Telly Savalas was wrong, a picture doesn’t paint a thousand words. It was actually the dour Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen that said it, but the fact is that a great picture presents an intersection of ideas that if written down would fill many volumes not just two and a half pages.
Back in the day artists liked to paint cows in their masterpieces. Constable, Corot, van Gogh, even Leonardo Da Vinci drew cows. These days cows are nowhere near as prominent in art, even though Damien Hurst chopped one lengthways.
Back in the time of the old masters and even the impressionists as much as 95 percent of the population worked on the land and while we think of the plough as powered by horses, as often as not they were powered by cows, oxen to be exact.
Cows were a big deal. Milk products, especially cheese, were one of the keys to surviving winter by storing the abundant calories of milk in a form that would survive the barren periods of winter. Walls were made of cow dung, fields were fertilised and land unfit for crops was turned into meat and dairy products via the cow, that would obligingly walk home for milking.
In the mid-1800s, artists were reaching for a pinnacle of technical brilliance, a peak of that delivered realism that even surpassed the results of the photography of the time and can even be considered hyperrealism. The art educational system was turning out incredibly skilled artists that could render the sort of images that today would be composited by computers. Artists like Bouguereau painted flying gods and sumptuous nudes in a way probably unreproducible by hand today while the pre-Raphaelites sent their viewers on psychedelic trips not seen again until the films like Avatar were crunched into existence in server farms.
If you are not up to speed on cows in art then a trip to the Musee D’Orsay will deliver a double surprise. Ploughing the Nivernais is a giant, hyper-realistic painting 133cm by 260cm of Oxen ploughing a field. If you want it to this picture will take you back 200 years to a reality that while you can visually understand it, has been long extinct. It is a rare type of painting and not because of its scale or its location, its fame or its style but because it is a painting by a woman.
Rosa Bonheur was an extremely successful artist and the painting was commissioned by the French government for the equivalent of 100,000 euros. Against all odds there have been highly successful women artists even against a backdrop where Bonheur had to get permission from the French police to wear trousers, a prohibition which by the way was not revoked until 2013.
There were successful women in art before her, like Artemisia Gentileschi, Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun and Angelica Kauffman, but the roster is sparse. Until post-modern times works by women artists are rare.
So now is the time for collectors to think about that. Are works by women especially valued as precious? The answer in general is no. While there are standouts a lot of fabulous works by amazing women artists can be picked up as if one or two zeros have been knocked off their price. A Picasso can set you back nine figures, works by his muses Dora Marr or Francois Gilot five figures. This is a crazy asymmetry that will not stand forever and it will be collectors that start the process of re-evaluation and re-pricing.
It’s not a trip to Paris that is required, Monaco’s own auction houses have a constant supply of opportunities. Monte Carlo Maison de Vente recently sold a cow drawing by Rosa Bonheur for under 1,000 euros. I know, I bought it and not by fluke. For anyone who wants to embrace the hobby, or as an alternative asset investing strategy of art collecting, the opportunities are thick on the ground and no more so than for the work of women artists.
While artists like Marry Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Frida Kahlo, Tamara Lempicka, Susan Valadon and Sonia Delauney may have caught the elevator through the glass ceiling, there are still plenty awaiting discovery and rightful acknowledgement. As such it might be a good time to swap the monster flat screen TV for some pictures of peasant landscape replete with majestic bovines.
ILLUSTRATION: Ploughing the Nivernai
This article is co-written by Monaco artists Zoia Skoropadenko and Clem Chambers. They exhibit together internationally and you can see their work at themeloy.art online gallery. You can reach them at email@example.com