elmer’s assignments and his encouragement for her to apply to art publications. 

In an article in the Art Amateur (an art magazine Knauft edited) Knauft outlines the requirements for a successful newspaper illustration career. In the article he states that a high level of art theory is not necessary for a successful career in the field. He explains that an illustrator can be successful with good ability to copy photographs (a process similar to copying old master drawings).

This suggests that the emphasis on drawing from life, in the illustration course, is not about preparing Elmer for a career as an illustrator but about providing her with full access to a fine art education.

The fact that this kind of higher education was being made available by correspondence – and to women – suggests the illustration tradition may have been engaged with socially conscious ideals.

In Elmer’s case she went on to have a successful career as an illustrator. She is best remembered for a series of fine art postcards – prints from this series are part of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C..

rachael robinson elmer rokeby museum
Rachael Robinson Elmer, Art Lover’s New York, 1914

While further research is required this hypothesis offer a new lens through which to understand the tradition.

Fingers crossed I’m applying for different opportunities to present my early findings and am working towards a creative project and eventual show.

Parallel Visions in Exhibition

Velazquez, Rembrandt, Vemeer: Parallel Vision at the Museo Del Prado is my top pick for a museum show in 2019. Man I would do anything to go see this show!

For those of us not able to jet over to Madrid for a weekend there is a great interview with the show’s curator Alejandro Vergara on the Art Newspaper podcast. The show challenges the popular narrative around nationalism and art and invites the viewer to reflect on the shared traits of 16th and 17th c. Dutch and Spanish art.

What is especially interesting about the argument is that during this period the two regions were at war. Starting in 1568 now Holland and Belgium (then part of Spain) revolted against the Spanish monarch. The result was an 80 year conflict that ended with the creation of the two new nations.

Art history tends to celebrate Hollands independence by fixating on what made their art unique and “Dutch”.

Shared Style in Dutch and Spanish Art

Section 5. “Painting with Big Strokes of the Brush”
Izquierda: Portrait of a Man, Frans Hall, Oil on Canvas, c. 1635 ; Derecha: The Buffoon el Primo, Diego Velazquez, Oil on Canvas, 1644 (Image Credit Museo del Prado)

This show challenges the national flavour of both the Dutch and Spanish school. Instead it tells how both were influenced by 16th c. Venetian art.

It argues that artists like Rembrandt and Velazquez interpreted this shared legacy in a similar fashion and simultaneous developed a new artistic aesthetic that departed from the idealism of the renaissance creating a humanistic realist style.

What I love about this argument is it reminds us of the universal nature of knowledge. Something as personal as artistic style is not limited to a nation or an individual. Given access to past knowledge we are all capable of artistic breakthrough.

Brushy Art in Russia and United States

vernon lee john singer sargent
Portrait of Vernon Lee, John Singer Sargent, Oil on Canvas, 1881 (Image Credit Tate)

A fantasy curation project: I think it would be a real hoot to build on the thesis of the Museo del Prado show and explore the shared traits of other national schools of painting.

A pretty epic example is the portrait art of the late 19th c. in the United States and Russia. American artists like John Singer Sargent and Cecilia Beaux both painted in a brushy modern aesthetic that parallels the work of Russian artists like Ilia Repin and Valentin Serov.

Résultats de recherche d'images pour « valentin serov »
Girl with Peaches, Valentin Serov, Oil on Canvas, 1881

These artists were all heavily influenced by French art – both the academic system and the impressionist style. Interestingly you can also see a lot of Rembrandt and Velazquez in their loose brushy approach to painting.

Sita et Sarita cecilia beaux
Sita et Sarita, Cecilia Beaux, Oil on Canvas, 1881 (Image Credit Musee d’Orsay)

Conceptually their work brought ideas of modern psychology into portrait art. These portraits are oozing with attitude and feeling. I find this image by Beaux particularly radical. She juxtaposes innocence (the white doll like costume and the cat) with the girls cool self confidant expression and pose.

Throughout art history we can find countless examples of overlap and cross pollination between different national schools. The message over and over seems to be that we can achieve more collectively than we can in isolation.

Canadian Fine Art Spring Auctions

May is an exciting month for Canadian Art! At the end of the month is spring auction week in Toronto! Several of the top Canadian auction houses will be hosting live auctions of Canadian art.

About a week before, they open their doors to the public showcasing the work that will go up for auction. I love going to these previews because you get to see a lot of amazing Canadian art that isn’t on display in the museums. It’s a great way to get to know artists outside the the regular cannon.

Laura Muntz

One piece I’m particularly excited to see this year is a lovely portrait, Lady in White, by Laura Muntz, up for sale at Waddinton’s Auction House. Muntz is considered part of the Canadian Impressionist movement. I would nuance that and describe her as a Tonalist and place her with artists like Andres Zorn, John Singer Sarger or Cecilia Beaux. Like these artists Muntz is showy with her brush work.

The portrait on view is a great example of this. There is an intriguing debate in the catalogue about the name of the sitter. Apparently the work was sold to the last owners as an official portrait of a Mrs. Reid. But the auction house argues that their is evidence in a book by the renowned scholar Joan Murray that the portrait was actually a former roommate of the artist.

