Painted Like A Man, Disappeared Like A Woman:
Luisa Vidal and her sisters, photographed in 1904.
Two revolutionary Spanish artists first exhibited their work at Els Quatre Gats Cafe in Barcelona during the 1897-1898 season. One of them would redefine pictorial space and the centuries-old European way of portraying the human form. The other would become the quintessential Modernist, producing authoritative allegorical and genre paintings and portraits. Both won the recognition, praise and respect of their peers. One would become mythic; the other, by virtue of her gender, would remain obscure, rarely indexed in the art and/or history texts of our era.
When Pablo Picasso, educated at art schools in which female enrollment was forbidden, exhibited his work to a circle of other artists at a bohemian cafe, he was doing what was expected of a young talent. When 21-year-old Luisa Vidal (1876-1918) did the same, it was considered a transgression of monumental proportions because, although of enormous talent, Vidal was a woman. In 19thcentury Spain, the idea that a woman might have a profession - let alone a career - was unthinkable.
Despite attempts by devoutly Catholic Spain to obstruct the advancement of women, which included forbidding them any formal education (80 percent of Spanish women then were illiterate), Luisa Vidal received excellent instruction in foreign languages, literature, music and art. Nurtured in an exceptional family environment, where artistic creativity, with professional aspirations, was not just tolerated but actively encouraged, she also had the good fortune of being raised in the rarified cultural atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Barcelona, the chief city of Catalonia, in northeast Spain, and the epicenter of all things modern on the notoriously backward and patriarchal Iberian Peninsula.
Vidal's progressive father, Francesco, was a Catalan William Morris. A talented cabinetmaker, he was an innovative designer of furniture, and a great promoter of the Modernist movement (the Catalan version of Art Nouveau). A regular collaborator with another Catalan eccentric, architect Antonio Gaudi, Francesco Vidal had an international clientele that was aristocratic and culturally sophisticated. His wife, Mercedes Puig, came from a family of musicians, and was herself an accomplished pianist.
The couple had nine daughters (and three sons), and encouraged all the girls to pursue professional artistic careers. They employed as their children's at-home music teachers such promising young talents as cellist Pablo Casals. Luisa, who was the second daughter but the most driven, received instruction in her father's workshop from his most talented employees, among them artist Joan Gonzalez (older brother of the sculptor Julio Gonzalez) and luminist painter Arcadi Mas i Fondevila. And from an early age, she often accompanied her father to Madrid, to the Prado Museum, where she copied the works of Velazquez and other masters, learning directly from the best of Spanish painting.
Though all the sisters were highly accomplished - among them were a violinist, a cellist, a sculptor, a composer and a poet - it was only Luisa who, while acknowledging early on the sacrifices implicit in an artistic career, nevertheless took advantage of the opportunity to pursue a life in art. At a time when women were supposed to be the "Angel of the House" (a term the Spanish then used to refer to a wife and perfect domesticated servant), Vidal strove to step outside this life without options. Raised almost as a boy; inculcated with such "masculine" traits as independence of thought, aesthetic adventurousness, a great capacity for work, and competitiveness, the young painter began her career, perhaps without realizing that as a professional female artist she would forever be battling the social current - more aptly, riptide - of her times.
After attending the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900, Vidal was determined to return there to further her artistic education. Her desire to study in Paris was characteristic of all aspiring turn-of-the-century artists. For Vidal actually to do so, however, was scandalous - women simply did not go anywhere unescorted - and required a remarkable amount of courage and conviction. Nevertheless, in 1901, at the age of 25, Vidal left for Paris, accompanied only by her family's blessing. She is the only female Spanish painter of the era who is known to have studied there.
Vidal took classes at the famed art schools of Paris. She studied plein-air painting (impressionist theories of color and light were still an innovation). Her teachers, who included Eugene Carriere, Georges Picard and Joan Gonzalez, having broken with traditionalism themselves, offered her new ways of seeing - and a new way of being seen: they viewed her as an artist, not a female who dabbled in painting; she painted nudes, not the flowers that were the commonly accepted theme for female painters. And it was in Paris that Vidal came in contact with the European feminist movement, largely through her friendship with the managing editor of La Fronde, an "advanced" French journal written and printed exclusively by women - professionals like herself.
Vidal's return to Barcelona, in 1902, coincided with a noisy, incipient feminist movement, which she enthusiastically joined. Although history has made it appear that women were excluded from, and uninvolved in, the Modernist movement, in fact, female activists were often at the forefront. The work of writer Caterina Albert (her 1905 novel, Solitude, written under a male pseudonym) addressed female sexual awakening before D. H. Lawrence gave it a shot. And in 1907 Catalan journalist Carmen Karr founded Feminal, a feminist magazine for which Vidal illustrated the monthly short story. Many other women also organized to fight for women's rights, albeit within the constraints of a conservative, Catholic, machismo society that ridiculed and tried to thwart their efforts.
A prolific and driven painter, Vidal continued to exhibit her work, as she had done since that first show in Els Quatre Gats Cafe. She participated in group and individual art exhibitions in Barcelona, and showed her work at international exhibitions in Spain, Mexico, and South America. Everywhere, she exhibited bold, dynamic portraits rather than the insipid still lifes expected of "ladies." Critics, all of whom were male, were awed as well as stumped, using words such as 'Virile" to describe her talent. In surprised admiration, they would write: "She paints so well... she paints like a man!"
This narrow appraisal haunted her entire career. But it was the price levied by society when a woman of Vidal's genius rejected the circumscribed, domestic world of women to embrace the public life of the artist. Vidal took such praise of her "masculine art" in stride, and went on perfecting her skills and garnering portrait commissions and exposition awards. A renowned and sought-after portraitist, she painted not only her family and friends, but members of the Catalan aristocracy and men in public life. Her depictions of children are exceptional, both in her formal portraits and in her genre paintings, which present a unique record of intimate family life in that time and place.
Although it appears she had several opportunities to marry, Vidal clung to her independent status, occasionally referring humorously to herself as a hard-working spinster.
She was also an astute businesswoman, managing her own income from her work as portraitist and illustrator. After the death of her sister Carlota in 1905, which was followed by her father's nervous breakdown, she was successful enough to take over the economic support of her family. Friends and colleagues also counted on her for financial, emotional, and critical support, which she was able to provide. In 1911, she founded her own art academy, which she ran until her death in 1918. She participated in cultural and social events, primarily those involving women's rights; at the beginning of World War I she helped found the women's pacifist movement.
Luisa Vidal's energetic artistic and social endeavors were abruptly halted by her untimely death, from influenza, at the age of 43. By this time, after 20 years of assiduous work and of facing down obstacles of every kind, she was a popular, and highly regarded, public figure. It was only afterwards that she and her work fell - or were nudged - into near oblivion by the writers of art history, as is the case with so many women artists. Somehow we must rewrite those chronicles.