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Art History: Women & their role in Photography

Unit 2: Contextual Studies

Development of Art Through Time

Taking a look through a selection of artistic movements that in many ways act as the foundations to modern art will allow a sense of artistic prose to be developed. Doing such will be crucial to dictate the use of femininity in art and how that has been developed alongside the natural growth within societies across the globe. 

Renaissance Art

Including Perspectivism, Naturalism, Secularism & Humanism

14th to 17th century

The Renaissance was a period in European history that marked the progression from the Middle Ages to modern day. The art of this time densely populates the 15th and 16th centuries, though can be dated back to the year 1300. Impacted greatly by the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages, where a series of events caused a halt in European stability¹, this time period and the art produced are associate with great social change.

The thought process behind the Renaissance was that of a kind of humanism. Renaissance humanism, as it's referred, was the revival in the study of classical ancient past including Greek philosophy. At the time, this new way of thinking manifested in visual arts, politics, science and literature. Early examples of this include the development of perspective in oil paintings as well as the revival of constructional knowledge, like how to make concrete.

As a cultural movement, the Renaissance encompassed the growth of Latin literature and the beginning of linear perspective and other rendering techniques to create a natural looking piece of art. 

Although this time period saw many intellectual revolutions, as well as sociopolitical upheaval, it is more widely known for it's artistic developments such as the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo; pioneers who embodied the ideals of the 'Renaissance man'.

One of the distinguishing features of Renaissance art was the development in realistic perspective, with the birth of perspective occurring midway through the 15th century, formulating a coherent body of rules and theories for artists.² 


Typically, the Renaissance is associated with Italy, in particular Florence and Venice, but most of Northern Europe followed this movement resulting in the development of naturalism. The trend represents human relationships socially, religiously and politically; drawing inspiration from reason and reflective experiences. This was a contrast to previous artworks which offered reference to the spiritual world and their authorities.

The status of artists from this period was changed, they were raised to a higher ideal with greater cultural importance. With creators competing for their place in the art world, their individual talents, innovations and ideas began to impact their audience. The 'greats' of this time are often 

referred to as 'artistic genius' managing to balance the creative expression of art whilst offering differing views and standpoints on sociopolitical situations. 

Right: Francesco Maria della Rovere, 1536 - 8, Titian

During the Renaissance, artists like Titian achieved new levels of natural looking detail. As shown in his work, armor began to shine with reflected light as this new generation of artists capture the effects of light and shadow on differing surfaces. Francesco Maria della Rovere is rich in natural detail; it is also a strong statement of earthly power and authority (secularism).

Other poignant art pieces include: Madonna and Child by Andrea Mantegna in 1446 which emphasises the common humanity between man and religious idols, The Holy Family created in 1504 by Michelangelo and The Baptism of Christ by Andrea 

Verrochino and Leonardo da Vinci in 1475 depicting the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River alongside two kneeling angels in front of a palm tree.

How does this link to Classicism?

Many Renaissance artists associated the Middle Ages with a decline in culture causing them to distance themselves from it. Instead of following the previous path, they studied the arts of Ancient Greece and Rome whose achievements they looked to surpass. Due to this, there was a general air of fascination with the values of classical Greece and Rome.

The influence of the classical past was present in all areas of art; from architecture to painting. 

Right: The School of Athens, 1510 - 11, Raphael

The School of Athens is a fresco by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, commissioned for the Vatican. The painting is notable for its accurate perspective projection, a skill that Raphael developed whilst working under Leonardo da Vinci. This piece in particular has long since been viewed as 'Raphael's masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance'³.

The painting shows the greatest mathematicians, philosophers and scientists from classical ancient past gathered together sharing and learning their ideas. Aristotle and Plato are positioned in the very centre of the art piece, two impressive thinkers that impacted Western ways of thinking enormously, and whose philosophies were incorporated into Christianity. Both Aristotle and Plato are presented in such a way that supports their ideals. Plato points upwards because 'in his philosophy the changing world that we see around us is just a shadow of a higher, truer reality 

 that is eternal and unchanging', whilst Aristotle points down, supporting his view that 'the only reality is the one that we can see and experience by sight and touch'.


