I have said in my Newsletter (to subscribe go to ‘Newsletter Sign Up’ tab), that the 18th century saw a proliferation of successful women artists. At last the art world was opening up to them. Though still not allowed into the life class, many became members of the powerful Academies (in France, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun & Adelaide Labille-Guiard, and in England Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser). The little known Anna Dorothea Therbusch (born Berlin 1721), was admitted into the Parisian Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in 1767, which was unusual for a foreign woman. The fact that she was friends with Diderot and his circle may have helped. She was a popular portraitist but failed to make a living in Paris and eventually returned to her native Prussia with debts. Why was this? Probably because she didn’t fit into the ‘mould’. Though doors were opening for female artists, there were still many expectations of them. They were expected to be attractive, coy and coquette-ish – and to keep their place below their male counterparts. Therbusch did not conform to any of these! As we can see in her well-known Self Portrait (above), she was keen to assert her powerful intellect and under-assert her good looks and feminine charms! She deliberately shows herself as aged (she was only 56), and with masculine features (note the emphatic and slightly muscular legs – the decorum of the time dictated that a ladies’ legs should be well hidden beneath the skirt). The prominent monocle and the open book emphasize her learnedness as well as her disinterest in looking ‘pretty’ for the male gaze. Compare this to the self portraits of Vigee Le Bruns – she was master (or should I say ‘mistress’?), of social manipulation. Though I admire Le Brun for her ‘working the system’, I can’t help admiring Therbusch even more for her breaking with convention. (She even overtly drew from the male nude. Diderot posed naked for her). Without wishing to culturally pigeon-hole, perhaps her German-ness aided her in discarding the accepted aesthetic and freed her from the bonds of Academicism.
Therbusch: Self Portrait (detail) 1777 Le Brun: Self Portrait c.1782