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CR Muse: Louise Abbéma, a New Woman

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

Louise Abbéma was an incredibly modern woman for the 19th century. A new kind of woman, in fact. The world she depicted in her paintings was one filled with sweeping changes toward gender equality.

Abbéma was born in France in 1853 to a wealthy and well-connected family. As a teen, she received private art lessons from the likes of Charles Joshua Chaplin, Jean-Jacques Henner, and Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, who also taught John Singer Sargent. At 23, she had her big break: painting her friend—and rumored lover—actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Abbéma was an impressionist during the New Woman era, which emerged in the late 19th century and became a cultural phenomenon well into the 20th century. A product of the Suffragette movement and First-wave feminism, the period of the New Woman encapsulated the radical changes toward women’s equality and independence. For the first time, women were accepted into universities, were breaking into the professional world, were allowed to own property, and sought financial independence.

Of course, there were setbacks. Although women were now accepted in the art world, they were met with disdain from men. The work of women was often seen as inferior. To push forward, Abbéma and others made efforts to support women, not only through their art (Abbéma often depicted women dressed in more masculine styles, or taking part in activities), but also by promoting each other’s work.

Abbéma herself could be seen as an emblematic New Woman. Not only did she have a professional career as an artist, she also pushed the boundaries of gender roles. In photographs, Abbéma can be seen dressed in menswear-inspired attire, and in self portraits, she depicted herself wearing androgynous clothing.

Though she was respected in her time—even receiving the Order of Légion d’Honneur in 1906—Abbéma now seems but a distant memory in the art world. By the time she died in 1927, the era of the New Woman was over, and women were freer than they had ever been before. When looking back at her paintings, one can only imagine the pride she would feel seeing how far women have come today, and how she would have depicted today’s New Woman in her work.

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