"Why have there been no great women artists?" The question was raised in a 1971 edition of Art News magazine by art historian Linda Nochlin. The short answer? “Societal reasons.”

Re-wording a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings”), Nochlin wrote, “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.”

A distinction without a difference

By calling out education she nails the problem.

Female art students weren’t allowed to study the human figure (the subject of all great art of the past) by drawing from live nude models. Women could model in the nude, but they could not sketch from them.

That irony persisted through history all the way into the 19th century. All of which accounts for why so many female artists of old painted still life and portraits – subjects low on the traditional hierarchy of picture-making.

(More about that in a moment).

At the same time, the human figure was the main subject of Old Master art. It is the basis of painting history, bible stories, and myths - the basis of all masterworks of the past.

Now, of a sudden, ArtNet reports “a masterwork by the first female history painting just acquired by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.”

The painting, titled "Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell," was made in 1791 by Marie-Guillemine Benoist.

And to hear Art News magazine tell it, the painting was “squirreled away” for centuries, and has not been seen since it showed in Paris in the 18th century.

Wishful thinking

Are you thinking what I’m thinking – wondering how many other history paintings by women have been “squirreled away”?

Emily Beeny, the curator of European paintings for the Fine Arts Museums that acquired Benoist's painting, said in a statement that the descendants of the buyer kept it all this time “magnificently preserved.

Note the tears that glisten on the queen’s cheek, the gleaming tendrils of Psyche’s hair, the flutter and weight of her draperies, the glow of pearls against flesh.”

Beeny waxed on and on about the “exquisite attention to detail” in the 18th-century work and I thought of a 16th-century sculptor who was also given to exquisite detail – Properzia di Rossi.

She carved an entire crucifixion on the pit of an apricot. Imagine the detail she would have given to a life-size carving.

The 17th-century painter Clara Peeters also comes to mind. Even though she was held to painting still life, she managed to convey the look of human mortality with imagery of dead leaves, dead chickens, and dried-out orange slices. If only she were permitted to render the human figure.

Can it be that these women painted the human figure on the sly, and one day the art world will herald them as Beeny is doing now Benoist? As Art News explained, Benoist’s success in 1791 marked the first year the coveted biannual salon in Paris opened to non-members.

Luck runs out

Benoist at age 23 lucked when her "Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell" made it into the Paris show.

But her luck changed after the fall of Napoleon when her husband became a high-ranking official in the new government. She was told that as his wife, painting of any kind was inappropriate.

So much for the French revolution motto Liberté égalité fraternité