Women Fight for Fairness at Academies of Art

In the 19th century, the Royal Academies of Art only accepted male students. This changed in 1860 with the acceptance of their first female student.

Jul 10, 2024By Kerigan Pickett, BA Art History with History concentration

women fight fairness academies art


The 19th century saw much progress in terms of equality for women, but it was not without a struggle for that equality. The Royal Art Academies were no exception to this. Though the first woman was admitted to the school in 1860, it was a mistaken case of gender that allowed it to happen. Women faced systemic sabotage from their male counterparts and countless obstacles, especially at the hands of the Royal Academies of Art.


Who Were the Great Artists at the Academies of Art?

The Academicians of the Royal Academy by Johan Joseph Zoffany, 1771. Source: The Royal Trust Collection, London.


Names like Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt come to mind when one thinks of great artists of art history. Rarely does a woman’s name appear in our heads, and there is a reason for this. Women have been held back systemically by societal pressures and lack of resources due to oppression for nearly all of history. As the art historian Linda Nochlin puts it, art history has no great female artists. This is not because women were incapable of greatness but because they faced roadblocks that men did not, such as the expectation for marriage and the role they played within that marriage, the lack of financial independence, the responsibility of child-rearing, and the outright lack of opportunities at artistic institutions who did not permit women to attend their schools. It makes no difference how great they could be if they are never allowed the opportunity to be great.


There were, of course, women artists throughout history, many of them rivaling their male counterparts for patrons and talent, even in their time. However, these female artists have been allowed to slip into obscurity over the centuries due to the traditional male domination in the fields of history and art history, which continued until the mid-20th century. When men can choose which artists make it into the history books, they can also choose which artists get remembered and labeled as great.


Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser

Woman Resting her Head on a Book by Angelica Kauffman, 1770. Source: The Royal Academy of Arts, London.


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It is remarkable that women, such as Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, could play a large role in founding an arts academy while that same academy banned the enrollment of women at the school. The Royal Academy of Art in London was opened in 1768, and two women took part in its opening—Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser.


Angelica Kauffman was brought up in Switzerland by her father, Joseph Johann Kauffman, a professional artist. He was able to open doors for her that would not have been afforded to many women in the 18th century, such as training in London. This gave her opportunities to paint two portraits for royal family members, which brought her fame and spread her name across Europe as a talented painter. She was therefore allowed to sign her name alongside 22 men in a petition to King George III for a Royal Academy of Art in London.


Summer by Mary Moser, 1780. Source: The Royal Academy of Arts, London.


Mary Moser was another signature on that petition. Moser did not have formal artistic training. She received most of her training directly from her father, George Michael Moser. He was also a founding member of the academy, which was likely where Mary Moser obtained her opportunity to be a part of the founding. Being a founder of the academy, Mary Moser was awarded some prestigious commissions, such as a floral design at Frogmore House for Queen Charlotte in the 1790s.


Despite these women’s involvement in founding the Royal Academy of Arts, including women at the academy ended there. In fact, Kauffman and Moser were often not even present at the regular meetings of the institution. Despite opening in 1768, women would not be permitted as students until one hundred years later, in the 1860s, when Laura Herford was admitted by mistake.


The Case of Laura Herford

Hillside Cottage by Helen Allingham, 1889. Source: Art Gallery NSW, Sydney.


Laura Herford also came from an artistic family, though not a professional one. Her mother, Sarah Smith Herford, was a landscape painter and likely the source of Laura’s passion for art. In 1860, Laura sent a portfolio of her work to the Royal Academy of Arts in London. She understood that women were not permitted to attend the academy, so she submitted her artwork using her initials. Many women had shown their work in an attempt to be accepted into the Royal Academy of Arts. Some were even nominated, yet any chance a woman might have had at acceptance went nowhere until Laura Herford decided to be discreet with her admission.


Her skills were impressive, and she received a letter of acceptance, as the admissions team had mistakenly assumed that she was a man due to the ambiguity of her signature. Laura Herford opened the gates for women at the Royal Art Academy, but the male students and faculty, feeling tricked, placed obstacles in the women’s paths to success. Laura’s niece, Helen Allingham, would follow in her footsteps, also obtaining entry into the Royal Academy of Arts in London.


Women as Royal Academicians

Portrait of Millicent Fawcett, by Annie Louisa Swynnerton, c. 1899-1922. Source: Tate, London


In 1879, a woman named Elizabeth Butler was almost voted in as a replacement for Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser’s roles as Royal Academicians. However, she lost by only two votes. Despite losing the election, the close results made the conservative Academicians realize how close the institution was to creating equal opportunities for both men and women, so they put forward a motion to once again ban women from being able to attend the school.


