In the short film Life Lessons, part of the anthology New York Stories, a male artist is shown painting in vivid colors straight from the tube. His female love interest, who has artistic ambitions of her own, asks him if her work is any good. Her painting is of two figures together, painted in paler, duller colors. His artistic integrity keeps him from giving her the answer she wants to hear. Of course the viewer is supposed to look at his work and then her work and know at a glance that her artistic ability is no match for his. The film is about how male artists become famous and female artists end up being the muses, the passive objects, of male artists rather than famous in their own right.
To me her painting didn’t seem that bad. And his much-celebrated painting looked like a crusty, violently colored mess.
But I’m looking with female eyes, which according to some studies, perceive color differently.
According to this study, women can perceive more subtle changes in color than men.
Consumer products for women are marketed in pastel colors while those for men favor darker, more intense hues.
This is supposed to be because women’s eyes are more easily stimulated, so less intense colors give a more pleasing effect. Men on the other hand have less sensitive eyes, which respond better to darker and more intense colors with bigger contrasts.
Which explains in part why women love the Impressionists so much: When I was in college I never saw so many Monet posters plastered on the walls of girls’ rooms.
There must be statistical outliers in both groups; when I was a kid I absolutely loathed pink, to the point where I wouldn’t play with my best friend in her room because it was Pepto-Bismol pink. We always played in her bratty little sister’s room because it was painted a beautiful apple green. But even to me other pastel colors are more soothing than dark, intense ones.
This difference in perception is linked to sexism. The artistic creations of women have been derided throughout history. The softer colors are regarded as delicate, feminine and therefore inferior. Dark, intense colors are perceived as strong and passionate and masculine, the hallmark of the serious artist. Serious, of course, was defined in male terms.
Lee Krasner used intense colors in her work. Hans Hofmann said of her: “This is so good you would not know it was painted by a woman.”
Jacqueline Humphries is another woman artist who has been accused of painting like a man:
Artist Phyllis Lawson’s dealer once said of her that she “paints like a man.”
All meant to be compliments, surely, for there is no greater compliment to a woman’s ability than it resembles a man’s. Man is the default human being, to which lesser beings like women aspire. And men like this guy actually get a wide media platform by telling women that they can’t paint.
Meanwhile, are there men who are accused of painting like women? And if so, what do their works look like? Are they insulted?
This discussion started by a man over at WetCanvas who insists he can tell if a painting was painted “by a woman or a gay guy”, because the brushwork isn’t bold enough or whatever. He’s being disingenuous when he claims that “gender” doesn’t connote superiority. Of course it does; the male version of anything is perceived as superior to the female version, even by himself. Dude says that he prefers women artists who “paint like men”.
“Natalia M.” sums it up when she says, “To say about a female artist that she paints like a man is a compliment. To tell to a male artist he paints like a woman is not. Basically, “like a man” means professional, bold, and strong in composition, subject matter and execution. And “like a woman” means sentimental, sugary, prettyish, superficial in content and probably slightly amateur in performance.”
It’s no coincidence that dark, intense colors are perceived as “strong” while lighter, paler ones are “sugary” and “prettyish”. Men wrote the rules about how color should be perceived, and what a good artist should be.
For further reading:
After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art is available to read online and, despite some small glitches in the text, is well worth it.