In my own research I came across a secound painting of a woman in the same dress, called ‘Woman Reading’. This would suggest the later story is true as it would be odd that the painter would supply the dress for a formal portrait.

More importantly the repetition of the dress tells us something about the artists focus. This isn’t a portrait this is a fabric study. The dress of the sitter is a playground for the artist to make subtle temperature shifts and bold brush strokes! She’s showing off her technique! I couldn’t help recall the beautiful fabric studies of Leonardo di Vinci.

Helen McNicoll: Girl in the Field

Another top pick is Girl in the Field by Helen Galloway McNicoll on view at the Heffel Fine Art Auction House. McNicoll is a turn of the century artist who is classified as part of the Canadian impressionist group. Like the other artist she studied in Europe and her work explores colour and brush work.

She paints women and children outdoors and it would be easy to group her with other ‘women artists’ like Berthe Morisot who painted a similar subject. I believe McNicoll would have wanted us to look beyond subject. I think she painted women and kids because that’s what was respectable for a woman of her time to paint. But I’m going to be bold and argue that she wasn’t really thinking about the kids.

Seeing her work I couldn’t help but think about her in terms of the Group of Seven. Their subject is Northern Ontario but that’s not what the work is about. It’s all about style and self expression.

McNicoll is a bold painter. She plays a lot with strong contrasts of light and dark and cool and warm. In this painting she has her main subject in a cool shadow. Our eye is drawn to the girls face which matches the tree in tone but is set apart with it’s orange hue (she’s playing with the blue-orange complimentary). The larger shadow shape sits on the bright sunlit background. Her master stroke is the girls white headscarf. Although it sits within the large shadow it is about half a step lighter than anything else. It breaks the girl from the tree so that we can read her silhouette more clearly.

Jack Bush: Red Vision

Jumping ahead to post-war abstract art, Heffel has an intriguing Jack Bush titled Red Vision from 1958 on view. I love this piece because it shows us the artists thinking process.

This work represents the period right before he found his groove. In a work like this he is trying to think abstract. Bush was trained as an illustrator and had his own illustration studio. When he first started painting abstract works he would pencil in his shapes before painting them in.

When the American art critic Clement Greenberg saw his work he told him to lose the pencil. This first generation of Abstract Expressionism was all about the automatic process. No planning just make a mark and than respond with another (and another). It seems easy. But it’s really hard to get yourself into a headspace where you are not planning!

I love the red blob because we can see how he massed it in. He probably started with a mark and than scrubbed his brush outwards to build this organic shape. Look at how the outline of the shape is frayed. These imperfect lines carry over into his later work. It gives his minimalist style a sense of energy and a human touch. This work is all about experimentation!

It is so easy to stick to what you already know. I have such admiration for artists like Jack Bush who spent their whole career pushing beyond their comfort zone and redefining their art.

Frederick Loveroff: Farm Scene

Visiting the auction preview at Consignor Canadian Fine Arts, I was introduced to the work of Frederick Nicholas Loveroff. I was quite taken by this lovely landscape called Farm Scene.

A contemporary of the Group of Seven, Loveroff was a Western Canadian artist with family roots in Russia. His paint handling and colour is similar to the Group of Seven artists but his composition is completely different.

Look how high the horizon line is! Two-thirds of the canvas is white snow! It’s bold and radically different to the Group of Seven approach that favoured a silhouette composition. Artists like Tom Thomson are best known for works like the iconic Jack Pine where the design of the work centers on a dark foreground set on a light background.

What’s so interesting about comparing these two works is that we can see how the landscape has guided the artists design choices. The prairies are defined by a sense that you can see the flat landscape for miles. By keeping the horizon high Loveroff gives his painting that expansive feel of the prairies. A region like Algonquin (where the Group of Seven famously painted) is a thick forest set against a large bright body of water. The comparison reminds us how much our environment influences our ideas!

Key Dates

This years live auction sessions will be held in Toronto on the following days:

Waddington’s Live Auction: Monday, May 27, 7PM, 275 King Street East, 2nd Floor

Consignor Live Auction: Tuesday, May 28, 7PM, 111 Queens Park

Heffel Live Auction: Wednesday, May 29, 4 PM Post-War & Contemporary Art, 7 PM Canadian Impressionist & Modern Art , Design Exchange, Toronto


The women of 19th century Grez-sur-Loing

There is something both compelling and moving, I felt, in the way certain male artists portrayed women: a kind of longing that was not just an expression of the erotic…[but] a desire to be the other as well as to view her, and at the same time an acknowledgement of irrevocable separation. – Wendy Lesser

Femme Sculpteur portrait William Blair Bruce
Femme Sculpteur, by William Blair Bruce, 1891

Femme Sculpteur is a portrait of the Swedish artist Caroline Bruce produced by her husband, the Canadian painter William Blair Bruce. The painting was exhibited at the 1891 Salon of the Société des Artistes Français in Paris, France.  

The two met a decade earlier in the small artistic community of Grez, France. Like many small French villages at the time Grez was home to a community of artists painting landscape in the impressionist style.