Including Baroque & Art Nouveau

Dominant in 1715 to 1774

Rococo refers to the highly ornate and decorative style of art that dominated France from 1715 to 1774, during Louis XV's reign. In time, this broad cultural trend spread to other countries including Austria and Germany. This style of art lends itself toward the complex and swirling form of Baroque but presents itself in a more graceful, airy way. 

The term 'Rococo' was initially coined as an insult invented by a student of Jaques-Louis Gavid, a Neo-Classical artist. The insult was used to describe art which was excessively intricate and busy. It was also closely associated with Louis VX's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and was synonymous with a feminised, incompetent government. Despite being nicknamed 'le Bien-Aimé' (The Beloved), Louis XV failed to provide strong leadership and the much needed reforms throughout France ultimately leading to the French Revolution in 1789. 

'Rococo' is now used without negative connotation to describe artistic style.


Rococo originated as an attempt to reform the teaching of classical antiquity; it introduced a more playful feel that was sensitive to feelings and moods. This movement allowed art to abandon seriousness in favour of eroticism, decoration and pleasure. The ornate nature of Rococo led to its widespread use in church interiors in central Europe and Portugal, opposing the traditionally secular interior with a more spiritually focused design

To begin with, Rococo was nonlinear with the dominant line of art being in an S-shaped curve or following the Fibonacci spiral; a stark contrast to the 

straight, parallel lines of the art movements prior to this.

Right: The Pilgrimage to Cythera, 1717, Antoine Watteau

The Pilgrimage to Cythera is exhibited in the Louvre, Paris. The scene evokes a world of pleasure and wonder. The characters have just made their offering to a statue of Venus and are returning home. There is a hint of loss and longing within this piece, and an underlying sense of fragility; something that is unique to Rococo. The feathery brush strokes used by Watteau have produced a ghost-like effect as well as shiny, lifelike silks on the dresses of the women.

How does this oppose the Baroque?

Rococo reacted against the formulaic method of Baroque artists like Poussin, a leading figure in Baroque Classicism. Similar to Art Nouveau, this artistic movement sees partial abandonment of symmetry, with everything being composed of graceful lines and curves. Additionally, the colour palette from Rococo pieces was much warmer in tone, focusing more towards creams and pearl greys. Baroque art emerged around the year 1600, after the end of the

Renaissance. The term 'Baroque' offers insight to the difference in the two styles, meaning contorted idea or complex thought process¹⁰.

Right: Still Life with Sweets and Glassware, 1622, Juan Van Der Hamen

Still life, paintings of everyday objects like vases and fruit, became very popular during the Baroque period, particularly in the Dutch Republic¹¹. This type of art was simpler to produce as the subject was easily found. The ease in production was necessary due to the increase in the art market as more people could afford art for their homes. Baroque still life triggers contemplation, as well as admiration of the artists' skill and talent. Unlike Rococo, its beauty is often melancholy¹², inviting the viewer to consider the impermanence of life.


Including Academicism

18th and early 19th centuries

Neo-Classicism was a Western cultural movement born in Rome, largely due to the writings of German historian and archaeologist, Johann Joachim Winkelmann, at the time of rediscovering Pompeii and the lost Italian commune of Herculaneum. The main neo-classical movement coincided with the 18th century Age of Enlightenment which continued into the 19th century. The Age of Enlightenment refers to the intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated ideas around Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries¹³. The Enlightenment stemmed from Renaissance humanism and some say it dates back to René Descartes' philosophy from 1637 of Cogito, ergo sum ('I think, therefore I Am'), although others argue its conception happened later in history.


Neo-classical art arose in opposition to the overly decorative, gaudy styles of Rococo and the Baroque. The movement brought about a revival of the classic thoughts that mirrored the sociopolitical climate of the time, ultimately leading to the French Revolution.  Neo-classicism developed alongside 'the Enlightenment', a political and philosophical motion that valued science, reason and exploration. Also referred to as 'The Age of Reason', the Enlightenment stemmed from skepticism of René Descartes, a notable philosopher, and the political philosophy of John Locke¹⁴. Their concepts were questioned and the ideals of individual liberty, religious tolerance and constitutional governments were advanced. 

The French 'Encyclopédie' from 1751-72 had international influence with it representing a collection of Enlightenment thoughts, as well as being the most significant publication of the century.

In Britain the art movement took on a more contemporary message, emphasising moral virtue and rationality of the Enlightenment, through the likes of Benjamin West and others. Other artists created works informed by scientific invention, Joseph Wright of Derby's 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump' 1768 is a prime example of this. 

