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Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian

An Exhibition Organized by the Dahesh Museum

Marie Bashkirtseff
In the Studio, 1881
Oil on Canvas
Collection: Dnipropetrovsk State Art Museum, Ukraine

by J. David Farmer, Ph.D.

Director, Dahesh Museum, New York City

What was this Académie Julian that one so frequently finds mentioned in discussions
of 19th and early 20th century art? Beside the fact that celebrated artists as diverse as
John Singer Sargent, Robert Henri and Henri Matisse had studied there, I personally
knew very little about the school and its founder, Rodolphe Julian (1839-1907).
However, my lack of knowledge was for good reasons-to my understanding, there is
not a single study of the Académie, and there has never been a museum exhibition
devoted to this influential school.

In fact, from its inception in Paris in 1868, the Académie Julian was the outstanding
private art academy in France. For decades it was recognized as probably the most
famous private art school in the world, and by the 1880s its student enrollment grew to
over 600. The Académie Julian was conceived by its founder as an alternative to the
official and very competitive École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Rodolphe Julian was a canny businessman and quickly established his academy as a
premiere destination, which was open to anyone who could afford the tuition. It had a
renowned faculty, boasting of the most famous and successful artists of their time,
including William Bouguereau, Jules Lefebvre and Jean-Paul Laurens. Some
illustrious American artists who studied under these masters were Frank Benson,
Edmund Tarbell, Thomas Dewing, Gari Melchers, J.C. Leyendecker, Arthur Mathews,
John Henry Twachtman, and Joseph Sharp. Furthermore, the Académie Julian was
instrumental in training many California Art Club artists, to name a few, Alson Clark,
Guy Rose, and Granville Redmond. Monsieur Julian also had the brilliant idea that
there was a place for an art academy that could offer women the same training that
men received at the École des Beaux-Arts (the École finally began to accept women as
students in 1897). This combination of progressive ideals and business opportunism
opened the way for a new generation of women artists who could, and did, compete as
professionals in the art world.

Overcoming All Obstacles: Women of the Académie Julian is an exhibition at the

Dahesh Museum that explores the first thirty years of the school's innovative program.
The theme of the exhibition concentrates on a few of the many women who succeeded
in creating careers at a time when the public and the art establishment, in general,
were not quite ready to accept women as fine artists.

The basis of academic study at the École des Beaux-Arts and most other art academies
was drawing from the live model. For mostly moral reasons, it was considered
improper for women to draw from the nude. Therefore, women who were lacking this
training were put at a distinct disadvantage in an art world that still valued figural
work as the highest kind of subject. The core of the exhibition at the Dahesh focuses
on figure and head studies made at the Académie Julian in its early years and
fortunately preserved by its current owner and director, Andr‚ Del Debbio. They have
never before been seen publicly, and the level of finish and quality in these drawings
and oil sketches testifies to the excellent, intensive training the women received, as
well as their skill and dedication. Monsieur Julian is quoted in a contemporary
interview as noting that women won the frequent internal competitions as regularly as
men. Seeing these superb works should motivate any art educator today to realize the
essential value of learning to draw.
Marie Bashkirtseff
Self-Portrait with a Palette, c.
Oil on Canvas
Collection: Musée des Beaux-
Arts (Jules Chéret), Nice
Cécile Baudry
Nude Study, 1901
Charcoal on Brown Paper
Collection: André Del Debbio, Paris

Monsieur Julian also realized that women artists were most likely to earn their living
as portraitists, and indeed that is how most of them succeeded. In his studio they drew
models and each other, and developed the ability to paint perceptive representations.
Several of the finest works are even self-portraits, including mature examples by
Marie Bashkirtseff, Anna Bilinska, Cecilia Beaux, Louise Breslau and Mina
Bredberg-Carlson. The names alone, incidentally, can alert us to the international
appeal of the Académie, since these artists came from, respectively, Ukraine, Poland,
America, Switzerland and Sweden. Most of them returned to their native countries and
established good careers and sometimes even comparable art schools. Cecilia Beaux,
along with fellow students, Anna Klumpke and Elizabeth Gardner (later Mme.
Bouguereau) became successful and highly renowned in America. However, the
others are not so well known in this country and were, in fact, revelations to me.