What set Grez apart from many of the other artist colonies was its cosmopolitan nature (Swedish, British, American and even Japanese artists painted there) and the presence of a large contingent of female painters.

History remembers the men, but women actually had a commanding presence in 19th century impressionist painting – a fact currently being celebrated in the show, Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionismcurated by Laurence Madeline.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me

To say this was a golden age for women’s liberation would be an exaggeration. Women only ever made up about 10% of exhibitors at the salon and, as Madeline talks about in the catalogue for her show, much of the work of these pioneering women has been lost overtime.

Double Portrait Emma Löwstädt Francis Brook Chadwick
Double Portrait, by Francis Chadwick, 1898

Interestingly, one record of the female artists in Grez that has survived is works by male artists depicting these women working in Grez. Paintings like the above Double Portrait, by Francis Chadwick, depict women at work and as professional equals to their male counterparts.

The sort of respect shown to the female subject is noteworthy if we consider how women were portrayed in the preceding Rococo and the eventual Modernist periods.

rococo boucher
Brown Odalisque, by Francois Boucher


de kooning woman portrait
Woman I, by Willem De Kooning, 1950-52

Social propriety in the 19th century

After a visit to the Bruce couple, the German artist Jelka Rosen had this to say about the work of our ‘Femme Sculpteur’ Caroline Bruce:

In her studio she had the life-size nude of the baker in Grez which she had done for the Salon. This nasty statue stood in her sitting room in a corner with its back to the public, so as not to show his sex, althou [sic] she had modeled this part in great detail.

Women at the time were under a great deal of pressure to follow strict moral codes. In the arts this presented a real challenge as the instruction of the day was based around the study of the nude model. Moreover, the idea of a women moving to an artist colony and living alone was also considered risky behaviour.

So how did so many women overcome this sort of societal pressure?

Reasonable accommodation for women

academie julian women
Academie Julian, Paris, group of art students, circa 1885

Mary Alcott Nieriker (sister of Louisa May Alcott) wrote a “how to guide” for women wishing to study art in France. In her book she encouraged women interested in plein air to choose Grez over the risky Barbizon which was known for its vie boheme.

Grez’s reputation as accommodating to “female needs” was due to the Hotel Chevillon and “Mère” Chevillon who acted as a sort of den mother to women staying in her lodging keeping the place “respectable” for female guests.

Many of the women at Grez came from the Académie Julian, a private art school in Paris which was the first French institution to accept women.

In the early years of the Académie women were simply “not excluded” and allowed to study alongside men. According to the school’s founder Rodolph Julian the women that joined the school were all foreigners. In an interview with Sketch, a British art journal, Julian comments on this arrangement:

It was extremely awkward and disagreeable and I soon saw that if I were to hope to get my own country women to work with me I should have to make different arrangements.

His solution was to set up a separate atelier for women. During a period of transition, women could choose to study in one atelier or the other, but eventually rules were established that excluded women from the men’s atelier.

It’s very easy to look at the situation through a contemporary lens and criticize the separation and supervision of these women.

However, Art Historian Catherine Fehrer suggests that in the case of the Académie this decision was not taken on account of male students but “responded more to the needs of bourgeois families who […] were fearful of mixed classes.”

This idea that the women’s ateliers were more of an accommodation than an assault on women’s rights seems credible when you consider that women’s enrollment at the Académie rose from a handful of students to 50 to 60 per year after the separate ateliers were established.

Women encouraged to compete

rosa bonher portrait debufe
Portrait de Marie-Rosalie dite Rosa Bonheur, By Édouard Dubufe, 1857

Another sign of the director’s commitment to his female students is the way in which internal concours (competitions) were organised.

The school was renowned not just for teaching its students technique, but also for teaching them how to survive the art world. Monthly concours were organised for students to learn how to prepare for the competitive Salon system that awaited them after their studies.

Although women and men studied in separate facilities, the competitions were mixed and adjudicating professors were not told the name or the gender of participants until after prizes were awarded.

Many women from the Académie did go on to show in the Salon. Rosa Bonheur, the foremost animal painter of the time said, “M. Julian understands that by determination and perseverance, a woman can very well equal a man in the science and the arts.”

This is by no means a story of revolution, it is a story of reform. It is an example of how a society can work to understand the needs of a marginalized population and find ways to begin including them.

In our present age where the question of equality is ever being negotiated, this story of the inclusion is a relevant example of how considerate accommodation can act as a catalyst for social change.   

Carolina Benedicks-Bruce with her sculpture L'obsède 1910
Carolina Benedicks-Bruce with her sculpture L’obsède 1910

Sources used for this post:

Nochlin, Linda. (1971). Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness

Fehrer, Catherine. (1994). Women at the Academie Julian in Paris. The Burlington Magazine (Vol. 136, No. 110), pp. 752-757

Curator, Bruce, Tobi ; with essays by Gehmacher, Arlene & Koval, Anne & Gredts, William H. & Fox, Ross. (2014). Into the light : the paintings of William Blair Bruce (1859-1906)

Edited and Introduced by Murray, Joan. Letters Home: 1859-1906 The Letters Of William Blair Bruce. Newcastle:  Penumbra Press , 1982. Print