The Artists

The Women Artists of the Heidelberg School

This Internet site opens the doors on the lives and artworks of the artists, Clara Southern, Jane Price, Jane Sutherland, May Vale and Elizabeth Parsons.

It is a reference site, and is an important step towards addressing the imbalance that exists in the recognition between the men and women artists of the Heidelberg School.

In researching the biographies of these five women artists, what soon became evident, was just how difficult it was for them to achieve professional recognition and to survive as professional artists.

Presented here is the story of five 'survivors'. Each of them played a significant role in the development of the professional standing of women artists in Australia, and each contributed to the greater awareness of the public to the high standard of art that was achievable by women artists.

Elizabeth Parsons, has been included with these Heidelberg School artists, for her role as artist and teacher, and an advocate of plein air painting, was like that of her male counterpart, Louis Buvelot. She was a pioneer for women artists of this period, and her election in 1875, to the Council of the Victorian Academy of Arts, paved the way for other professional women artists to be accepted on future executive positions.

Women, such as May Vale and Jane Sutherland, continued with the fight for the professional recognition of women artists, and were in 1900, the first two women elected to the Council of the Victorian Artists' Society.

Clara Southern was also a fighter, with that same pioneering spirit, and was the first woman member of the Australian Artists' Association, and the first to serve on its committee.

Jane Price, the fifth of the women artists on this site, as a governess, was a strong link between many of the art families at this time, and she too was a pioneer, and in Sydney, was a Foundation Member of the Society of Women Painters.

A number of these artists had works accepted in the First Exhibition of Australian Women's Work, which was held in Melbourne in 1907. (A microfiche copy of the catalogue to this exhibition is available in the La Trobe Collection. State Library of Victoria. (LTMF 24)). One wonders why this exhibition was held. Was it in response to a request from the public? Was it in recognition of the lack of support for women artists up to this time? Or was it a way of placating a group within the community who had otherwise been forgotten? Whatever the reason, history shows that many of the women who contributed works to this exhibition have since been overlooked, and are well overdue for further research.

In 1975, the issue of the contribution made by women artists of this period, was considered in the exhibition Australian Women Artists: One Hundred Years 1840-1940, held at the George Paton and Ewing Galleries in Melbourne.

Seventeen years later, and eighty-five years after the 1907 exhibition, in March 1992, an important touring exhibition of women's art works was opened at Heide Park and Art Gallery. This exhibition was specifically aimed at drawing attention to nineteen of the women artists of the Heidelberg era. The exhibition was titled, Completing the Picture: Women Artists and the Heidelberg Era, and was a great success.

Through the exhibition, many thousands were enlightened as to the existence of these women and their artworks, as the exhibition toured Victoria and Interstate to June of the following year. Visitors to the exhibition were impressed by the quality of the artworks and were surprised that more attention had not been given to these works in the past.

Many of the works were equal in standard to those produced by their highly acclaimed male counterparts in the Heidelberg School, yet recognition of the artworks and the women artists, who created them, had in the past fallen well short.

Four of the nineteen artists in the exhibition, Florence Fuller, Ina Gregory, Clara Southern and Jane Sutherland, were already known to many, for their works had been included in the Golden Summers:Heidelberg and Beyond touring exhibition, which had opened at the National Gallery of Victoria in October 1985. As for the other fifteen artists, little opportunity had been given to see more than a few of their works, at any one time, and when this did arise, it was usually through one of the Auction Houses or commercial art dealers. A small number of their works are now scattered among the public gallery and corporate collections throughout Australia, with many of the best works of these artists, still in private collections.

'Completing the Picture', was an important exhibition in a number of ways. It would have had difficulty to live up to its name, however, it did draw attention to the women artists of the Heidelberg School, and it did address the issue of the imbalance that has developed in the recognition between the men and women artists of this period. Most importantly, it was a catalyst to discussion on this imbalance, and the stimulus to further research.

The imbalance in the degree of recognition for the women artists of this era is particularly noticeable when we consider the enrollment patterns of these artists, when students at the National Gallery Schools.

Apart from the fact that the National Gallery teachers were male, in all but one or two years, there was a much greater proportion of female to male students in the National Gallery Schools, and on average was in the proportion of two females to every male.

When you take into consideration that over two thousand students were enrolled in the National Gallery Schools during the period that Frederick McCubbin was Drawing Master from (1886 to 1917), then the number of female students would be in the vicinity of fifteen hundred. If you now take into consideration the other women artists of this period, who took art lessons outside of the National Gallery School, either with private tutors or at other establishments, such as the Bendigo School of Mines, then the imbalance is even more extreme.

One of the possible reasons for the women of this period enrolling in art schools, or seeking private tutors, was Queen Victoria. She had made it fashionable and acceptable for women to create artworks, and her interest in drawing and in the production of etchings would have attracted many followers.

Also, for some women the art schools were seen as a presentable form of education for young ladies, along the line of a 'finishing school'.

Some of the women students at the art schools were only enrolled for one or two years. They possibly discontinued their studies and their pursuit of a career in art, in favour of marriage and the rearing of a family, and also in providing support and encouragement to their husbands in their careers.

Social conventions of the Victorian Age made it difficult for young women to follow in the professional footsteps of the men.

In the Director's Report for the National Gallery for 1882, signed by G.F.Folingsby, it is noted that:
'The male students have formed an evening life class for the study of the nude model on two evenings in the week'. This is but one example of where the women students were disadvantaged.

