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Art from gender viewpoint

Courses taught by first Doris Stevens Professor include Imaging the Body


Carol Armstrong and "Gypsy with a Cigarette," by Edouard Manet (Photo by Denise Applewhite)


By Caroline Moseley

Seeing art from a gender viewpoint has always been an important theme for me," says Carol Armstrong, "though not the only theme."

Armstrong is professor of art and archaeology and the first Doris Stevens Professor of the Study of Women and Gender. Her work has been in two areas: 19th-century French painting and art criticism, and the history and criticism of 19th and 20th-century photography.

Last fall she taught Imaging the Body, which "focused on the ways in which the body, especially the female body, is represented in film, photography, painting, literature, and also in psychoanalytic theory and feminist theory," she says. In a series of units, "We addressed the sexual body, the body as a whole figure, the fragmented body and the face."

Women photographers

On leave this semester, Armstrong plans to teach a seminar on women photographers in the fall of 2000. Out of that seminar will come an exhibition in the Art Museum scheduled for fall 2001, which will coincide with a conference on contemporary women artists in all media.

"I think women photographers represent a particularly interesting case," she says. "Photography is a different medium than painting, with a different history and different institutional constraints. Women have played a larger role in the history of photography than in that of painting."

In the early days of painting, Arm-strong points out, women "did not have access to institutions of training and professional advancement. But these institutions didn't exist for photographers. The early photographers, male and female, were upperclass amateurs."

Women photographers have always been part of the photographic canon, Armstrong says. She cites Julia Cameron, an Englishwoman who was active for a decade in the mid-1860s. Linked to the pre-Raphaelite movement, Cameron knew and photographed many of the great men of her day, including Darwin and Tennyson. She created an album of photographs illustrating Tennyson's Idylls of the King, posing her maids and her nieces in medieval garb.

Armstrong's most recent book, Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1843-1875 (1998), "is about 19th-century English photographs that were used to illustrate different kinds of books. Gender comes into at least two of the chapters, which are concerned with albums of photographs by women."


Armstrong is currently at work on a book on the French painter Edouard Manet to be called "Manet/Manette." "Manet has had a lot written about him," she says, "but it has tended to concern his more notorious paintings, such as 'Olympia' and 'Déjeuner sur l'Herbe.'"

She plans to explore the ways Manet depicted women, especially his favorite model, Victorine Meurent, who for a while was a painter herself.

Critics have said that Manet objectifies the female body, but Armstrong disagrees. "It seems to me," she says, "that Manet saw women as complex figures of indeterminacy, mutability and artifice, with which he identified his own practice as a painter."

She encourages people to visit the Art Museum and see Manet's "Gypsy With a Cigarette" (1861-62), one of two paintings by Manet, both of women, that normally hang together in the museum. The other, "Woman in the Derby Hat" (1879), is out on loan, she notes.

The Gypsy "belongs to Manet's early preoccupation with Spanish art and culture," Armstrong says. "It marks him as a late-coming Romantic as much as the modernist forerunner he has been taken to be."

A 1977 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Armstrong earned her 1980 MFA and 1986 PhD at Princeton. She taught at Berkeley for eight years and then became associate professor and professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. She joined the Princeton faculty in 1999. She is also author of Odd Man Out: Readings of the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas (1991).