Tate Britain acquires first painting by pioneering English female artist overlooked for a century

<span>Louise Jopling, one of the most famous British female artists of the 19th century, pictured in 1890.</span><span>Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images</span>
Louise Jopling, one of the most famous British female artists of the 19th century, pictured in 1890.Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images

She was one of the most famous British female artists of the 19th century, a suffragist who exhibited at the Royal Academy, was praised by Victorian art critics and was admired by contemporaries including James McNeill Whistler, who painted her portrait.

But for more than a century Louise Jopling has been dismissed by the art establishment as an amateur, her huge body of work and professional career overlooked by successive curators of the national collection.

Now Tate Britain is hoping to fix that with its first acquisition of a painting by Jopling, a self-portrait she made while pregnant with her son, Lindsay, in 1875.

Through the Looking Glass, the first painting by Jopling to enter the national collection, will be shown alongside two of her other paintings in the gallery’s new exhibition exploring female artists through British history, Now You See Us, which opens on Thursday.

Tabitha Barber, curator of the exhibition, said: “What’s happened to Jopling’s legacy is the story of what’s happened to most women artists … They have been regarded, studied and judged differently.”

Jopling, who in 1901 became one of the first women admitted to the Royal Society of British Artists, was a celebrated artist in her day, Barber said. Her patrons included the de Rothschild family, and the Grosvenor Gallery founders Sir Coutts and Lady Lindsay. “At a time when women weren’t allowed to be members of the Royal Academy, her works were exhibited there almost every year and spoken about in the press. She was reviewed by male art critics, and reviewed well.”

Jopling’s paintings were also commercially successful, selling for some of the highest prices that British female artists could command – albeit far less than their male contemporaries.

“She is among a handful of female artists who were society figures and household names – and it just seems so astonishing that they’re so little known now,” said Barber.

The daughter of a railway worker who had nine children, Louise Goode was born in Manchester in 1843 and married her first husband, Frank Romer, aged 17. Her life changed after Romer became private secretary to Baron de Rothschild in France. The baroness saw some of Jopling’s pencil sketches and encouraged her to undertake formal art training in Paris. Until then “no thought of an art career [had] entered my head,” Jopling wrote in her autobiography. “At this time, I knew of no girl, much less a married woman, who had studied art.”

Her work was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1870 and she started to earn a living from portraits, although she also painted interiors, narrative subjects and genre scenes.

After Romer died in 1872, she went on to marry the watercolour painter Joseph Middleton Jopling, who was best man at Whistler’s wedding. John Everett Millais was a godfather to Lindsay and gave the infant a portrait of his mother as a christening present. That painting now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

“She became a prominent figure in the art world, who exhibited at what is now the Society of Women Artists, voted for women’s rights and opened an art school in the 1880s,” said Barber. “She was absolutely determined that women should have the same art training as men.”

Victorian women were barred on grounds of propriety from Royal Academy life classes, where models posed nude. “Jopling saw drawing from life models as the absolute cornerstone of an artist’s training and made sure that in her art school women had access to that training.”

Barber said male art critics would praise Jopling and other professional women artists in a “patronising way” using “ridiculous” gender stereotypes. Women’s work was complimented as “surprisingly good” and judged differently, according to whether the art demonstrated the virtues and qualities of a genteel woman.

“So instead of being substantial and heroic, they are looking for the work to be charming,” said Barber. “The concept of the woman artist as an amateur artist was very difficult to get rid of. And that’s something we’ve inherited: the idea that there weren’t many women artists and they were mainly amateurs and their work was less good.”

As a result, historically, the work of women artists such as Jopling has been neglected by scholars and curators, she said.

In her spare time, Jopling regularly hosted “salon gatherings” and befriended the young Oscar Wilde, whom she described in her autobiography as a “constant visitor” to her Chelsea home. “One day, I opened the door … and found him outside with a large snake twisted round his neck,” she wrote in 1925. “He was the most entrancing companion.”

Jopling is known to have painted more than 750 works of art before she died in 1933, aged 90, but the locations of the majority of these paintings are now sadly unknown.

Only a handful have been acquired by public art galleries. “But I wouldn’t say those are her major works,” said Barber. “We don’t know where they are.”