The Union of Women Painters and Sculptors was founded in 1881 in Paris with the aim to promote the work of the female artists. It was founded by the sculptor and educator Hélène Bertaux (Mme. Leon Bertaux) and had as many as 450 members at its peak. The Union existed until 1994 (date of the 110th and last exhibition), which makes it one of the artistic associations that has lasted the longest.
The opportunities were very limited for women within the art world of Paris during the 19th century. At that time women were prohibited from joining most of the existing exhibition groups, schools, and public art spaces. For this reason one of the Union’s goals was to create a community to educate and support female artists in addition to displaying their works. They published Le Journal des Femmes Artistes newsletter, where the members of the Union could communicate and comment.
The Union also founded and organised the annual Salon des Femmes as an exhibition of women’s art exclusively. The Salon was intended to be a non-traditional and non-hierarchical exhibition, including decorative arts, and giving new and established artists equal access to preferred hanging spaces. The first Salon des Femmes took place in January 1882. The Union continued to organise and publicise the event each year. At the Salon des Femmes of 1896, 295 women exhibited their work.
Since L’École des Beaux-Arts did not admit women until 1897. Before that year, the only state-sponsored option for women’s art education was L’École Nationale de Dessin pour les Jeunes Filles (The National Drawing School for Young Women) which received less funding than the other schools. Which explains that in addition to other efforts, members of the Union, especially Bertaux, campaigned for women’s entry into the École des Beaux-Arts and for their eligibility to compete for the Prix de Rome art prize.
- Among its members were Marie Bashkirtseff or Virgine Demont-Breton, who became president after Bertaux in 1894.