Narrating the Woman Artist: Gender and Genre in Biographical Fiction

The aim of this project is a comprehensive critical monograph on contemporary biographical novels about historical women artists – a genre that has enjoyed remarkable popularity these past two decades but little scholarly attention – focusing on the novels’ contribution to the discursive construction of gender identities. Reputed literary authors and lesser known writers alike have contributed to this growing body of creative narratives about famous women artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Clara Schumann, and Sylvia Plath. Biographical novels allow for departures from the known facts, for the imaginative closure of historiographical gaps, and for an internal view of the protagonist. They can participate not only in biographical subgenres such as literary biography but also in fictional subgenres such as the historical romance novel, aligning their structure and character properties with its requirements.

Despite the remarkable popularity of such biographical novels and the simultaneous growth of life-writing research in recent years, no systematic attempts have been made to examine the representation and ideological functionalisation of the woman artist in these narratives. Conceiving of biographical fiction as a medium of cultural memory that, through shaping our view of past lives, gives expression to current cultural values, this project broadly asks what historical women artists are remembered for in biographical novels, and in what manner.

Specifically, this project will analyse the inventory of narrative strategies, plot models, models of female subjectivity, and (gender-)political agendas to be found in contemporary biographical novels about women artists. Analyses of the corpus will draw on central concepts and debates from gender-theoretically informed studies of biography – particularly around the gendered representation of certain life course models, of public and private spheres, and productive and reproductive work – and on theories developed in cultural memory studies, research on biofiction, historical fiction, and the artist novel. The novels will further be related to the historical figures’ reception history to establish their particularities and function vis à vis other memory texts as regards representations of gendered subjectivity.

Supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF (grant no. V543-G23).