On two forgotten portraitists and how to actually alter the art historical canon.
Ernst Gombrich, likely the most influential art historian of the twentieth century, is ripe for revisiting. His outlook on what constituted important art was white, elite, male, and Eurocentric. In his seminal The Story of Art (1950), which set out to track the entirety of art history, from ancient times to modernity, he included not a single female artist. In one of his final interviews, before he died in 2001, he defended his assessments, implying that, for better or for worse, white, European men with means, from Watteau to Picasso, had been the artistic geniuses throughout history. “Not everyone can do what a genius can,” Gombrich told the Independent, “and not everyone can produce a masterpiece even after long training.”
In a perverse way, Gombrich was right, because the problem has always been in the way we define genius. The Artistic Genius is certain of his talents; he is certain of his project. These men were emotionally brutal, sure in their vision, often blustering and quick to anger. When Gauguin abandons his family for Tahiti, he does so with confidence that his wife and children will understand that their lives are of minimal importance compared with the vast number of lives he and his art will touch.
Because the understanding of artistic genius has been so closely linked to privileges and traits associated with masculinity, women have forever been locked out of the conversation. “Why have there been no great women artists?” asked Linda Nochlin in her 1971 essay. “But like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist ‘controversy,’ it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: ‘There have been no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.’ ” The very notion of genius is gendered, and thus defining it becomes a tautology: The Artistic Genius is male because men are most fit to be Artistic Geniuses. The goalposts of greatness are hyper-specific, socially manipulated, and ultimately less interested in the aesthetics of the work produced. And they are seldom scrutinized.