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Monday, May 23, 2016

Louise Abbema

An Afternoon Song, 1885, Louise Abbema, typical of the era in France.
One of the chief functions of art historians is to classify art. The idea being that when they label various styles and types of art, such works become easier to understand and recall. It's somewhat like putting similar items into a file folder then arranging them to form some greater assigned order. Some might argue that doing so simply adds another layer of complexity to such art making still more difficult to grasp. I suppose such labeling and filing has its place so long as one is willing to learn and use the filing system. However, the attempt to simplify by adding order ends up undercutting its purpose if, in doing so, the labeling becomes too detailed, causing the filing system to become ambiguous or excessively large. On the plus side, the act of labeling allows disimilar criteria to be cross-referenced.
Where Angels Play, 1878, Louise Abbema
Perhaps it would be easier to think of a file cabinet marked 19th-century art, with drawers containing only French, English, Spanish, and American art of that period. In each drawer would be folders containing only Impressionism, Realism, Romanticism, etc. Inside these folders one would find images by various artists representative of these styles. Digitize it all and within seconds one can compare the work of the American Impressionist, William Merritt Chase with that of Claude Monet. The problem arises when art historians begin to break down major categories into relatively minor ones having to do with eras, media, movements, and other esoterica. For instance, Impressionism reached its height of popularity during the latter two or three decades of the 19th-century. But so did Art Nouveau and Fauvism, as well as any number of lesser styles and movements. Therefore, art historians decided to call this final quarter century La Belle Epoque (French being the favored language of obfuscation). Translated it means simply, "The Beautiful Era," which adds little or nothing to the understanding of works from this period in that, presumably, pretty much all 19th-century art was imbued with some element of beauty. Worse still, the period has been stretched historically, to encompassed the entire time from the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1871) to the beginning of WW I (1914). That's some forty-three years making up the adolescence of Modern Art, not to mention some very dissimilar styles and types of art.
Louise Abbema, artist of La Belle Epoque.
Louise Abbema was a French artist of this era. And, while her work is quite stylish and beautiful as befitting the defined era, it is not Impressionist, nor Art Nouveau, nor does it fit into any other important stylistic category. Her career as an artist does, however, fit very neatly into this so-called "Beautiful Era." Louise was born around 1853 (possibly as late as 1858) in the town of Étampes, Essonne (north-central France), which would have her coming of age as an artist around 1873 having studied under such notables as Charles Joshua Chaplin, Jean-Jacques Henner and Carolus-Duran. She excelled at glamorous society portraits. And, as so often happens, she first acquired some degree of recognition not for how she painted nor how well, but for who she painted, in this case, the famous French stage and screen actress, Sarah Bernhardt (below).

Sarah Bernhardt, ca. 1875-78, Louise Abbema
Although Abbema painted portraits of several notable celebrities, through her lifelong friendship with Bernhardt, Louise also garnered commissions to paint panels and murals to adorn the Paris Town Hall, the Paris Opera House, and other theaters including the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt, and the Palace of the Colonial Governor in Dakar, Senegal. Abbema exhibited frequently at the Paris Salon, once receiving an honorable mention for a panel in 1881. A bust of Sarah Bernhardt (above, lower-right) sculpted by Abbéma was exhibited in the Women's Building at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Luncheon In The Conservatory, Louise Abbema
As educational opportunities became more available during the "Beautiful Era" of the 19th and early 20th-centuries, women artists such as Louise Abbema took on integral roles in professional enterprises, including founding their own art associations. Even so, artwork made by women was considered to be inferior to that of men. To overcome this stereotype, women became increasingly vocal and confident in promoting their work. They became part of the emerging image of the educated, modern and creative "New Woman". Abbema was one of many who played crucial roles in representing the New Woman, both by drawing images of the icon and exemplifying this emerging type through their own lives, Abbema created androgynous self-portraits linking intellectual life through emphasis on successful women such as herself and Miss Bernhardt.

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