Teaching for women: 1870s – 1920s

When the academy was first founded, there was a serious shortage of art education options for ambitious women artists. Kunstskolen for Kvinder
– The Women’s Art School ­ – was the first step in a long struggle for equal rights for women

“It is unlikely that anyone would claim that women have the same gifts and abilities as men”. This view was phrased by the architect Vilhelm Klein, who set up the privately owned and operated Tegne- og Kunstindustriskole for Kvinder (School for Drawing and Applied Art for Women) in 1876. Such convictions were typical of the general view of women artists at the time.

Women’s role in society was defined by home and hearth, childrearing and good housekeeping. Art classes were part of the general education and “finishing” of middle and upper class girls, but any women with real ambitions as artists had to rely on private tuition.

As far as art was concerned, flower paintings – an excellent match for embroidery, another highly suitable domestic pursuit for young women – were regarded as the special province of women. 


The question of whether women should be admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts began to attract attention in the public eye in the early 1870s, particularly at the instigation of Dansk Kvindesamfund (The Danish Women’s Society).

As women were gaining increasing visibility in public spaces, and as they came to be in greater demand in the labour market due to industrialisation, a need emerged for more organized, thorough and institution-based education options for women.

In 1873, director Meldahl made a proposal to the Academy’s Study Council, suggesting that women should be given access to drawing classes. Several Academy professors were in favour of the idea; several even recommended the introduction of co-ed teaching. However, space constraints meant that no school for women came into being at the academy this point. 

This meant that it was quite convenient for the Academy when the architect Vilhelm Klein set up his Tegne- og Kunstindustriskole for Kvinder (School for Drawing and Applied Art for Women) in 1876: the Academy could always refer to Klein’s establishment when anyone asked for a school for women.

Klein’s school also had the backing of Dansk Kvindesamfund, which wanted to support and increase women’s opportunities for finding employment in the decorative arts industry. 


For many years, the mere existence of Klein’s school essentially impeded the set-up of a proper school for women under the auspices of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

The painter Johanne Krebs pointed out this fact in a number of articles published in Politiken in 1888, in which she emphasized the many shortcomings of the current teaching. 

Krebs became a member of Dansk Kvindesamfund in 1884 and soon attracted attention with her frequent essays on equal rights for women in all sorts of context: education, business and suffrage.

Her criticisms received support from the political establishment, and the autumn of 1888 saw the opening of the Academy’s Kunstskolen for Kvinder (The Women’s Art School) with Johanne Krebs as headmistress. 

The Women’s Art School was originally housed in rented premises in Amaliegade 30, but in 1897 it was moved to Charlottenborg, taking up rooms in the Exhibition Building.

The Women’s Art School had its own board of directors, but not its own professors – only associate professors. At the behest of the women artists, the painter Viggo Johansen and the sculptor August Saabye were hired as teachers, and the Academy felt that this was enough. 

In 1908 the Women’s Art School merged with the Academy, thereby allowing men and women equal access to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. The sexes were, however, still segregated in life classes where nude models were used.


In Denmark women had won the right of admission to university in 1875, and co-ed teaching was introduced in primary schools in 1903. As a new century dawned, maybe the time was ripe to allow women access to the Academy?  

However, worries concerning the used of nude models were a chief cause of resistance from the Academy’s Study Council.

The issue reflected the moral scruples that had previously been used as arguments against allowing women to work after nude models at all. It was feared that the sight of the naked human form would arouse unseemly passions in the women.

At the Women’s Art School the students had worked after nude models in life classes right from the outset, but if they were to take classes alongside male students, the question of propriety and morality reared its head again.

The question of co-ed classes came up back in the 1870s and 1880s when discussing academy teaching for women, and back then the use of nude models in life classes was also a major argument against the proposal.

The Academy’s position remained unchanged twenty years later, pointing to how academies abroad had had very poor experiences with co-ed classes – to such an extent that they had abandoned them again. 


The short-term solution was to introduce co-ed classes at the School of Decorative Art (Dekorationsskolen), where no nude models were used, thereby retaining a separate Women’s Art School at the Academy.

But after great controversy surrounding the choice of an applicant for one of the teaching positions in 1907, a decision was made to complete the process: the Women’s Art School would close by the end of 1908, and its students were enrolled at the main Academy instead. Co-ed teaching in all classes was introduced for a five-year trial period – except for classes where nude models were used!

It would seem that the trial period did not impress the Academy teachers favourably: the question of co-ed teaching was up for renewed discussion at a meeting in 1912.

In 1924 a new rule allowed students to seek tutorials and advice from more than one teacher, and this meant that separate teaching for women was abandoned for practical reasons. From this point on, all aspects of the academy education were co-ed.

-    Larsen, Peter Nørgaard: ”Med ryggen mod fremtiden – Billedkunst i anden halvdel af 1800-tallet”; I Fuchs, Anneli & Salling, Emma (red.) KUNSTAKADEMIET 1754-2004, Det Kongelige Akademi for De Skønne Kunster & Arkitekturs Forlag 2004, bind I, s. 119-185
-    Aagesen, Dorthe: ”Mellem Tradition og Modernitet – Billedkunst 1900-1954”; I Fuchs, Anneli & Salling, Emma (red.) KUNSTAKADEMIET 1754-2004, Det Kongelige Akademi for De Skønne Kunster & Arkitekturs Forlag 2004, bind I, s. 255-319