Women’s Work: Re-examining the Material Practice of European Women Sculptors before 1900

The growing effort to expand the representation of women artists in academic research and museum displays can be traced back to the development of feminist art history in the 1970s. While significant progress has been achieved in highlighting women painters, the field of study surrounding women sculptors is comparatively underdeveloped, in part due to the unconventional routes taken by these artists. Before women were formally accepted into art academies in the late nineteenth century, many forged professional careers as wax modellers, cameo carvers, or stonemasons. The enduring perception of these activities as ‘artisanal’ or ‘hobbyist’ has caused them to be frequently omitted from mainstream histories of European sculpture. However, the careers of Madame Tussaud and Eleanor Coade provide compelling examples of how women could be both entrepreneurial and professional sculptors before the twentieth century, despite societal restrictions and gender discrimination. 

This session will focus on the practices of women sculptors working before 1900, re-examining the status and materiality of their works. Papers will interrogate the classification of works produced by women during this time, investigate women sculptors through the lens of artistic agency, and discuss underrepresented sculptural materials. More broadly, this session will promote an integrated definition of sculpture and demonstrate how adopting a non-hierarchical approach to materials can reveal new perspectives regarding the role of women in the history of European sculpture.

Session Convenors:

Sophie Johnson, University of Bristol

Laura Chase, Victoria and Albert Museum


Marjan Sterckx, Ghent University (BE)

Women at work: Nineteenth-century European women sculptors portrayed

This paper considers the depiction of nineteenth-century European women sculptors in painted and occasionally sculpted portraits, a new topos, and a subject that has so far received little attention. Some portraits were exhibited at the time, in which case they played a role in the staging and fashioning of specific women sculptors, as well as in constructing the notion of ‘the woman sculptor’ more generally. “She had often worked quite consciously to develop a ‘personality’ or ‘image’”, Emily Cutrer wrote of the German sculptor Elisabet Ney. As contemporary iconographical sources, complementing written sources, the portraits contribute to our knowledge of specific women sculptors: their appearance, working environment, professional aspirations, agency, and reception.

Portraits are not mere likenesses; they also convey and construct cultural and historical views of matters such as gender and class. For a selection of cases, I focus on significant choices made during the creative process, in dialogue between the sitter and the maker (often their husband, teacher or a fellow artist and friend–male or female). These determine the mise-en-scène and visual signals: the framing, setting, and props, the inclusion of the sitter’s sculptural work (its size, materiality and iconography), her pose, gestures, gaze and expression, her code of dress, and accessories–sculpting or modelling tools, or ‘typically female’ fittings. I set out to identify which gendered constructions are possibly at play in the visual representations of nineteenth-century women sculptors, and to demonstrate the multiplicity of the category and imagery of ‘the woman sculptor’.

Joy Cador, Pantheon-Sorbonne University, Paris

When marble matters: A woman’s concern

For nineteenth-century sculptresses, carving marble constituted a serious challenge. Whereas this question was no longer of relevance to their male counterparts, who almost systematically delegated marble carving to their skilled assistants, women’s presumed physical weakness remained a frequently used argument to underline the lower quality of their sculptural work. Thus, while British sculptor Roscoe Mullins “advise[d] [women] to get their marble work done for them” this recommendation was however qualified a few lines later when he argued that “it is a great mistake to assume that carving is a mere mechanical process, and that therefore a carefully trained workman alone can do it.” In her 1859 book, Women Artists in all Ages and Countries, a pioneering work on the history of women artists, Elizabeth Fries Ellet related some words attributed to German philosopher Hume, who, when speaking to Anne Seymour Damer, would have declared that “it is much easier to model in wax than to chisel a bust from marble.” Yet the second half of nineteenth century marked the dawn of a new generation of sculptresses, inviting us to consider marble sculpting practice in a very different way. While some of them, such as Camille Claudel, claimed responsibility for marble carving in order to restate the importance of the manual making in the production of the sculpture, others, Harriet Hosmer for instance, used the material to implement and defend both the collective and entrepreneurial character of their artistic activity.

Nicoli Braga Macêdo, Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa (CICH-UAL)

The emancipation of the feminine: Reconsidering the work of Portuguese women sculptors (1881-1900)

The objective of this paper is to discuss two main topics centred between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe. The paper will discuss a unique period in women’s history; a moment that fully impacted women’s participation in the art history context, when they started to be accepted as students into the professional environment of the Portuguese Fine Arts Academies in 1881. My research, guided by gender studies, pays attention to the first Portuguese women sculptors and their artworks. It is important to say that this artistic area, in the nineteenth century, was most related with the masculine world. Finally, I will introduce their names and biographies, such as Maria Margarida Ferreira Borges, Albertina Cândida de Mello Falker and Maria Luísa de Souza Holstein. In a short form way, I will explain this process as a form of the emancipation of the feminine and discuss the many interconnected ideological, social and political aspects of the period. 

Sophie Johnson, University of Bristol

Laura Chase, Victoria and Albert Museum

Beyond the chisel: Women and wax before 1900

Women have been connected to wax modelling from as early as the Middle Ages, and yet the significance of this practice is often overlooked in art history. Before art academies opened their doors to women, wax modelling was one of the most popular forms of sculpture available for study and practice. The perceived femininity of wax made it a ‘suitable’ material for aristocratic and working-class women alike, and many women found professional success with the medium, establishing waxwork businesses and receiving public commissions. Although wax declined in popularity during the nineteenth century, several women continued to exhibit their work at the Royal Academy to critical acclaim.

The qualities which made wax accessible to women – its softness, affordability, and the ease with which it could be used – are also the reasons for why it has historically received less attention than other sculptural materials, like marble and bronze. We will discuss how the constructed hierarchies observed in traditional art historical narratives, which separate the fine and decorative arts, have in turn disadvantaged the appreciation of women modellers. The gendered nature of these hierarchies has been explored by feminist art historians to date with a specific focus on textile production, but this paper will be one of the first to consider these issues in the context of wax sculpture. By employing women wax modellers as a key case study, we ask how the traditional definition of sculpture can be reconceived to allow for more integrated and diverse approaches to critical discourse.

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