Women, art and education in early 20th century Greece | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU



«...why should women make art when nature has made them [...] true artworks?»1

«...great art, poetry and music, sculpture and painting into the hands of women, has only one goal: to abolish the condition of slavery, to smother the prejudice we inherited» 2

Women and art: international problems, local examples

"Do women be naked to get into the Met. Museum?" asks a propaganda poster by the Guerilla Girls, providing the statistics which prove that whereas the great majority of the nudes are female, there are only a handful of women artists presented in the museum. During the 20th century women claimed their right to free artistic expression, but until today they haven't been able to change this inequality, which prevails in most museums and countries. One of the main reasons for this is that for many centuries women were denied the basic requirements needed in order to excel in visual arts -one of which is artistic education.

Although from the beginning of the 19th century women were allowed to study in Schools of Fine Arts in most countries in Europe, they didn't have an education on equal terms with their male colleagues. For example, they were made to attend to separate classes -at least for nude study. Surprisingly, one of the first countries in Europe where this segregation was abolished was Greece -despite the fact that in comparison to other European countries, women in Greece were in a worse social position.

It is worth seeing how women in Greece managed to be accepted in mixed classes as equal students, not only because of it being one of the first countries where this happened, but mostly because when it comes to the female presence in the Greek art world, the historical truth is often obscured by lost archives, partial narrations and contradictory hearsays.

The place of woman in art had been until the dawn of modernism unchanging: she was the subject of the artwork or a source of inspiration to the artist. The examples of women in European art who managed to become creators by ignoring this rule are very few from the Renaissance until the beginning of the 19th century.

In the history of greek culture we find no evidence for women creators from 1st century a.D. until the 19th century The social seclusion and the exclusion from education, which was imposed on Greek women until the foundation of the Greek state in 1830, deprived them of the posibility for any artistic activity, apart from occupation with decorative arts. After mid-19th century, thanks to the imitation of examples set by the West, women who dealt with art weren't so strongly criticised, as long as their activity didn't take them out of the boundaries of the socially acceptable -that is, the limits of their house.

During that period, it was acceptable for a woman to be an amateur artist, since art was considered to be "so apt for the refined female nature". According to the stereotypes of the time "only art is relevant to woman, and not philosophy", because "she was born to feel, as we might say; and because the ideal of senses is the beautiful, she was created to serve beauty"3.So, according to early 20th century texts, woman represented the world of feeling, where art springs from, whereas man represented the world of the spiritual.

Thus, because woman was considered to function based on feeling and not on mind, she wasn't considered capable of producing high artistic works; her role was just to imitate and copy existing forms4. As a proof of her creative inability, in the theoretical texts of that period we find statements that women "never created anything grand in art, but they had always been particularly good at copying, and that's where their artistic nature finds its field of activity5". In other words, woman couldn't produce original and grand artistic works, because she lacked the element of "Genius".

This emphasis on the "artistic genius" as a timeless and mysterious force, that instills Inspiration onto the Great Artist is prevailing during the 19th century, within the Period of Romanticism. The romantic ideals emphasized the importance of personal feeling, experience, inspiration and collision with the social surroundings6, elements that were considered as crucial to the existence of the "Great Artist". The Great Artist, in turn, would change the art of his time and open up the road for the art of the future, as they believed.

The theoretical scheme that defined history and art history as the result of the actions of Great Men and the sum of their greatest works influenced the humanistic studies for many decades, until it gradually began to fade from mid-20th century and on7. Today history and art history opened up its limits towards the local, the partial, the international -we accept, for istance, that the History of French Art of the 19th century was more than the artwork of Monet or Renoir, but included all the artists who acted in this era, whose names fill up the Salon catalogues, without their artworks having been saved.

The early 20th century feminists did not oppose to this thinking that exorts the "Genius", but stress that the absence of female names from the imaginary list of the Great Artists is not due to the absence of genius, but due to their social seclusion8 that never let them become professional artists.

Linda Nochlin supports this argument, stating that the exclusion of women from artistic education was one of the main reasons that deprived them of the role of the creator9. In her article "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" she shatters the myths concerning the Artistic Genius, claiming that a "Great Artist" is created after systematic education and training. The prohibition of artistic education or of significants elements of education -as the study of nude- deprived women of the potential of excellence.

