Monday, October 22, 2007

A Woman in Pants, Part 2

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 fiancĂ©. 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.


Anonymous said...

A permit to wear pants. Now, don't you think it's time we instituted rules like that again? Like if you want to show your bulging belly in a pair of low-cut jeans? I know a lot of government types are trying to outlaw hanging pants (the kind that show boxer shorts underneath) but I feel the comic factor still works with that "look." But there are some of us who have no business revealed our tummies. Just saying.

Oh, and great blog again, Brenda. I love your gallery talks!

Anonymous said...

What a great story, Brenda!

Now I can draw a deep sigh of relief. And perhaps find a fiancee who wants to live around the corner for 19 years?

Anonymous said...

I can understand the allure of living separately. My ex-husband and I broke up and lived next door to each other for awhile -- literally next door, in two rowhouses that shared a common wall. We each had our own set of housemates and pets, and we got along much better than we had when we lived alone together in a little apartment with his cat. Alas, we did eventually move in together again, which probably has a lot to do with why we're now divorced.

Joyce Tremel said...

Nancy said: But there are some of us who have no business revealed our tummies.

Precisely why I haven't shown my for 23 years (when the 1st baby was born)!

Great story, Brenda!

Anonymous said...

Memoir, memoir, memoir, memoir....

Anonymous said...

My word--someone else who knows who Bougereau was (I was an art historian in another life). But I never heard this story.

Did she, um, model for him?

Anonymous said...


Other than the portrait that he painted of her at the time of their engagement, I don't believe she did model for him. He wasn't a rascal like Eakins.

Gina came to my gallery talk, and so I have to ask.... did you laugh at my joke about Eakins not being able to keep his pants on in the studio? It bombed otherwise, which made my boss laugh harder when we got back into the office!

Annette said...

Rats, Brenda, I wanted to come to that talk, but completely forgot about when it was.

Yeah, yeah! I like the 19 year engagement thing. I was only engaged for three years and now feel a little cheated.

Anonymous said...

Uh, gee, Brenda, I don't remember that joke, so I'm not sure whether or not I got it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Great post. You're right, it is lucky that Elizabeth didn't marry earlier, though it sounds like she was every bit as fulfilled as an unmarried woman--probablly in her case, more so. I wonder if she'd been able to put the paints away if she had married before she enjoyed so much success.