Germaine Greer observes how women’s contribution is winnowed out of art history

Sylvia Gosse, “Walter Richard Sickert,”  1923-5
Hilda ­Carline, “Welsh Farm,” 1938, oil on canvas, 22 x 21″
Thérèse ­Lessore, “The Roundabout at the Circus”

At the Guardian, Germaine Greer reports that the Fitzwilliam’s “Sargent, Sikert & Spencer” exhibition offers a pretty good lesson in how women’s contribution is winnowed out of art history.

“The museum has just hung a show of paintings by John Singer Sargent, Walter Sickert and Stanley Spencer from its collection, and I find myself wishing they hadn’t. For the first time, the museum seems to me ­provincial rather than perfect. Many of the ­works are unapologetically minor; but even the ones that are not are less ­significant than they should be, if they are to dwell on the same plane as the rest of the collection. Sargent was ­grotesquely successful in his own time, as portrait painters tend to be once they have established a popular formula – but he is not a painter we need to see much of now. He may have fancied himself as a great landscape painter seduced from his true bent by filthy ­lucre. If he did, the examples shown here prove he was wrong….

“By way of justifying the ­yoking together of these three artists, rather too much is made of the slender ­connections between them – which boils down to little more than that they occasionally treated similar themes. Sargent had no more ­acrimonious critic than Sickert, and Spencer learned nothing from either of them. Of the women who were ­Sickert’s faithful allies, only Thérèse ­Lessore makes the grade. The portrait of ­Sickert in coloured chalks and ­watercolour that Lessore made in 1919, eight years before she became the painter’s third wife, is included as a curiosity. ­Sylvia Gosse was the most important of the dozen or so women who worked on Sickert’s prints, ­copying on to his ­canvases the details of the photographs he used later in his career. Gosse also lent him money, bought his pictures, nursed his first wife in her terminal illness and raised a fund for him in old age. The ­Fitzwilliam was left a still life by Gosse in 1991 (the ­museum has 13 of her prints, but she was allowed no space in this exhibition).
It takes a sharp eye to detect ­Spencer’s faithful wife Hilda ­Carline as the diminutive grey statue in his ­repulsive pseudo-allegory, ‘Love on the Moor,’ completed after her death. ­Carline was a serious artist, who worked as ­steadily as she could, ­alongside raising two daughters, the misery and turmoil of being married to Spencer, a mental breakdown and failed treatment for breast cancer. The Fitzwilliam exhibition offers a pretty good object lesson in how women’s contribution is winnowed out of art history.


Sargent, Sickert & Spencer,” curated by Jane Munro. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK. Through April 5, 2010.


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1 thought on “Germaine Greer observes how women’s contribution is winnowed out of art history”

  1. Thanks for posting this Sharon- the marginalizing of women artists is nothing new. At least Greer took this one on. I wonder if there are any other critics protesting the exhibit.

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