The same view is held by Kalliroe Parren, the main representative of the feminist movement in Greece in the end of the 19th century.

The artistic education of women in early 20th Greece

Women have become aware of the importance of education in the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century; this is why they get out on the streets "not to ask for political rights, but to open up the field of the female action, going towards the University and not towards the Parliament"10.

Most of the rights claims of women during the first phase of the feminist movement were about education and work. They had realised that the "social system is based on two unequal wheels: an educated, free man and an uneducated, unfree woman"11, meaning that emancipation depends on education. Thus, they started to struggle for access to the educational system and for education on equal terms with men, aiming to cultivate their thought and improve their professional perspectives. They knew that an economically independent woman could set her own rules in her personal life, so professional education was a matter of urgency.

Likewise, in the arts, the aim of the feminists was to open up their field of action, to create ways firstly towards the professional recognition and secondly towards artistic expression.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, middle and upper class women are encouraged by their social background to express themselves creatively and take art lessons at home, so that they acquire some basic knowledge on design and color12. From 1855 and onwards they start participating in exhibitions and in 1891 they present their work in the Ladies' Art Exhibition, that was organized by Kalliroe Parren13. Whereas it was acceptable for a woman to be an amateur artist, if they wanted to be professional artists, they would come across a fence of prejudice, as they weren't allowed to act in public, participating in exhibitions and dealing with buyers and collectionists.

The foundation of the Department of Graphics and Plastics for Young Women in 1894 as an independent branch in one of the rooms of the Polytechnics school -and not as a department equal to the School of Fine Arts- was in accordance with this way of thinking; the artistic knowledge provided was basic. The female students would only learn how to copy landscape paintings and still life, and never studied nature or the human figure14. The low level of education and the prevailing notion among the students -who would stop attending once they learned the basics- contributed to the low quality of the department and left the problem of the artistic education for women unsolved.

In 1900 the department was closed without notice, on the pretext that G. Iakovidis -a famous painter and a professor of the School of Fine Arts of Athens- needed the room of the Department for Young Women to set an atelier. Subsequently, the Artistic School for the Ladies of the Company of Art Votaries was called to solve the problem of the education for women artists, but it closed a few months later due to lack of funds. In 1901 the Department for Young Women opened up again -meaning that the women once more were accepted in a separate branch of the School of Fine Arts, as second-class students and not as equal ones.

The first students in the School of Fine Arts and the problem of nude study

Some months later women artists claimed their right for artistic education by protesting to the authorities; thus they were allowed to attend"mixed classes of young men and women in the school of Polytechnics" . The first women who passed the exams and entered the School of Fine Arts of Athens were Eleni Voziki, Angeliki Stefanou and Ioulia Skoufou, on the 3rd year of plastics, and Ourania Laggousi on the 4th class of graphics.

The intervention of Sophia Laskaridou, one of the most famous women painters of that time, was crucial to this development, as we read in her memoires: "I presented myself to King George I, in order to achieve my goal [...]. And they made the law. I was the first female student to enter the School of Fine Arts of the Polytechnic School of Athens in 1903"15.

Laskariou is considered as the first woman who entered the School of Fine Arts. However, it is not clear whether the previous investigators, as K. Biris16, had studied the archives of the Polytechnic School, which are only saved partially and cannot shed a light on this matter, or were based solely on Laskaridou's narration, which contradicts what Gaitanopoulou, a journalist of the early 20th century, says about the existence of mixed classes in 190117. Besides, on the class book of the School of Fine Arts we find female names from 1901 and on.

If we want to accept both sources as being true, we would have to assume that Laskaridou began her studies in 1901, but she was officially enrolled two years later, on October 27th, 190318.

My theory is based on evidence I found on archives and articles of the time, which suggest that the introduction of mixed classes in 1901 didn't actually mean that women were considered as equal students with rights to attend all classes available for the male students: for example, whereas women were allowed to "work together and in the same classes as male students", they were considered as a separate group of students in need of a special education for women only: "If and only if women were taught to draw lines, to paint little flowers and make sketches of little statues, which were considered appropriate for them, they would become accepted. But when they wanted to have a more serious education, portraits for example, they would face a closed door"19.

