Male Figure Drawing Squirrel: What If You Couldn't 'Cause You're A Girl? oil on wood panel, 24 x 36, 2015

Male Figure Drawing Squirrel: What If You Couldn’t ‘Cause You’re A Girl? Mixed media: oil pastel and oil on wood panel, 24″ x 36″ (60.96 cm x 91.44 cm), 2015

SHE, Fazakas Gallery
Opening Reception: Saturday May 23th 6pm – 8pm
Exhibition Dates: May 23th – June 20th
Venue: Fazakas Gallery, 145 West 6th Avenue, Vancouver
Gallery Hours: 11 am – 5 pm Tuesday to Saturday


When I was enrolled at the Visual Arts, Department of Fine Arts, University of Victoria to complete my undergrad, I didn’t fully appreciate the value and privilege of being able to participate in gender equal art classes. Specifically, drawing male nude models.  When I returned to fine art almost two decades later, I still took for granted that this inclusive training was forbidden to women 150 years ago. The opportunity to participate in the group show SHE led me to begin a self-directed investigation into the history of women in art, and was the inspiration for the painting, Male Figure Drawing: What If You Couldn’t ‘Cause You’re A Girl?

Working on Male Figure Model Squirrel

The concept for this painting started when I ordered some art DVD’s (I know, how quaint) a few months ago. As part of my art-immersion lifestyle, no time is spared to consume much of anything outside of art related programming. While watching, The Story of Women and Art, written and presented by historian, writer, and broadcaster Amanda Vickery, I was first inspired to revisit the male nude figure. Her series informed me of society’s daunting restrictions for women in the history in art. In particular, the subject of training, commissions, and access any nude models.

Vickery’s series led me to read, Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists? (1) by prominent American art historian, Linda Nochlin. In her essay, she deconstructs art history by identifying and rejecting methodological presuppositions. Published by ArtNews  in 1971 this essay posed a question that would spearhead an entirely new branch of art history.

In the period extending from the Renaissance until near the end of the nineteenth century, a careful and prolonged study of the nude model was essential to any work with pretensions to grandeur, and to the very essence of History Painting, then generally considered to be the highest category of art.  Life drawing was essential for any artist’s success. Being able to portray the figure in an anatomically correct way meant artists could then make paintings considered significant by their colleagues and collectors. History paintings with religious, literary, and historical subjects relied on the beautiful depiction of the human form. Before the late 19th century, women were generally excluded from figure drawing classes, considered inappropriate for a woman’s supposedly delicate sensibilities. Consequently, women were unable to compete for Academic recognition and commissions.

Many articles I came across referenced two particular women artists in Britain. Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman were founding members of the Royal Academy in 1786. However, they were not included as persons attending the life drawing class in the engraving of Johann Zoffany’s The Royal Academy of Arts, 1771-2 – they were depicted as wall paintings. This was evidence of how women were traditionally excluded from drawing classes, considered inappropriate for a woman’s delicate sensibilities.   There were  also no other female students at the RA during that time.

Johann Zoffany, The Royal Academy of Arts, 1771-2

Johann Zoffany, The Royal Academy of Arts, 1771-2  (male nude figure drawing class)

In 1860 Laura Herford was admitted by accident to the RA Schools after submitting drawings with only her initials, LH. Over the course of the next 10 years, an additional 34 female students were admitted, and a series of petitions began to allow women that same opportunity of study as the male students.

It wasn’t until 1893 (20 years and countless petitions later) that a provision was made for women to study the “partially draped”  model.

In America in 1876, women such as Alice Barber Stephens, was the first woman to enrol in the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and joined the women artists petitioning for more life drawing classes. By 1879, the only nudes available were women models, while male models were modestly draped.

Much of this information is common knowledge (probably) among fine arts academics, but I decided to paint the male nude figure for this show, because many people I spoke with outside of the art world, had no idea of the struggle for equal arts training for women in the history of art.


“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” ARTnews January 1971: 22-39, 67-71

Squirrel Mask by: Archie McPhee