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Dame Laura Knight (British, 1877-1970), Self Portrait, 1913, oil on canvas

In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin wrote her seminal text “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists” for the January issue of ARTnews, in which she attacked the fundamental assumption behind the question, which implied that greatness is an intangible gift that will rise to the surface regardless of the circumstances.[1] The question implicitly states that because no women succeeded to reach the level of Michelangelo or Picasso, then women must not have artistic genius. Nochlin dismantled this belief by exploring the holistic experience of artmaking and the historical and social contexts that prevented women from entering the realm of “greatness.” Nochlin wrote: “In actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.”[2]

Six years before Nochlin’s article forced art historians to reexamine art in terms of patriarchal structures of privilege, artist Dame Laura Knight (née Johnson) (British, 1877-1970) wrote generally about the experience of being a female artist in the early to mid-20th century in her autobiography The Magic of a Line (1965). Writing toward the end of an illustrious career, Knight came from a place of knowledge about the limitations that are placed on female artists. She wrote:

Even today, a female artist is considered more or less a freak, and may be undervalued or overpraised, and by sole virtue of her rarity and her sex be of better press value. It cannot, however, be denied that a woman’s ear is closed to the thunderbolts of fancy to be found on the limitless horizon of man’s imagination; from babyhood, the horizon of womankind has been confined to the four walls of a home.

Is it possible that the female is mentally incapable of the highest flight in the arts? Has she the capacity to develop inspiration with the sublime skill of a Michelangelo? Michelangelo has no baby’s bottle or teapot hanging around his neck. Now that womankind are no longer born to hold a needle in one hand and a scrubbing brush in the other, what great things may not happen?[3]

Both Knight and Nochlin were writing during second-wave feminism, generally thought to have extended from the early 1960s through the 1980s. While first-wave feminism focused on enfranchisement, second-wave feminism considered gender equality in all realms of life including the home and employment. Knight began her career in the late 19th and early 20th century and must have seen the changes wrought in her own lifetime as women began to question their constrictions.

It must be noted that by all accounts, Dame Laura Knight was one of the few female artists during her time who rose above the pack to be considered a great and beloved artist. This was confirmed by her male peers at the Royal Academy who elected her to the position of a full Academician in 1936. Knight was only the third woman in the history of the Academy to achieve that honor since its founding in 1768 (the first two women helped found the Academy). Nochlin noted in her article that the ones who did break the status quo often had additional support or extraordinary circumstances that encouraged their artmaking. In the cases of Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian, 1593-1653) and Rosa Bonheur (French, 1822-1899), their fathers were painters who taught and encouraged their skills. Bonheur deliberately chose not to marry in order to further her career.

In Knight’s case, her mother was an art instructor who encouraged Laura to be artistic from a young age. She received a scholarship to attend the Nottingham School of Art at the tender age of 13. In the end, necessity forced Knight to use her art to make a living as most of her family passed away by the time she was 15. She left school to be an art instructor and continued to train herself. Eventually Laura married a fellow artist, Harold Knight, and their lives were consumed with artmaking and joining fellow artist communities to support and sustain their work.

However, her ensuing success does not mean that she did not face the same hurdles many female artists dealt with during that time period. She was often treated differently and less seriously than her male artists peers. Knight recounts in her autobiography Oil Paint and Grease Paint that she was frequently called into the headmaster’s office at the Nottingham School of Art to discuss her technique: “I made my lines much too heavy; they said, ‘Your work is strong, like a man’s.’ ‘Why don’t you develop your feminine side?’ ‘You must draw from your wrist, not your shoulder.’… I could not do what they wanted—apparently I possessed no womanly refinement.”[4]

In addition, Knight was denied equal education as the male students. She was not allowed to draw from the live, human form, which denied her the ultimate training in figuration. She wrote about this experience: “If the men worked from the living figure I had to go into the Antique Room; the hatred of those plaster figures stays with me to this day—I never got any benefit out of their study, and through working from them so much a woodenness came in to my work that took years to eradicate.”[5] In 1913, Knight perhaps made a reference to this disparity and her position as an artist by exhibiting a self-portrait that showed herself, with her back to the viewer, painting a nude figure on the canvas in front of her. At the time, newspapers such as the Telegraph described the work as “vulgar.”[6]

Knight did not heed the criticism and continued to paint what fascinated her as an artist. She often pursued unconventional subjects like circus performers, stage actresses, and acrobats. Knight probably saw a kindred spirit in the performers who worked hard and faced criticism and isolation, as Knight knew only too well what it was like to be an outsider.

[1] Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” ARTnews (January 1971), 24.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Laura Knight, The Magic of a Line: The Autobiography of Laura Knight, D.B.E.,R.A. (William Kimber and Co. Limited, 1965), 307.
[4] Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint: Autobiography of Laura Knight (I. Nicholson & Watson, limited, 1936), 47.
[5] Ibid, 47.
[6] Katheryn Hughes, “Dame Laura Knight and the nude controversy” Telegraph. July 11, 2013, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/10141668/Dame-Laura-Knight-and-the-nude-controversy.html (accessed September 14, 2018)