The motion passed, yet, thankfully, nothing ever came of it. The first woman to be elected a Royal Academician was Annie Swynnerton in 1922, though she was never able to take on the full role due to her age of 78. The first woman to take on the role fully was Laura Knight in 1938, 170 years after the school’s founding. Even then, she would not receive an invitation to the institution’s Annual Dinner until 30 years after obtaining the role.


At a meeting in 1966, an artist named Gertrude Hermes could smell the dinner about to be served, only to realize that no women were invited to partake in the meal, including Laura Knight, the elected Royal Academician. Women in the Royal Academy of Arts did not enjoy institutional equality until 1967.


The social equality of the institution was finally challenged in 1980 when younger women began to be admitted, and there was confusion amongst the male students, who mistakenly assumed that their younger female classmates could not be members of the institution if they did not have gray hair.


Royal Academy, Somerset House, London by Thomas Rowlandson, 1811. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Though women were allowed to attend by the 1860s, the school was not going to make it easy for them to go down in history as great artists. Men believed it would be improper for a woman to devote herself primarily to anything other than family. There were already historical hierarchical structures in the art field that they could use to their advantage in roadblocking women’s success in achieving greatness. The hierarchy of art, which had been used historically to rank artists in the field, could now be used to keep women firmly below the top rung, which was considered a prerequisite to greatness.


The hierarchy of art places genres of art at different levels of respectability. At the top is history painting, which required intensive technical training and expansive historical knowledge. One of the most critical aspects of history painting was anatomy. Realistic, rippling muscles, contours of the body as it twists, and emotional movement in limbs could only be achieved by studying human anatomy from an artistic perspective. The best way to do this was by attending life-drawing classes.


In these classes, nude models would stand and pose for artists as they studied the contours of the muscles and recreated them in their art. It was a common belief that if an artist ever wanted to go down in history as a great artist, life-drawing classes were an imperative necessity.


Below history painting was portraiture, then genre painting (depictions of everyday life amongst the common economic classes), landscape painting, animal painting, and finally, still-life painting. Though women were allowed to create artwork in any genre, they were encouraged to pursue only the lower art forms, such as landscape and still-life. It was seen as more appropriate for women, who had little time to devote to their artwork, compared to men. They believed that art, for women, should be a pastime or an accomplishment to complement their education and heighten their marriageability.


The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur, 1852. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Women were barred entirely from attending life-drawing classes. This was a problem, for if women did not have access to the very thing that could bring their skills to a level of greatness, they would never be able to reach that level. When women asked to be permitted into the life-drawing classes at the institution, they were denied, on the belief that it would be improper for a woman to see a naked body. However, women were more than welcome to serve as nude models or domestic servants for male students in life-drawing classes.


Even the lower rungs of the hierarchy of art could prove to be inaccessible to most women. Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair is considered an animal painting, and she was firmly established as an animal painter in Paris. The Horse Fair shows a horse market in Paris that she would frequent to study the anatomy of the horses. However, when she went to the market, she dressed as a man to avoid attention. She went twice a week for a year and a half before completing the painting. These were the sort of obstacles that women faced while attempting to become great artists.


Controlling the Numbers at the Academies of Art

Standing Female Nude Viewed from the Back by William Mulready, 1850s. Source: The Royal Academy of Arts, London.


The admittance of female students to the Royal Academies of Art was intensely disliked by the male students attending these institutions. One of the Royal Academicians, George Dunlop Leslie, called the admittance of women into the academy a female invasion and supported policies limiting women’s inclusion. Though women may be admitted into the institution, the administration carefully controlled their numbers to keep the number of men much higher than the number of women.


Though they sought to limit women’s opportunities within the institution, there were also some benefits for the male students to have female classmates. Women were not allowed into a life drawing class, as it would have been considered inappropriate for a woman to see such things, but they were allowed to pose as nude models for the men in the life drawing classes. The objectification of women was prevalent in this atmosphere, especially when women were limited in their own greatness to make room for the men who feared equal opportunity amongst women, giving the men an engineered sense of superiority. Now, in the 21st century, the Royal Academy of Arts prides itself on how far it has come concerning equality. Though it took 250 years to obtain and maintain equality at the institution, men and women have been elected at an equal rate for the last decade.

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By Kerigan PickettBA Art History with History concentrationKerigan has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Northern Iowa, where she also minored in History and earned a Museum Studies Certificate. She is also certified to tutor through the Saga Coach program by Saga Education, and she interned at the Cedar Falls Historical Society in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She is passionate about art, history, and writing. Her favorite historical subject is Tudor history. She currently runs a blog on WordPress called Gilded Histories, where she posts her latest art historical research in the form of academic articles.