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Book Review: Danger! Women Artists at Work by Debra N. Mancoff

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Recently I visited The Royal Academy to view an exhibition of Impressionist Art. Of all the paintings, I found myself standing in front of one by Berthe Morisot. It was of a woman doing her toilette, arms aloft, fixing her hair. There was something magical about its touch, the perfection of her arms, the understanding of this simple every day action. Of the many paintings exhibited it was this one that I loved most. I began to wonder whether its beauty and the subtle understanding of the woman’s actions were precisely because Morisot was a woman herself.

This thought was fresh in my mind when I came across Danger! Women Artists at Work by Debra N Mancoff. Having studied History of Art at University many years ago I am always interested in books about art and I was excited to read a book that covered the topic of women artists and their position in the art world.

Mancoff writes in her Introduction that ‘until relatively recently, the history of art was a celebration of male talent … the “Old Masters’’’ and when you think about it, how many female artists do you know? In comparison to male artists, especially in the years before the twentieth century, there are few that I could name. In the past it has taken real courage for women to become artists. They were barred from Life Classes and although in the nineteenth century the amateur study of art by ‘ladies’ was ‘deemed a valued and genteel quality’, as Mancoff writes, their participation as professional artists was frowned upon.

As I read through Mancoff’s Introduction I was excited by her thoughts and fascinated to learn of women who broke the mould–from Sofonisba Anguissola in the sixteenth century through to the Guerrilla Girls who continue ‘to expose discrimination against women in the art world’.

Moving on into the body of the book Mancoff gives short biographies of women artists through history. Touching on their lives and work Mancoff gives tantalising glimpses into a world of women fighting to be recognised as artists in their own right despite living in a world where men were dominant, where they were expected to conform to the female stereotype and had to rely on men to train them and provide a starting point for their careers.

As interesting as these biographies were, however, I wanted more. I was frustrated, initially, that after the promise of the Introduction the book was then filled with biographies which gave only brief outlines of the women’s lives and achievements. I wanted to know more about how the women succeeded, what they did, specifically, to become successful in a male dominated profession. But then I began to realise that this is a huge topic, one that could hardly be covered in one book. But Danger! Women Artists at Work has made me want to discover more and by listing so many women artists in one place. Mancoff has given me a starting point.

Danger! Women Artists at Work is well written, accessible and full of beautiful prints of each artist’s work. Its premise that women have had to work hard and court danger in order to succeed is more than interesting, it is a glimpse at a hidden truth. It reveals some of the struggle endured by women artists and shows that the artists of today, such as Tracey Emin and Renee Cox, are members of a long line of women determined to fulfil their artistic ambitions against all odds. Definitely a book worth reading and one that will hopefully inspire readers to read further and discover more.

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