Women artists in 19th Century France faced several challenges in their work: they were not allowed to study at the Academy (Ecole des Beaux Arts) and the duties of marriage and children took away from their time for painting.  Despite these challenges, a handful of women were persistent enough to be trained independently and to enter the Paris Salon, only to choose thereafter to break away and join the Impressionists.

"I don't ever think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal, and that's all I would have asked for, for I know I'm worth as much as they". Berthe Morisot (from Clement, Houze, Erbolato-Ramsey; The Women Impressionists, preface p 1)

Eva Gonzales
Portrait of Sister as Artist c1869/83

In the following two pictures see two women artists.

In Portrait of Sister as Artist we see Jeanne Gonzales, Eva Gonzales' sister.  Although Eva achieved renown among the Impressionists, very little is known about her sister's work.  Perhaps she desisted when she ran against the obstacles of being a woman artist at the time.  Perhaps she never dared exhibit at the Salon.  Although we see her half lit in the painting, we do not see her work. This is more a portrait of a woman rather than a celebration of the artist and her work.  Eva Gonzales (1849-83), who is considered one of the four major women Impressionists painters (Bracquemond, Cassatt, Gonzales, Morisot) died at the age of 34 from complications in childbirth.

Edgar Degas
Mary Cassatt c1880-84

Here we see a portrait by Degas of Mary Cassatt, who was a true professional artist. She not only studied with masters all over Europe (despite the fact that women at the time were not being allowed into the Academy), but exhibited at the Salon, and then chose to break away and join the Impressionists. In this portrait of Cassat by Degas, we see nothing that would give us a clue that Cassatt is an artist. On the other hand, Degas' portraits of his painter friend Tissot show him at his studio, surrounded by his paintings. In a portrait of the writer and critic Duranty, Degas shows a library of books behind him. Cassatt herself was not particularly fond of this portrait and requested that the agent who was selling it for her not mention it was her portrait.

It is perhaps ironic that we see a portrait of a great artist holding what could be cards or small photographs, rather than surrounded by her paintings. On the other hand, the portrait of Jeanne Gonzales is a document of a woman at an easel whose art was never recognized.

Edgar Degas
Mary Cassatt at the Etruscan Gallery c1879
This print, created by Degas--as a series of studies in printmaking-- provides a rather unusual theme for French male artists at the time: an American woman artist, Cassatt, is portrayed as genuinely studying and analyzing a work of ancient art at the Louvre . Sitting next to her is Lydia, Cassatt's older sister, reading from a catalog.  What is new about the theme is that a male colleague is depicting a woman artist conducting research for her artwork.  She is being acknowledged and honored as a professional artist.  Degas met Cassatt in 1877, although he was familiar with a painting Ida she had submitted to the Salon in 1874, which he admired. In 1879, Degas was planning on publishing a journal Le Jour et la Nuit (Day and Night) that would feature the works of Independents.  Cassatt was one of the handpicked artists whom Degas had chosen for this project--implying that Degas trusted Cassatt not only as an artist, but as someone who could influence people's perception of the Impressionists through writing.  It is thought that this print--or one of the several variations that Degas worked on with Cassatt at the Louvre--was made to advertise Le Jour et la Nuit.   The publication, intended to disseminate the principles on which Impressionism was based, never got off the ground due to lack of funds.   Even though the journal was not successful, these prints were one of Degas' first experimentation with printmaking. This work shows the influence of Japonisme on Degas--the use of printmaking as well as the flattened perspective and stylized figures that were used by Japanese artists at the time.