Women Among 20th Century Wildlife Artists / by Justine Lee Hirten

In my last post I mentioned my disappointment about the lack of female artists in my vintage book collection. The Wonders of Life on Earth chronicles Charles Darwin’s life and research, and features only male artists, two qualities that prompted me to examine the bias in my book selections. I had great difficulty finding any female artists or authors in any of my books dating before the 1990s, essentially blocking them out from nearly all of the 20th century. The only one I could find on my shelf was Winifred Austen who only received lackluster representation which I will explain in this post, and there are possibly uncredited artists of licensed illustrations/graphics obtained through agencies for the pages of my encyclopedias. Natural science illustration in its gradations from informational diagram to aesthetic artwork has one foot in the field of science and one in the world of fine art, both of which have problematic histories they can bring to the table. When skimming through The Wonders I realized that I can no longer read about Darwin without feeling clouded by the sexism that pervades his theories, and since then I can also no longer look through my books without seeing the glaring lack of female voices. It has me giving greater consideration to what the experiences of female scientists and female illustrators were like in the years represented in my collection, which spans from the turn of the century to present day. They have faced widespread sexism as scientists and as artists, systemic and self-perpetuated by its own bias, in his own words:

The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive both of composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, with half-a-dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not bear comparison…
...Thus man has ultimately become superior to woman.
— Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1847)
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Winifred Austen

The books I will feature in my next three blog entries are all from the past 20 years, but I wanted to start with an introduction that focuses on Winifred Austen (1876–1964). My first thought when preparing this blog series was to open up 1986’s Twentieth-century Wildlife Artists and check for artists to research or feature. Of the 43 artists showcased in this book only one is a woman and she receives a far less flattering presentation compared to the others. All the other artists’ chapters feature beautiful full-color artwork, many of them across multiple pages, while Winifred Austen’s chapter receives only two small black and white reproductions. Her biography is brief and feels quietly demeaning; in the first sentence she is introduced as a quaint “old lady” and overall the text has that strange vibe of presenting her as a sort of novelty, a cute old lady who paints animals. What struck me while researching Austen is that these writers seem to find it impossible to be objective about her work. In this book the author can't resist critiquing some of her work as being “not consistent” and “weak” — a treatment not given to any other artists in this book from what I could find.

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A quick look at her Wikipedia page reveals more of the same, the entry’s contributor simply copy-pasted part of a review of her work from a 1922 print collectors journal which, while not entirely negative by any means, still presents a critical viewpoint instead of an objective account of her career. All I could hear in these pages was that she was “pretty good… for a woman.” Nowhere does it explicitly claim inferiority but, like in so many cases, it is the patterning and accumulating of slights that chip away at her presented worth in a way that is not reflected in any of the chapters about her male counterparts. This is all without mentioning how her biography is the only one without an artist photo (literally leaving her faceless) and is shoehorned in as the first chapter — not at all in a way that feels like a grand entrance but rather like a page that you might accidentally flip past as you skip the introduction or like the small opening act you miss on your way to the main attraction (chapter two's artist? The superstar Robert Bateman). I’m including a few handy examples of her work here but please take some time to look her up, there are some print sellers online where you can see more examples and I am hopeful that I can find and purchase one of the books she illustrated.

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I am still working on the blog entries for the rest of this series which will feature The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina Van Grouw, Bird Egg Feather Nest by Maryjo Koch, and Baby Birds by Julie Zickefoose — all remarkable books that I cannot recommend enough. I’m working toward my goal of posting one blog entry per week, if you like reading please consider joining my Patreon, thank you!

https://www.patreon.com/justineleehirten