In order to be fully integrated in the program of studies, there was one obstacle left: the prejudice that nude study could harm their prudence and morality. There was the firm belief that they weren't mature enough to study the nude without getting excited20. In contrast, male students' prudence couldn't be harmed, because they only studied male nude -female nude was only introduced in 1905. Besides, men were considered to be mentally mature, and thus able to tame their sensations; women, who were thought to function based on feeling, would be unable to do so, according to the prejudice of that time.

So, when in 1903 the female students had reached the level when they should attend the nude classes, there began a dispute whether they should be allowed to do so, because many professors considered that their virtue was at stake21. Female students reacted and managed to be accepted in the nude class and attend on equal grounds with their male colleagues. Laskaridou remembers that "In that time, it was considered as an unbelievable achievement. Women weren't accepted in National Academies not even in Europe; and in Greece, in a public School, boys and girls painted together nude models"22. Indeed, the Royal Academy of London, where women were allowed to study since 1860, allowed women to study nude only in 1903 -in separate classes. In the School of Fine Arts of Paris, open to women since 1897, there were separate classes for nude study since 1903. In Greece, the lack of necessary funding to create two separate classes and the strong protest of the female students were two factors that contributed to overcoming the prejudice.

After their graduation, a great number of the female students of the School of Fine Arts went to European Academies to go on with their studies. There they expanded their horizons by creating artworks in artistic centers where the modernist movements were born and flourishing. When they got back to Greece they'd have the same means as their male colleagues to launch their artistic career. However, only few of them managed to do more than just participate in a handful of exhibitions for a short period. After that, it seems that making a family and everyday needs kept them away from the art scene.

The new position of woman as a subject in art is dependent on the social and political developments that helped her break her isolation and claim rights to education and work. It comes as a surprise that before she managed to establish those rights, she sought artistic education and an equal position in the art scene. But it was a significant step for her freedom to be able to express herself aesthetically and mentally and make her voice be heard.

Although the artistic creation of women during the first two decades of the 20th century wasn't so groundbreaking -Greek art of that time doesn't belong to the Vanguard of Modernism anyway- women were pioneers. They managed to go against the prejudice that wanted them invisible and silent and opened up the road for an equal place in the arts. Slowly they managed to "abolish the condition of slavery and smother the prejudice that they inherited"23.


Archive of School of Fine Arts of Athens

Archive of Sophia Laskaridou


ΓΑΪΤΑΝΟΠΟΥΛΟΥ Α. (Σίβυλλα), «Η Ελληνίς εν τη καλλιτεχνία», στο: Ε. Σβορώνου, Μικρασιατικόν Ημερολόγιον του Έτους 1910, Σάμος 1910

ΓΑΪΤΑΝΟΥ-ΓΙΑΝΝΙΟΥ Α., "Είναι ελεύθερη η γυναίκα;", Ε. Σβορώνου, Μικρασιατικόν Ημερολόγιον του Έτους 1917, Σάμος 1917

GKOTSI Chariklia-Glafki, The Logos on woman and female artistic creation in Greece, Thessaloniki 2002 (ΓΚΟΤΣΗ Χαρίκλεια-Γλαύκη, Ο λόγος για τη γυναίκα και της γυναικεία καλλιτεχνική δημιουργία στην Ελλάδα (τέλη 19ου-αρχές 20ού αιώνα), Θεσσαλονίκη 2002)

GRAMMATIKOPOULOU Christina, The Painter Sophia Laskaridou (1876-1965), Thessaloniki 2007 (ΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΙΚΟΠΟΥΛΟΥ Χριστίνα, Η Ζωγράφος Σοφία Λασκαρίδου (1876-1965), Θεσσαλονίκη 2007)

JAUSS Hans Robert, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, Minnesota, 1982

LASKARIDOU Sophia, From my Diary. Memories and Thoughts, Athens 1955 (ΛΑΣΚΑΡΙΔΟΥ Σοφία, Από το ημερολόγιό μου. Θύμησες και στοχασμοί, Αθήνα 1955)

LEWIS Reina, Gendering Orientalism, Race, Feminity and Representation, London 1996

NOCHLIN Linda, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?", στο: Nochlin Linda, Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, (1η έκδοση: 1989), London 1991

ΠΑΡΡΕΝ Καλλιρρόη, «Αι καλλιτέχνιδές μας εν διωγμώ», Εφημερίς των Κυριών, 10-10-1904

