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  • Kitty Kielland as a "New Woman"
  • Øystein Sjåstad

Kitty Kielland (1843–1914) has secure status as an innovative and important Norwegian artist. This was the case even in her own lifetime. But her role as a feminist pioneer, and maybe even a queer pioneer, has not been thoroughly analyzed. This article addresses important aspects of Kielland's artistic practice, life choices, radical writings, and political activism from the perspective of feminist art history. The many representations of her in texts and images will be analyzed in the light of the concept "New Woman" as it has been historicized and theorized by Tamar Garb. Tone Hellesund's theory about the spinster as a queer character in Norwegian cultural life around 1900 will be introduced toward the end of the article. "Queer" will be used here primarily in reference to non-normative life choices and not necessarily about same-sex relationships.

The history of women artists in Norway during the latter half of the nineteenth century is similar to the development elsewhere in Europe (Wichstrøm 2002, 17). Women who were able to study art were from the upper-middle class, but most of them quit painting when they married. The three most prominent female Norwegian artists in this period, Kielland, Harriet Backer, and Asta Nørregaard, remained unmarried. Most female artists who achieved professional status came from artist families or had strong connections to male artists (Nochlin 1988, 168–9). Similarly, Kielland came from a rich family, and her brother was the well-known author Alexander Kielland.1 She started [End Page 492] drawing as a child, during a period of convalescence when she had to use a wheelchair. She was given drawing lessons to make the time pass. But the idea was not to instill in her the ambition to become an artist, and she was not allowed to study art seriously until she was thirty years old (Wichstrøm 2002, 26). Kielland was encouraged by the influential professor Hans Gude to follow her dream of being an artist, and her father eventually acquiesced and allowed her to become one of Gude's students in Karlsruhe. The art academy there was only for men, but the professors could hold private classes for women. Nonetheless, the teaching was thought to be better at the school itself, and the students there did not have to pay for the models themselves. The female artists in Karlsruhe actually managed to participate to some extent in the school's regular classes. Since there was no official prohibition against female students, a group of women, including Kielland, did start showing up at the academy. Kielland writes:

Imorgen lørdag sker atter det uhørte. Forrige lørdagssol skinnede paa en skrækindjagende procession dragende ind ad kunstskolens før saa ubesmittede portal kl. 9 om morgenen. I spidsen med stor værdighed frk. Pantzer med malerkasse, derefter mer ydmyge frk. Esinger, frøk. Sundstrøm og jeg med skitsebøger og feltstole, tænk dem, vi dristige skabninger sidder blant herrerne og tegner model. Herrerne har yttret en beroligende overraskelse over, at vi opførte os saa vel, hvad de frygtede vi vilde gjøre, er mig ufattelig.

(quoted in Wichstrøm 2002, 33)

(Tomorrow, Saturday, the unheard-of event will recur. Last Saturday's sun shone on a terrifying procession that entered the art school's previously-so-undefiled portal at 9 a.m. At the front, with proud dignity, Miss Pantzer led the way with the paint box, thereafter the humbler Miss Esinger, Miss Sundstrøm, and myself with sketchbooks and camp-stools, just think, we daring creatures sit amongst the men and draw models. The men have expressed calming surprise over the fact that we behaved so well; what they feared we would do is beyond my understanding.)

This interference into male space must be looked upon as feminist activism.

Kielland obviously did not paint herself into an art world that was simply waiting for her and other women to enter it. Becoming an acclaimed artist was a feminist struggle. She was determined to become a professional artist, and she exhibited in important exhibitions in Norway and abroad, one example being the...


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