Rather than the mythological subjects of artists across Europe, the Brits turned to classical historical accounts or contemporary history, like West's work (to right), where academic standards could be challenged.

Right: Death of General Wolfe, 1770, Benjamin West

This painting shows the death of Major-General James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham at the Battle of Quebec in 1759 during the Seven Years' War, alternatively known as the French and Indian War.

Wolfe was killed by musket fire in the brief battle as he led the British forces to victory. He is presented lying on the battlefield surrounded and comforted by a group of officers. His figure, creating the base of a pyramidal grouping rises to the partially rolled flag above, his pale face is illuminated in a Christ-like fashion forcing him to become the 

visual and emotional center of the work. A group of officers stand in attendance to the left, they convey distress reminiscent to the depiction of the mourning of Christ. A solitary indigenous man sit with is chin in hand in the foreground to the left, as though in deep thought. Two more officers on the right frame the scene, while the onslaught continues in the background. A sense of drama is conveyed as the battle ends with a singular heroic sacrifice.

A number f the officers are identifiable, such as Captain Harvey Smythe holding Wolfe's arm and Dr Thomas Hinde tending the the general's bleeding. These recognisable portraits create a sense of accuracy and historical importance, yet almost all of them were not at the scene; their inclusion reflects West's intention to compose an iconic image of a British hero. 

West reinterpreted the historical painting by depicting a contemporary scene and clothing his figures in contemporary attire. The artist was urged by others to depict classical Roman clothing to lend the event 'greater dignity'¹⁵, West chose against these suggestions stating, 'The same truth that guides the pen of a historian should govern the pencil of the artist.'¹⁶ 

The painting's cultural influence continued well into the modern era as historian Graeme Wynn noted in 'Illustrated History of Canada' that the painting 'became the most powerful icon of an intensely symbolic triumph for British Imperialism'¹⁷ and in 1921 the British donated the work to Canada in recognition for their efforts in the first world war.

How is this alike to Academicism?

The official style of academic art came to be closely related with neo-classical paintings with the similarity of artist conventions as well as the strong emphasis on the intellectual. Academic and Neo-classical artforms are socially-aware and emotional.  The main difference between the two art movements is that academicism, alternatively known as eclecticism, features a subtle 'high-minded' message within the true-to-life realism presented. 

Academic Art is referred to as 'the mode of painting and sculpture approved by official academies of fine arts, notable the French Academy and The Royal Academy.'¹⁸

(Above) Abduction of the Sabine Women, 1634-1635, Nicholas Poussin

Poussin acted as the foremost exponent of the conservatism that is the academic style of painting. His meticulous compositions, idealistic content and polished finish made him the epitome of  the academic style in France.

(Above) Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833, Paul Delaroche

This painting acts as another example of academic ideal. Displayed in the National Gallery in London, the scene shows the final moments of the blindfolded Lady Jane Grey as she pleads, 'What shall I do? Where is the block?'¹⁹

19th Century Art

Including Romanticism, Realism, ImpressionismBirth of Photography

1800 to 1899

As the century progressed artists increasingly rejected the authority of the Art Academies and as such art became a more ambivalent reaction to the conservative, bourgeois taste of commercial art. These developments led to a new era of experimentation, in which France took the lead, and artists became more free to push the boundaries of art.


The  art produced in the beginning of the 19th Century was heavily dominated by Neo-classical influence, the art of a moral seriousness and political purposefulness which was soon to be challenged by Romanticism. The Romantics believed that the individual was the driving force of history and progression; they emphasised the emotional, the irrational and the symbolic over the rationality of being rule-bound. Ultimately, Romanticism began the process of freeing the artist from the authority of the Art Academies, social utility and convention. In its broadest use, 'romantic' refers to any art work 

that is dominated by subjective states of mind, such as feelings, moods and intuitions.²⁰

Right: Tree with Crows, 1822, Casper David Friedrich

'Tree with Crows' is an oil painting from 1822 by German Romantic artist Casper David Friedrich. Acquired by the Louvre Museum, it has been called one of Friedrich's 'most compelling paintings'.²¹

On a glance, the painting is pessimistic in interpretation, founded upon strong contrasting colours and focusing on the dead nature of the tree. However, the scene is set against a sunrise/sunset reminding us of the cyclic nature of life and the inevitability of death; provoking a thought that death should not be feared.

