The Union of Women Painters and Sculptors, founded in 1881 by sculptor Hélène Bertaux, was the first organisation of women artists in France. Bertaux believed that women artists could achieve together what few could achieve as individuals.
Although the Union was committed to exhibiting members’ work in the same manner as other emerging societies, it also intended to provide a context for ‘feminine’ art, and to support younger and struggling women artists by representing their interests. It campaigned to have women artists written about in the press and admitted to the Paris Salon jury as well as the prestigious state funded Ecole des Beaux-Arts (this was achieved in 1903 – although special classes had first been opened for women in 1896).
The Union held the first French women only exhibition in 1882. The layout of the Salon des Femmes was non-hierarchical and the range of works broad – including drawings, oils and watercolours, as well as sculptures, miniatures, enamels, fans, earthenware and porcelain.
From 1895 a room of decorative arts was also included.
The works displayed at its annual exhibition rose from 94 submissions by 38 artists in 1882, to 942 by nearly 300 artists in 1897. The Union had 450 members by 1900, and its exhibitions benefited from Bertaux persuading officials who purchased artwork for State collections to add the Salon des Femmes to the roster of the shows they visited.
In the earlier exhibitions the Salon was decorated with pots of flowers, walls were repainted and carpet laid. Professional decorators and exhibition installers were hired, and the installations became more grand and luxurious with time, which was quite different from the conventions of Salons at the time. Each wall was hung separately and the criteria for placement included themes, sizes and shapes and how works hung together – so that the exhibition could be considered as a whole. For many critics, who were more used to commenting on individual artists, this was frustrating.
Although the Union was generally quite conservative politically, socially, and stylistically, it believed that women had a special gift that would enhance France’s cultural reputation and maintain the uplifting moral-cultural position that seemed to some to be in jeopardy at the turn of the century.
The earliest Union participants were also committed to creating a separate feminine art that would preserve the conservative values of the French academic tradition. Noted for their depiction of traditional subject matter such as landscapes, portraiture, still lifes (such as flower painting) and the occasional idealised female nude, these women’s works were generally realist in style.
By 1931, a new group, Femmes Artistes Modern (FAM) tired of the conservative nature of the Union, provided an alternative exhibition forum for modern, independent female artists.
source: Garb, Tamar; Sisters of the Brush, Women`s Artistic Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1994
This is an excerpt from my online Introduction to Modern European Art art appreciation program http://www.modernartappreciation.com