SCHOLINAKI-CHELIOTI Charis, Greek Women Painters 1800-1922, Athens 1990 (ΣΧΟΛΙΝΑΚΗ ΧΕΛΙΩΤΗ Χάρις, Ελληνίδες Ζωγράφοι 1800-1922, Αθήνα 1990)


1 Acropolis, 15-11-1903.

2 A. Gaitanou-Gianniou, "Is Woman Free?", Samos 1917, p.160 (Α. Γαϊτάνου-Γιαννιού, "Είναι ελεύθερη η γυναίκα;", Ε. Σβορώνου, Μικρασιατικόν Ημερολόγιον του Έτους 1917, Σάμος 1917)

3 Α. Γαϊτανοπούλου (Σίβυλλα), «Η Ελληνίς εν τη καλλιτεχνία», στο: Ε. Σβορώνου, Μικρασιατικόν Ημερολόγιον του Έτους 1910, Σάμος 1910, σ.93.

4 Scholinaki-Chelioti, Greek Women Painters 1800-1922, Athens 1990, p.9 (Σχολινάκη-Χελιώτη Χάρις, Ελληνίδες Ζωγράφοι 1800-1922, Αθήνα 1990)

5 The information for the first Greek artists is insufficient. The first source for the subject is the article by A. Gaitanopoulou (Sivylla): «Η Ελληνίς εν τη καλλιτεχνία», στο: Ε. Σβορώνου, Μικρασιατικόν Ημερολόγιον του Έτους 1910, Σάμος 1910, p.93.

6 For Romanticism, see G. C. Argan, Modern Art, Iraklio 1999, p. 22.

7 Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, Minnesota, 1982, p.66.

8 See the 1904 article by Kalliroe Parren, (Καλλιρρόη Παρρέν, «Αι καλλιτέχνιδές μας εν διωγμώ», Εφημερίς των Κυριών, 10-10-1904, σ.1. ). where she claims that the inferior position of woman in art is not a result of their "nature", but her social position.

9 Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?", στο: Nochlin Linda, Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, (1η έκδοση: 1989), London 1991, pp.145-178.

10 See A. Gaitanopoulou, ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Reina Lewis, pp.56-59

13 Scholinaki-Chelioti, p.58.

14 See Acropolis, 25-2-1894, announcement for the opening of the School for Young Women, where it is stressed that women would only be taught to copy landscape paintings and flowers, with pencil and not colors.

15 S. Laskaridou. From My Diary, Memories and Thoughts, Athens 1955 (Σοφία Λασκαρίδου, Από το ημερολόγιό μου. Θύμησες και Στοχασμοί, Αθήνα 1955). From her narration it seems that her meeting with King George I happened in 1903. But in a note written by her, which I found in her personal archive, she mentions that the meeting took place in 1902. In contrast, Gaitanopoulou mentions that the mixed classes began in 1901.

16 K. Biris, History of the National Metsovion Polytechnic School, Athens 1957, pp.332-333 says that Laskaridou was the first female student referring to the School for Young Women. However, this piece of information is not true, because it comes to contrast with the evidence I found in the archive of Sophia Laskaridou and her personal narration in her memoires, where she stresses that she attended mixed (boys and girls) classes.

17 The strange thing is that we find Laskaridou's name written only once in the class books, whereas her studies lasted for 4 years (officially). So the archive of the Polytechnic School seems incomplete and thus unable to provide substantial evidence for the participation of women in the classes.

18 According to Laskaridou's university title, Saved in the "Sophia Laskaridou Gallery" of the Municipality of Kallithea, the painter was matriculated in the School of Fine Arts in 27-10-1903 and graduated in 7-7-1907. However, in the web page of the School of Fine Arts, it states that she began her studies in 1901.

19 Kalliroe Parren, ibid, see note 8, p.2.

20 Gkotsi Charikleia-Glauki, Logos for woman and woman artistic activity in Greece, Thessaloniki 2002, pp.312-316. (Γκότση Χαρίκλεια-Γλαύκη, Ο λόγος για τη γυναίκα και της γυναικεία καλλιτεχνική δημιουργία στην Ελλάδα (τέλη 19ου-αρχές 20ού αιώνα), Θεσσαλονίκη 2002, σσ.246-248.)

21 Ibid.

22 Laskaridou, ibid. pp. 7-8.

23 Ibid., see note 1.