Bashkirtseff had an all-too-short career-she was only twenty-six when she died.
However, she kept a diary of her time at the Académie, which provided historians with
good research material. She also wrote feminist articles in French journals, which
provided Bashkirtseff a place in literature. Her artwork is less well known, and the
exhibition was fortunate to have obtained the loan of her masterpiece, In the Studio, an
1881 painting of the interior of the Académie Julian with the artist herself at the far
right. This fascinating work has been in the collection of the Dnipropetrovsk State
Museum, Ukraine, since the 1930s and no one I have talked to has previously seen
more than a poor reproduction of it. The painting depicts an active, crowded atelier
with women drawing and painting a live model. (After an initial trial period of mixed
classes, Monsieur Julian completely separated the men and women students.) Her
marvelous, Self-Portrait with a Palette, is beautifully painted-austere and economical,
but with splendid explosions of paint in her blouse and palette. Thus, documenting
what she might have accomplished had she lived longer.

Anna Bilinska will undoubtedly be another major surprise to most visitors, since her
work is rarely seen outside Polish collections. Her Self-Portrait with Apron and
Brushes (1887) is a bold statement of her confidence in being an artist; it is
surprisingly monumental in scale and unflinching in its honesty of representation. A
later and even larger self-portrait in the exhibition is a poignant document of her early
death in 1893, finished only in the face and upper body, and abandoned as her health
declined. The range of works in the exhibition by Bilinska demonstrates that she could
do anything, and with subjects as diverse as a fine male Académie (reproduced in the
February 2000 issue of the California Art Club Newsletter), a fashionable female
portrait, a cityscape of Berlin, a genre scene in the Dutch manner and a model … la

Many of the artists represented in the exhibition's section on student works remain
obscure, despite the quality of their studies, although Käthe Kollwitz's elegant figure
sketch once again testifies to the numerous famous artists who worked at Julian's
(such as Louise Bourgeois in the 1930s). The curators of the exhibition, Professor
Gabriel Weisberg and Dr. Jane R. Becker, had to eliminate some wonderful
discoveries because of space limitations. And the museum is receiving information on
yet more artists who studied at the Académie Julian in the late 19th century, but whose
names have faded from conventional art history. We still have quite a lot to learn and
welcome further information on this rich early period in the history of the Académie
Anna Bilinska
Self-Portrait with Apron and
Brushes, 1887
Oil on Canvas
Collection: National Museum,

Following the exhibition's closing at the Dahesh Museum on May 13, Overcoming All
Obstacles will travel to Memphis where it will be shown at the Dixon Gallery and
Gardens, July 9-September 24, 2000. A fully illustrated catalogue, co-published with
Rutgers University Press, with essays by Professor Weisberg, Dr. Becker, Professor
Tamar Garb and Professor Catherine Fehrer is available from the museum for $35 plus
$4 for postage and handling. Dahesh Museum, 601 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY
10017 or

News on the Expansion of the Dahesh Museum

As the collection and popularity of the Dahesh Museum has grown, plans have been
implemented for a larger facility. However, the museum has just learned that their bid
for their preferred location at 2 Columbus Circle (formerly Huntington Hartford's
Gallery of Modern Art) has been put off by the City of New York, which owns the
structure. The original bid was submitted in October 1996. The City has now issued
another call for bids with a clear emphasis on commercial development, which will
undoubtedly mean destruction of this important Edward Durell stone building. The
Dahesh Museum is the only bidding institution that will preserve 2 Columbus Circle
and return it to its original cultural use. If anyone is interested in helping the Dahesh
Museum in acquiring and saving this building, please write to: Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani, City Hall, New York, NY 10007.

This article was originally published in the April/May, 2000 issue of the California
Art Club newsletter.