Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) and her sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle)

When critic Linda Nochlin asked ARTnews readers this question she was talking about the array of conditions — to explain why it’s easy to tick off handfuls of great male painters from any period.

But, say, when it comes to their female contemporaries, you strain to name more than a few.

Nochlin’s now famous essay was on my mind as I exited the new movie A Quiet Passion about Emily Dickinson— and I had two questions:

  1. What unusual conditions favored Emily Dickinson as an artist?
  2. How would this film differ with writer-producer Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) as the script-doctor?

Through masterful cinematography, A Quiet Passion beckons viewers — with sumptuous visual detail, Vermeer-like lighting, and superb acting.

And, yet, Director Terence Davies, at the height of his own powers misses a sense of Emily Dickinson as a poet at the pinnacle of her artistic power.

Cosseted in the confines of her beautifully rich home and family, Emily — in counterpoint — appears all the more spoiled. Contrite. Increasingly unsympathetic.

Played by the perfectly-cast Cynthia Nixon, the poet, as she ages, becomes embittered.

Writer-director Davies lets us see Emily’s absolutely fearless rectitude. But, as the aging poet falters, she plaintively declares “I long for something — but I’m afraid of it.”

This is the director’s own late-career concern which he has cast onto Emily Dickinson as if she were tabula rasa.

Surely, with her linguistic acumen, the desired “something” would not have kept unnamed for long.

Which is a shame because Davies so precisely shows us emotionally and physically what it means to grow ill and infirm — to be counting the years toward one’s end rather than feel the exuberant abundance of future unknowns.

Student Emily Dickinson (Emma Bell) at Mt. Holyoke Seminary

Full disclosure: I spent better than a dozen years thinking about Emily Dickinson for a book that views the poet from the perspective of her maids and laborers.

Nevertheless, I came away from this film pleased with biographical liberties.

A created character, Vryling Buffum, does excellent stand-in for Emily’s and her sister’s coterie of lifelong girlfriends.

Delightfully played by Catherine Bailey, Ms. Buffum is the poet’s foil. In this act of ventriloquism, she captures Emily’s intellect and “Damascus blade wit” (as diplomatic sister-in-law Susan put it).

To streamline and propel the narrative, Davies performs a number of such surgeries:

The poet had some 100 correspondents and frequently visiting family. And the town’s poor — some of whom lived and worked under her roof — maintained easy access to the skittish writer in her garden and kitchen.

In sum, Davies’ shorthand delivers on the era’s sensibilities and poet’s outlook.

Given these considerable achievements, how tremendous the insult when Terence Davies joins a long line of male biographer-predecessors by locating Emily Dickinson’s genius and temperament in disappointed love.

Situating the enigma there leads promptly away from her astounding opus — which continues to excite readers — but also inevitably to her prudish rebuke of her brother’s extramarital affair.

The real chain of events is more interesting — and challenges the film’s conceit of a woman soured at life’s empty end by never having had a good, ahem, been fulfilled by lasting love.

Her brother’s love affair was catalyzed by the sudden tragic death of his eight-year-old son, a boy considered exceptional by the entire village. Devastated Austin promptly consummates his love in Emily Dickinson’s home with his (also grieving) sister’s tacit approval.

Not only did the lovers’ assignations frequently occur under the poet’s roof but her maid — Margaret Maher (who makes a brief, awkward appearance in the film) — prepared the picnic lunches for the lovers’ extended carriage rides through remote woods.

Emily Dickinson (left) and Catherine Scott Turner Anthon (right), circa 1859

Rather than haunted by unnameable wants, is it possible to imagine Emily Dickinson as a very intense, self-actualized writer?

Women critics, like Nochlin, are apt to see Emily as an artist who, thanks to family wealth, made excellent choices — a “Vesuvius at Home” as poet Adrienne Rich described her literary foremother.

From that premise, the filmmaker might have balanced his unhappy husk of a poet with a more slyly impish one. Even on her deathbed she amusingly invoked the title of a wildly popular pulp novel by signing a last letter to her cousins with “Called Back.”

Or the rebuking poet-sister might be countered by the presence of Otis Lord — a man Emily was denied as her late-in-life spouse because of his untimely death.

There’s Kate Anthon for whom Emily fell head over heels in her late 20s — and with whom she had the patience sit through the long exposure for their double daguerreotype.

A decade later the victorious Emily deftly outwitted her neighbors to hire away Margaret Maher, a maid who played a role as archivist, saving poems from planned destruction.

Through the many decades of Emily’s writing life was a literary collaboration and complex relationship, possibly amorous, with her sister-in-law.

These are a few contributors to (what Nochlin calls) the total situation of Emily Dickinson’s art-making — that propelled her to the pantheon of great poets.

Yes, there were things Emily Dickinson wanted — and got. “Ms. Rhimes? Get re-write!”

Poem written on the reverse of recipe for Mrs. Carmichael’s coconut cake, circa late 1881
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