Romanticism offers nature as a source of truths about human experience²², something that can be expressed through art and best understood emotionally.

Realism offered additional challenges to the ideals of the Academies and public opinion by broadening the subject matter of art to include stills from everyday life - often images of poverty of labour²³. This movement claimed that the artist should represent the world as it is, even if that meant breaking artistic and social conventions. The subject matter of Realism art was often considered immoral, breaking the accepted standards of 'good taste'. Realism 

Above: The Artist's Studio, 1855, Gustave Courbet

was at its strongest in France with the most important painter-advocates being Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet.

Realists aspired to replicate what they saw, even what was considered dirty or unpleasant. 'The Artist's Studio' (left) can be interpreted as Courbet's critique of the failure to engage with the real world²⁴: the studio is unkempt and crowded contrasting the beautiful landscape being produced. 

In this piece Courbet also showcases himself as a master of both realism and the art style he was rejecting.

Following Realism came Impressionism where the convention of representing natural appearance as a solid form was abandoned. 

Impressionists replaced line and form with flashes of colour. Additionally, they tended to paint in open air, further rejecting the Academic tradition of working in a studio.

Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin can be considered the forefathers of the 20th Century art movements.²⁵ The artists all shared a commitment to their individual idea of what art is. Collectively they grounded a massive shift in the way artists and their art was perceived. Increasingly artists came to think of themselves of having a vision to strive for and present, irrespective of social constructs and financial circumstance. 

By the end of  the 19th Century the most avant-garde artists identified their art and their authenticity as one of the same thing.

'The White Horse', 1898, Paul Gauguin

Gauguin used areas of pure and flat colour in his paintings enabling him to concentrate further on design rather than impressions of depth and volume.

'The Balcony', 1868-69, Edouard Manet

Manet broke Academic convention by painting loosely with broad strokes, noticeable in the face of the woman on the right. Manet's painting interpret the world around him, his candid eye recording things usually considered improper for art.

'Orpheus', 1865, Gustave Moreau

Alike to his previous work of 'Oedipus and the Sphinx', this painting represents the turning point for French visual arts and Moreau's style. Elements of the concept and composition in many ways predict the Symbolism aesthetic whilst offering a character from classical past.

The Birth of Photography

The history of photography began with the discovery of two core principles: camera obscura image projection, often used by artists, and the observation that varying substances are visibly altered by exposure to light.

In the mid-1820s, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured what is considered to be the earliest surviving record of photography²⁶ (below). Niépce's success led to a number of other experiments leading to the progression of this art form. 

Daguerreotypes, emulsion plates and dry plates were developed almost simultaneously in the mid to late 1800s. With each type of emulsion, photographers experimented with different chemicals and techniques.

Daguerreotype: A copper plate coated in silver and exposed to iodine vapour before being exposed to light. This method had long exposure times yet remained popular until it was replaced by emulsion plates in the late 1850s.

Emulsion Plates: Also known as wet plates, were less expensive than daguerreotypes and had a much shorter exposure time of a few seconds compared to minutes. The plates would undergo the Collodian process to coat them with the emulsion. There were two common types, the ambrotype and the tintype. Ambrotypes used a glass plate instead of copper, whilst tintypes utilised tin plates. Both types of plate required a darkroom on hand to get developed.

In the 1870s photography took a further leap forward. Richard Maddox improved on a previous invention to make dry gelatine plates that were nearly equal to wet places in speed of production and quality. These plates could be stored as required allowing 

Above: 'View from the Window at Le Gras', 1826-27, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

photographers more freedom. Additionally, the process allowed for smaller hand-held cameras, ultimately leading to the first camera with a mechanical shutter.

By the 1880s, George Eastman started his company, Kodak, leading to cameras becoming accessible to all types of people; from hobbyists to professionals. This development added photography to the potential art forms that artists could formally choose to study. Photography, from this point, was making its way into the likes of national art galleries forcing it to be viewed as more than a means of documentation but also a creative outlet in the same way as painting or sketching.

Eventually photography birthed branches into its own sub-genres including fine-art photography after the academy arts began to include photographic practice as part of common practice. 


First offical Dada manifesto published in 1918

Dadaism first emerged during the First World War in Zurich, with Dadists stating that 'moral, political and aesthetic beliefs had been destroyed by the war.'²⁷ There was a belief that a destructive and irrelevant seeming approach would become liberating for art. 

