Isala Van Diest (1842-1916) of Leuven and Brussels-born Louise Heger (1893-1933) were the regions’ first female doctor and leading artist, respectively, and the exhibition reflects upon them and their impact on society, as well as the role of women in 19th-century Belgium and Europe.
Van Diest and Heger’s life stories are told, warts and all, through carefully selected paintings and sketches by Heger and other artists such as Marie de Roode Heijermans, Cecile Douard, Louise De Hem and Felicien Rops. The works are interspersed with revealing quotes that force the viewer to face the stark restrictions and austere zeitgeist that straight-jacketed women at the time.
At the end of the 19th century, the world of science and art were male strongholds. Men deemed women as lacking the necessary intelligence, competencies and – in the case of art, genius – to be active in these fields. When it came to medicine, men were of the opinion that women, due to their limited intellectual capacities as well as physical and psychological weaknesses, were not suitable to the demands of a job as physician.
That Van Diest’s and Heger’s careers didn’t always run smoothly comes then as no surprise. Van Diest was refused entry to the Catholic University of Leuven in 1873 and turned instead to the University of Bern in Switzerland, which allowed women to enrol in its programmes. There she earned a degree in medicine. Of her determination to study medicine, Van Diest wrote:
“I choose to study medicine because I realise only too well the moral impact one has as doctor on a female patient. While one soothes their physical suffering, women open their heart to you. I see medicine as a way to help women get out of their dull resignation, to get them to help each other and make them stronger so that they will demand that which they have a right to.”
In May of 1879, the 37-year-old Van Diest graduated, only to be told upon her return to Flanders that her qualifications could not be accepted without passing further exams. The next year, then, she enrolled at the Free University of Brussels – the first year it began accepting female students.
“The female doctor is one of those weeds that have invaded the flora of modern society,” wrote physician Charles Fiessinger in his article “The Medical Indaptitude of Women”, one of the many quotes that typifies the thinking of the time and which are scattered throughout the exhibition.
Also Louise Heger, though she came from a liberal family that encouraged her studies, struggled to break free from the rules that denied her the freedom to practice her art. One of the few female landscape artists of the time, she travelled to remote locations to find just the right scenes. She was constantly reminded that single women were not encouraged to travel alone. Instead, they should be accompanied by “reputable, trustworthy” men.
As Heger’s love for painting grew, she spent an ever-increasing amount of her time and the money she earned as a part-time teacher travelling the country in search of landscapes. This began to worry even her forward-thinking parents, as attests this text by a British former pupil of her mother: “Louise’s determination to take up painting as a profession had been a severe trial to her parents. They understood for women the career of a wife, a schoolmistress, a nun – but an artist! That seemed to them full of perils known and unknown.”
“That Isala Van Diest and Louise Heger were exceptional women stands beyond a shadow of doubt,” says Annik Altruy of Museum M. “Being a doctor or artist may seem an obvious choice to women today, but it was clearly not so in 19th-century Belgium, when society defined a woman’s role to be that of homemaker and mother. Having a job was unheard of and developing one’s identity as a woman outside the home even less so.”
Yet both women, who defied convention so adamantly and further fought for the emancipation of women for the rest of their lives, were soon forgotten after their deaths.
“Isala Van Diest always walked in the shadow of other, more vocal feminists of the time like Marie Popelin [the country’s first female attorney],” says Julie Carlier, a Ghent University historian who will speak about the life of Van Diest at Museum M in November. “Yet Van Diest devoted herself tirelessly to women’s rights throughout her life. Not only did she work as physician at Le Refuge, a halfway house for ex-prostitutes, she was also one of the founding members of Belgian League for the Rights of Women, Belgium’s first feminist organization.”
In May of this year, Van Diest, the physician who quietly worked for decades to promote women’s rights, was finally accorded the recognition she deserves: Her face graces a new €2 coin issued to commemorate the centenary of International Women’s Day.
Heger also waited many years to be recognised for the mastery of her art. At the age of 64, she was made a Knight in the Leopold Order.
Today, more than 70 years after their deaths, Museum M brings Isala Van Diest and Louise Heger back to life, honouring the paths they forged to remind modernday women of the pioneers that began to pave the way for them more than 100 years ago.
Until 27 November
Leopold Vanderkelenstraat 28
• On 27 October, Harvard University professor Sue Lonoff
talks about the relationship between the family of Louise
Heger and Charlotte and Emily Brontë (In English)
• On 17 November, Ghent University professor Julie Carlier
will speak about the life of Isala Van Diest (in Dutch)