WILLIAMSTOWN — “The large-scale intrusion of women in the realm of art,” the painter Gustave Moreau wrote gravely in 1891, “would be a disaster beyond remedy.”
Alas for him, disaster was brewing in Paris.
Women were not allowed at the École des Beaux-Arts, they could not move about in public without a chaperone, and they had little to no legal agency. They came to Paris anyway. They had to paint, and Paris was the place to do it.
“Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900,” the splendid summer show at the Clark Art Institute through Sept. 3, puts artists we remember — Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, and more — in context with a robust community of women, and introduces many others.
Independent curator Laurence Madeline cannily begins with a gallery of portraits. Women were discouraged from history painting, and perhaps from painting in public places, but they could paint one another.
Those depicted here are nothing like the kittenish young things Renoir painted, nor the cool customer wearing only slippers and jewelry in Manet’s “Olympia.” They’re not some fellow’s predilection.
Instead, they are conflicted, complicated, compelling people. Weary and resolute Elizabeth Nourse, in her self-portrait, turns to meet our eyes. Mina Carlson-Bredberg, in her own, raises her eyebrows and wears a half smile. I’d rather have a drink with her, but Nourse, I suspect, has more of a story to tell.
Sculptor Venny Soldan-Brofeldt sits on a paint-stained drop cloth on the floor, fingering a piece of clay, in Hanna Pauli’s portrait. Her mouth is half open — perhaps we’ve interrupted her. The portrait doesn’t flatter or fantasize. It captures her absorption in her work.
Then there’s Louise Catherine Breslau’s “The Friends.” The painter, her back to us, sits at an easel as her two roommates hunch at the table beside her. One cups her hand in her chin; the other watches, brow slightly knitted. Breslau perfectly conveys the banality and camaraderie of young women sharing a flat.
Talk of women’s rights began to stir in France during the French Revolution. The French philosopher Charles Fourier coined the term “feminism” in 1837, and the Paris Commune in 1871 catalyzed a women’s rights movement.
But as we know, these things take time. In 1881, the state handed over management of the Paris Salon to artists, and the acceptance rate for women dropped by half. That’s when the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs formed to stage its own salons.
Intriguingly, Impressionism, with its penchant for social and domestic scenes, landscapes, and flowers over history painting, leaned into traditionally feminine genres. Then the pendulum swung, and along came Symbolists like Moreau, who frowned on the femininity they saw in their predecessors’ art.
Women were kept from the École des Beaux-Arts until 1897. Many studied academic painting at the Academie Julian. “In the Studio,” Marie Bashkirtseff’s scene of a women’s-only figure-painting class, is technically conventional yet buzzing with incident and humor. A vocal feminist, Bashkirtseff died at 25 from tuberculosis, and is best known for her ardent diary, published posthumously.
Class and marriage inevitably played roles in a woman’s success. Berthe Morisot married a sympathetic man, Eugène Manet (Édouard’s brother), and kept painting. Her sister Edma gave up her art career after marrying. Mary Cassatt never married. All were well off.
The works in “Women in Paris” range from Bashkirtseff’s strict academism to standout Impressionism, such as Morisot’s “Woman at Her Toilette.” In a swirl of nimble, pale brushwork, the artist conjures up a figure from behind, gazing in the mirror, confecting herself. Once made up, no doubt she will be as twinkling and bewitching a vision as this painting is.
Cassatt’s “Autumn, Portrait of Lydia Cassatt,” depicts her ailing sister lost in thought, wearing a coat dazzlingly speckled with auburns and reds, so humming with pattern, tone, and gesture that it becomes more energy field than coat.
Rosa Bonheur gained widespread renown for painting animals with horsehair-fine realism. Sun-splashed bulls heave forward, tilling soil, in the vast “Plowing in Nivernais,” a canvas that has the romance, sweat, and muscle of an epic history painting.
Bonheur, a lesbian, lived for decades with her partner, Nathalie Micas, then with American painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke. She insisted on posing in a dress for Klumpke’s portrait, although she was known for her masculine garb and once extracted permission from the Paris police to wear trousers so as to go unnoticed in the abattoirs where she sketched.
But these women were stars. The paintings of many others sat in storage for a century. Contemporary scholarship and fresh exhibitions have been bringing them to light. In Norwegian Kitty Kielland’s marvelously serene marsh scene “Evening Landscape at Stokkavannet,” still water mirrors a warm twilight, and reeds cast dark, whiskery reflections in the tangerine light as a rowboat drifts out of the frame.
For me, the greatest revelation of “Women in Paris” is the shock of recognition. The lounging nude in Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” is a cipher to me, as are Degas’s dancers, and even his bathers, who raise more questions about the artist than about his subjects. I don’t know Sargent’s “Madame X” — she’s too idealized, a 19th-century Angelina Jolie. But the young women fretting in Breslau’s “The Friends” — I have shared their table. I have been Venny Soldan-Brofeldt, self-absorbed in some project on the floor.
The show concludes with a gallery of paintings of girls — proud, thoughtful, ailing. The final canvas, Ellen Thesleff’s “Echo,” shows a young teen in profile, haloed by the sun, mouth open, hollering. I’ve been her, too. And so, I suspect, was every artist in “Woman in Paris.”
WOMEN ARTISTS IN PARIS, 1850-1900
At Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, through Sept. 3. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.edu