Friday, March 14, 2014

Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian

A Book Review by Stephanie Deshpande

Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian by Gabriel P. Weisberg and Jane R. Becker describes the challenges women faced getting the equivalent art education as men in the late nineteenth century. During that time, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts was the most prestigious art institution in Europe, but it did not accept women into its program until 1897. The Académie Julian, which was established in 1868 by Rodolphe Julian, served a unique purpose, to train women in the same academic fashion as men and to prepare them for entrance into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

    The women studying at the Académie Julian drew from nude models and studied under the most renowned instructors such as William Bouguereau, Henri Royer, Tony Jean-Paul Laurens, and Jules Lefebvre. Julian’s mission was to establish a good reputation for his students who would in turn generate a good reputation for his school. Cash prizes were awarded in order to encourage competition between students, and some of his best student’s works were entered into competitions under fictitious names, and received rave reviews.  

Maria Bashkirtseff, In the Studio, 1881
(image courtesy of the Art Renewal Center)

 One of Julian’s creative ideas was to encourage Bashkirtseff and another student to paint a scene of the studio. Bashirtseff describes her reaction to Julian's proposal in a journal entry: “'As for the subject, it does not fascinate me, but it may be very amusing; and then Julian is so taken with it, and so convinced. He quoted so many examples which had been successful. A woman’s studio had never been painted. Besides, as it would be an advertisement for him, he would do all in the world to give me the wonderful notoriety he speaks about.’ Not only would both works serve as advertisement for the crafty Julian, but Bashkirtseff’s contribution, in particular, would highlight the high society of the Julian Academy’s students.”(Becker 1999:105)

    There were numerous successful women artists who excelled there; of them were Cecilia Beaux, Elizabeth Gardner, Marie Bashkirtseff, Louise Breslau, Anna Bilinska-Bohdanowicz, Rose-Marie Guillaume, and Anna Klumpke.

In the Woods by Elizabeth Gardner 

(image courtesy of the Art Renewal Center)

What makes this book fascinating is the documentation of the social dynamics at the Academy. Weisberg not only spotlights their talent as artists, but also gives you a feel for their background and motivations. The book explains the rivalry between Marie Bashkirtseff and Louise Breslau. Bashkirtseff was very jealous of Breslau, and wrote about her feelings often in her journal. The caricatures of Bashkirtseff and Breslau reveal how the other students perceived them – capturing their individual determination and ambitious demeanors.

Detail of caricatures: Artist Unknown, Mlle. Marie Bashkirtseff, 1879.
Pencil sketch (left) Artist Unknown, Mlle. Beslau, 1878. Pencil sketch (right)


Louise Breslau, The Sculptor Jean Carries in his Atelier, 1886(image courtesy of the Art Renewal Center)

Marie Bashkirtseff, Le Meeting, 1884

Bashkirtseff and Breslau came from very different backgrounds that influenced their subject matter. Bashkirtseff, who was very wealthy, chose to paint street scenes of the poor while Breslau painted scenes from her daily life.

    This is an important book to read to discover what it meant to be a women artist in the 1800's, and how Julian's Académie gave women the opportunity and training to compete with the prominent male artists of 
the time.


  1. Wonderful review! Thank you. I wish I had been able to see the exhibition of these works that was at the Dahesh, for which I believe this book was the catalog. Here is a review of the exhibition:

  2. Thanks you, Alia! And thanks for linking to the review of the exhibition. That gives a good summary of the book as well. Oh wow...that would have been a great show to see.