by Brenda Roger
I love a good story -especially one with costume changes. In the process of preparing a gallery talk on the nineteenth-century painter Elizabeth Jane Gardner, I expected to find a hook for my talk in her nineteen-year engagement to teacher and fellow painter, William Bouguereau. I always choose the topics of my gallery talks based on who was sleeping with whom and who was doing drugs. Now I can add "who was cross dressing" to my list of criteria.
In 1872, Elizabeth Gardner was a young, American student of painting in Paris. That sounds so romantic. In fact, it is hard to finish writing this because I want to pack my bags and flee to Paris to be just like Elizabeth, however, I would like twenty-first-century mores to apply.
A painter's training is incomplete without intense study of the figure. It is not possible to paint a realistic portrait of a clothed person unless you have an almost medical familiarity with the anatomy of the body beneath the clothes. When Elizabeth Gardner arrived in Paris, women were not permitted to paint and draw live nudes right along with the men. Therefore, it was impossible for a woman to equal a man in technical ability because she had no access to necessary training. Elizabeth Gardner had a clever solution to this problem.
In 1872, she pulled on some pants, convincingly disquised herself as a man, and took the entrance exams to study drawing at the Gobelins Tapestry Manufacture, which was a prestigious place to study drawing -as long as you had certain anatomical features. Or a convincing pair of pants!!!
Elizabeth Gardner drew the figure at Gobelins, working from live nude models, for about two months when she realized that she had a little legal matter to attend to. She was required by Parisian law to have a permit to dress in a boy's costume. Incidentally, there was no such rule governing a man's freedom to dress like a woman in Paris until 1949.
If you would like to know how things worked out for dear Elizabeth, then you will have to pull on a convincing pair of pants and meet me in the rotunda of the Frick Art Museum at 2P.M. on September 21st.