Also, social conventions made it difficult for the women artists to camp out overnight in the bush at one of the Artists' Camps. Nor were the women of this time given the opportunities to leave home and family responsibilities to their husbands while they travelled to remote areas to sketch and paint plein air. Elizabeth Parsons was an exception in this area, and I would have to assume had a very understanding and enlightened husband, and most probably a nanny, to look after her children while she was away painting.

For the male art students, especially those of professional fathers, it was hard enough to convince their parents that becoming an 'Artist' was a worthwhile and professional career. Australia can thank the parents of Walter Withers and Charles Conder, in this respect, for their arrival on our shores. These two artists were sent here, by their parents, as a measure to dissuade them from following their artistic pursuits.

For the female art students of this period, life was even harder. The life of the 'Woman Artist', was by many not seen as a profession, and aspects of the 'Bohemian' lifestyle, associated with artists, were certainly not to be encouraged or endorsed.

Members of the staff of the Argus in the 1890's, openly promoted this 'Bohemian' lifestyle, much to the displeasure of their employers, and produced a weekly publication, 'Bohemia'.

The women artists of this period had to struggle. This was nothing new, and one is reminded of that classic example of the struggling artist, Georgiana McCrae, whose husband made it so very difficult for her to fulfill her artistic ambitions.

The men had their support network of 'Men's Clubs'; a male dominated Art establishment, with a predominately male media machine, and male gallery directors, both public and commercial.

One of the popular 'Men's Clubs' with the artists of the Heidelberg School, was the Melbourne Savage Club, established in 1894, and whose membership could boast such artists as Arthur Streeton, Walter Withers, Frederick McCubbin, John Longstaff, James Quinn and Montague Brown.

Commercial Galleries, and later Auction Houses, tended to foster the importance of the artworks of the men of the Heidelberg School, and a wide disparity now exists in the prices being asked for the men's works, compared with those of the women. At times the prices asked seem to bear little resemblance to the quality of the artworks or to the rarity of the artworks being offered for sale.

Some of the women artists played important roles in the establishment of our public galleries, but this like the women artists themselves has in most cases, been sadly overlooked.

Beth Sinclair, when Director of the Castlemaine Art Gallery & Historical Museum, noted in 1975, that
'The Castlemaine Art Gallery itself was founded in 1913 by a number of enthusiastic local women artists, among them Elsie Barlow and Alice Newell'.

The women artists of this period had the support of the Artists societies, however gaining a position on the executive of these societies, was for women, as Elizabeth Parsons found, a hard fought battle.

It was a time of great interest in the Arts, and new societies were started, often as the initiative of women, which supported and recognised the professional role of the woman artist.

The Yarra Sculptors' Society was one of these new societies, and this was established in 1898. Three of the founding members of this society were women, and these were May Vale, Margaret Baskerville, and Dora Ohlsen.

Two years later, in 1900, a group of women artists formed their own Woomballana Art Club, which later became the Melbourne Society of Women Painters & Sculptors.

Also supporting the women artists, were one or two 'Women's Clubs', such as the Lyceum Club. However, this was not established until 21 March 1912, and even then, like many of these 'Clubs', was restricted to those who met the strict membership joining rules.

The women artists of this period who were married, received little support from their husbands in comparison to the support given by the wives of their male counterparts.

Wives of the male artists, such as Fanny Withers and Annie McCubbin often took over the management of their husband's artwork, and organised exhibitions, and Art Unions, sometimes at home, and sometimes in gallery spaces, such as the Athenaeum, and the Victorian Artists' Society's Galleries. They also managed exhibitions, which included the works of many of the women artists and supported them in their endeavours.

Fanny Withers, who established her own school in Eltham, was a great support to her husband, Walter, as well as being interested in the social welfare needs of the local families. To draw attention to the plight of these families, she wrote a book, which she titled Boarded Out: A Story Founded on Fact, which was published in Melbourne by Fraser & Jenkinson, in 1907. She sent copies of this book to all politicians and other influential people, and was later thanked for her part in the passing of the Infant Life Protection Act.

Fanny Withers also wrote a biography of her husband, which was titled The Life and Art of Walter Withers and was published by Frederick McCubbin's son, Alexander c. 1920

Annie McCubbin also supported her husband, Frederick, and provided him with a stable and very happy home environment in which to work. She was, like Fanny Withers, active on many Women's committees, including those involved with the support for the returning soldiers in the First World War. These committees, remain the unacknowledged foundation of the R.S.L.

Nora Streeton, took a keen interest in the activities of her husband, Arthur, and provided him in London with many social contacts. On her arrival in Australia, she became an active member of the Art Circle of the Lyceum Club, and this Art Circle, supported many of the women artists and helped them with their exhibitions.

Tom Roberts had a very loving wife, Lillie, who was a great support to him, and during his 'black' period in London, helped provide the family with an income by selling frames that she had made and gilded.

Stella Maris Belford, who married Charles Conder in 1901, provided him with financial security, as well as a great number of social contacts, in this later part of his life.

Each of these women contributed to the success of their artist husbands, and their husbands were relatively 'free' to follow their professional artistic careers.

As for the women artists of the Heidelberg School, some were lucky to have supportive husbands, but many were burdened with the added responsibilities associated with raising a large family. Their professional art careers needed to accommodate these family responsibilities, and society's expectations of their family duties.

Hopefully, this site will bring renewed interest in the women of the Heidelberg School, and take to a far greater audience the significant artistic achievements of these five, highly talented, women artists.

Andrew Mackenzie

Left: Arthur Streeton - Above Us The Great Grave Sky, 1890
Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

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