The movement was initially an intellectual one that emerged within society but came to greatly influence art with its avant-garde messages.


The first official Dada manifesto was published in 1918 claiming that Dadaism was the new reality, further to this they accused Expressionists of being overly sentimental to the changes in society after the war. Producing shocking work was a key feature of the Dada movement, it expressed an awareness to the role of the subconscious in everyday life that has not been addressed previously in art. Additional key elements included chance and the nonsensical. 

The movement's artists rejected capitalist society and used protest in their work to express their discontent with violence, war and nationalism. The theory behind Dada art was that anything could be art should the artist proclaim it to be. This viewpoint stood to prove that if anything could be art, then nothing could be art also. Inevitably Dadaism was met with controversy especially from those whose labour intensive artworks they were claiming to be meaningless. 

The movement was diverse, spanning across many forms from the visual arts to sound media and poetry.

The peak for Dadaism was between 1916 to 1922, triggering the creation of surrealism, pop art and punk rock. 

Followers of Dadaism included Antonin Artaud, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. 


Began 1924

Surrealism was a cultural movement founded in 1924 in Paris, France by the poet André Breton and saw the continuation of Dadaism's exploration of the irrational and all things disruptive in art. It looked more towards spirituality and the 'automatic' with the aim to create art that came directly from the subconscious. Producing work in such a way meant the outcome would not be shaped or altered by reason or aesthetic preference.

The movement is best know for its visual artworks, and the juxtaposition between reality and the unconscious mind. 


To surrealist artists to subconscious held repressed artistic creativity and, heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud, came to see reason as a hindrance to accessing that. With time various techniques were developed to access that artistic reserve, things such as automatic writing prevailed for evading conscious control. Works of surrealism feature a distinct element of surprise and the unexpected.

Ultimately, surrealists embraced chance and randomness.

Photography's connection with surrealism began with its ability to represent the real world in strange and abstract ways. Pioneering surrealist photographer Man Ray used techniques such as double exposure, solarisation and reversed tonality to disturb viewer's recognition of things, as well as suggest the overlapping nature of dream and reality.

Alike to Dadaism, works of surrealism feature the element of surprise made up of unexpected juxtapositions.

The movement could be characterised by the incognito meetings of Surrealists in cafes collaborating on drawings and theories, further developing a variety of techniques for the movement including automatic writing. Initially, Andr Breton doubted the visual arts as a means of conveying surrealist ideas, worrying that they were less likely to be succeeded by the automatism of Surrealism. With time this concern was proved unnecessary as techniques such as grattage* were developed.

Surrealism was also practiced in the photographic world with Man Ray becaming one of the key figures Surrealist movement. As one of the few Americans associated with these movements, Ray was exposed to the avant garde works of European artists like Picasso and Braque. His photographic works are considered his most profound achievement, his portraits in particular, along with his technical experiments with solarisation and photograms.

Ray's name is often associated with moody and seductive black and white photographs from the mid-war era. 'Le Violon d'Ingres' from 1924 (above), famously features a woman's bare back with two f-holes from a violin. The image connects femininity to the classicism and beauty of music, suggesting women are melodic and elegant. 

*Grattage: a technique used in surrealist paintings involving scratching away fresh paint from the canvas with a sharp blade

Women in History and Art

Throughout history, women have had varying experiences at different times. Some societies from the past had women that were warriors, powerful priestesses and political leaders. At other times strict expectations have placed upon women, with numerous male creatives portraying them as the inferior sex.

The way in which society has and continues to treat women can be enlightening, offering insight into the position of women at different points in history. Women have gained and lost power throughout history in a number of ways, and the development of such is not a straight-forward narrative. 

Where do women come into Photography?


Regardless of gender, all artists are trying to shape their audience's perspective. Throughout art history, more so the modern years, female pioneers including Nan Goldin and Susan Meiselas have helped to shape a 'collective understanding of female rights and challenges'²⁸


Women have played a significant role in the early history of photography; working alongside their husbands and taking professional photos themselves. There were more than 7000 professional female photographers in the UK and US by 1900²⁹. Being such was desirable for the industry with studios advertising the availability of 'lady operators'³⁰ for women that felt more comfortable having their session with a fellow woman.