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  • Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada, 1850–1970 by Kristina Huneault and Janice Anderson
  • Susan Cahill
Huneault, Kristina, and Janice Anderson – Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada, 1850–1970. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012. Pp. 443.

The challenge to feminist art history has been to encourage and address a revisionist, rather than an additive, model of rethinking the patriarchal history of art and the art canon that sits at its centre. Early feminist art historians sought to revive the marginalized and often ignored history of women’s participation in the arts by bringing forth works by these forgotten “Old Mistresses” as equal contributions to those by the celebrated “Old Masters.” Feminist writers, artists, and curators began to challenge the exclusions of particular artists within different historical periods by highlighting women’s artistic contributions, and fought to increase the visibility of women’s art and the need to locate their cultural production within the canon of art history. While these projects from the 1970s and 1980s provided productive interventions into the art canon and questioned its [End Page 241] systematic exclusions of art by women, such projects were also limited in scope. The danger of projects that focus primarily on reclaiming and elevating women’s cultural production to the status of art is that they leave intact the hierarchies of social relations on which the politics of exclusion are based.

More recently, the project of feminist art history shifted not only to highlight women artists and their works, but also to question the socio-political contexts within which these artists and works had been marginalized and, all too often, forgotten. That is, rather than primarily adding women artists and their work to the art canon, feminist art historians began to focus on challenging and revising the parameters of inclusion and exclusion that had historically governed the canon of art itself. These revisionist feminist critiques recognize that the value of a work of art—a value that determines inclusion in and exclusion from the art canon—is inextricably linked to the perception of the producer and production context of that work. And it is here, at the revisionist intersection of women, art, and production, that Kristina Huneault and Janice Anderson’s edited collection Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada, 1850–1970 is located.

With a claim to be “the first published collection of scholarly essays on women, art, and history in Canada” (p. xix), Rethinking Professionalism developed out of papers presented at the 2008 inaugural conference of the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative (CWAHI). The CWAHI is a collaborative effort by academics and cultural practitioners to create a database of historical women artists in Canada, and the published essays in this collection reflect that goal. As the title suggests, Rethinking Professionalism offers a series of essays that address the history of women and art in Canada through the lens of artistic professionalism in order to disrupt and rethink the narrative of women’s progress in the arts through a transition from amateur and professional practice. As Huneault writes in the introductory essay, each chapter in the collection deploys the concept of professionalism in relation to “time, place, and the different kinds of visual production that have structured the cultural field” (p. 4). Such analyses of “what to make of the criterion of professionalism,” Huneault asserts, are crucial for those “wishing to expand the history of that field [of art] to be more inclusive of women’s production” (p. 3). The collection does not claim to offer a comprehensive or monolithic analysis in relation to the topic of women, art, and Canada; rather, it offers a series of in-depth studies to provide a critical history of but one art historical trajectory (that of professionalism) and to demonstrate how feminist revisions of art could be done as a more broad-based approach.

After the preface by Huneault and Anderson and the introductory essay by Huneault, the twelve assembled essays by a range of scholars provide careful analyses of case studies and are divided into thematic sections: Professionalizing Art, Careers for Women, and The Limits of Professionalism. The three chapters included in the first section...


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pp. 241-243
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