by Brenda Roger
Several weeks ago I wrote about Elizabeth Jane Gardner, an American painter working in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century. You may recall that Ms. Gardner disguised herself as a boy in order to take a drawing class. I confess that I didn’t finish the story that day in effort to lure some of you to attend my gallery talk. I promised those who are letting earning a living get in the way of attending my gallery talks that I would give them the ending.
Elizabeth received her permit to dress as a boy from the French government, and continued to go to the drawing class wearing pants. Even after her fellow students found out she was an imposter, she was able to continue to draw with them. Her bold behavior was one of many indicators that it was time to level the playing field for male and female art students.
Elizabeth Gardner enjoyed a fifty-eight year long career as a painter in Paris (be still my heart). For an American woman who arrived in France almost penniless in the 1860s, this is astonishing. She exhibited at the Salon numerous times, and she actually earned a living as a painter. To what did she owe this success?
Ms. Gardner was engaged to the academic French painter William Bouguereau for nineteen years. Nineteen years! What woman would want that? Well, Bouguereau’s mother did not think it would be good to have two artists in the family, so they waited until she died to get hitched. This was not, however, nineteen tortured years of yearning. Elizabeth always lived across the street from or next door to her fiancé. He was the earth and she was the moon. Bouguereau’s work was in demand from his American patrons, so if you didn’t want to wait, or pay his fee, why not buy a painting from that lovely American student of his next door?
The way I see it, the nineteen years of waiting were ideal. She had the companionship of the man she loved, and she had total freedom to paint without having the distraction of running his household –all of the fun, none of the housework! Sign me up!
When they did finally marry, she put aside her paints to tend to him for about a decade. It would have been a terrible shame if she had been forced to do that earlier.