Friends First – National Gallery Traineeship Programme
Sheffield Museums was selected as one of the partners for the 2019-21 intake of the National Gallery Curatorial Traineeship Programme. Since its launch in 2011, the programme has played a key role in addressing the need to maintain and develop collections expertise in relation to pre-1900 European paintings. As part of the programme, Curatorial Trainee Corinna Henderson has spent the past 14 months working on a project to shed new light on Sheffield’s European nineteenth-century paintings collection. Here, Corinna tells us about the work she's been doing:
I’ve been delighted to be partnered with Sheffield Museums to work on the Untold Stories project, which aims to reveal underrepresented histories in the city’s visual art collection. I have a particular interest in gender, sexuality, and race in art – throughout art history many stories and people have been left out or misrepresented and I’ve been eager to be able to do more research in this area.
During my initial six-month curatorial skills training at the National Gallery in London, I was shocked to discover that out of 2,300 paintings in the collection, only 21 are by female artists. I found a similarly low number in Sheffield’s collection, which made me even more determined to research the barriers women artists faced to become professional painters. I found that although a substantial number of women were practising artists during the nineteenth century, the new industrious emphasis on ‘professionalism’ vs ‘amateur’ at the time, and the fact that women were forbidden from painting the male nude, prevented most from ever becoming professional artists. This was exacerbated by additional barriers to female artists being represented in museum collections, the bulk of which were acquired by men in the nineteenth century.
Whilst researching the nineteenth century portrayal of women in Sheffield’s collection, I found a broad range of paintings that depict women in their everyday lives. These pictures include women working the land, mothers caring for their children and other domestic scenes. I was particularly excited to find that Sheffield’s collection includes a painting by one of France’s most famous female artist’s, Rosa Bonheur (1822‐1899), who achieved international fame during her lifetime as an animal and landscape painter. Her work can also be found in the National Gallery’s collection. Defying almost all restrictions, Bonheur was also famous for her same sex relationships and for being given permission to wear men’s clothing in Paris in the 1850s, which she argued was essential for her to paint freely. Sheep in a Landscape is an exquisite example of Bonheur’s ability to paint animals with an almost religious reverence.
The research I have undertaken will culminate in an online exhibition which will be showcased on Sheffield Museums’ website, as well as informing the wider understanding of the city’s collections going forward. The exhibition will focus on the everyday lives of nineteenth century women, at a time when society in Europe was experiencing rapid social change and urbanisation. In particular, it will explore the portrayal of women by male artists, who often appear to show a snapshot of real life – however, a deeper look reveals that many of these images are idealised scenes painted to negate social anxiety about the changing roles of women at the time.
After months of researching the collection from afar due to Covid-19 restrictions, I’m now working onsite in Sheffield. One of the most exciting aspects of my role is to see the paintings first-hand in the collection store – it’s a fantastic reminder that, after months of museum and gallery closures, nothing beats seeing art in person, so I hope you can all join us soon!
Images (top to bottom):
- Corinna studying Sheep in a Landscape by Rosa Bonheur in the painting store
- Sheep in a Landscape (1837-1899) by Rosa Bonheur (1822‐1899)
- The Horse Fair (1855) by Rosa Bonheur (1822‐1899) from the collection of the National Gallery