WomensHistoryReads interview: Paula Butterfield

It’s no secret that women in the arts have long struggled to achieve the recognition of their male peers, and the Impressionists are no exception. The average museum’s Impressionist exhibit might include only one or two female painters of the period, but if you’re lucky, you’ll see a Morisot in among the Monets and Manets. Paula Butterfield’s La Luministe, about Berthe Morisot, was just released, making this the perfect time to interview her for this series. Welcome, Paula!

Paula Butterfield

Paula Butterfield

Greer: Tell us about a woman from the past who has inspired your writing.

Paula: Today Frida Kahlo is a well-known Mexican artist who is the inspiration for everything from merchandise to memes. But when I first encountered Frida in an art history class at the Universidad de la Americas, in Mexico, I had never heard of her. 

During my sophomore year of college, I lost both of my parents. Although pursuing an education was engrained in me, I was in too much pain to face a gloomy Pacific Northwest winter that year, which is how I found myself at school in Mexico. Right away, I was homesick, with no home to go to. When I’d trudge to the campus post office, the postal worker would bring out a pile of B letters to wade through. There were few for me but another B student, the daughter of a celebrity, seemed to receive reams of mail every day with her father’s name stamped on the envelope. I was livid with envy. Why did SHE get to have a doting father, one who no doubt sent her frequent large sums of money? 

Then one day that celebrity’s daughter stood up to give an oral report, Frida’s story. I listened to the litany of Frida’s physical trials—childhood polio and being impaled by the handrail in a street car accident which led to subsequent miscarriages, spinal surgeries, and ultimately the amputation of her leg. And then there was the emotional turmoil of being Diego Rivera’s wife. His fame eclipsed hers, and he was incessantly unfaithful.

My God, this woman knew pain! And yet her paintings were unlike anything I’d ever seen. Self-portraits in which she adorned herself as a work of art. Backgrounds filled with animals from her menagerie, pre-Columbian artifacts, and lush foliage. Vivid colors made each painting look joyful and life-affirming. One was even titled Viva la Vada—live life. 

As an art-history major in days of yore, I’d only been introduced to only two women—Mary Cassatt and Georgia O’Keeffe. Examination of their work was so cursory that it didn’t occur to me that either artist might have something to say to me. But Frida Kahlo did. She might as well have been standing in that classroom, shouting, “Yes, there’s pain! Use it to create something that celebrates life.”

My favorite form of creativity as a child had always been writing stories or plays. But it wasn’t until Frida encouraged me that I began concentrating on writing. It’s been a long road, but my debut novel, La Luministe, released on March 15. (P.S. I learned my lesson about pre-judging people, even ones who are wealthy and fame-adjacent.) 

Greer: What is most challenging or exciting about researching historical women?

Paula: When I started teaching courses about women in the arts during the last days of Second Wave Feminism, there were no textbooks available. But I must give a shout-out to Karen Peterson and J.J. Wilson, who wrote Women Artists: Recognition & Reappraisal, surely the first survey of women in Western Art. Before I discovered that book, I had to collate one of those compilations of articles and essays that students love so well. That was the challenge.

The exciting part about researching women artists during those years was that Nancy Drew-style scholars were making new discoveries. Cleaning a painting attributed to Franz Hals revealed Judith Leyster’s signature! Music by Clara Schumann was discovered in an attic! I stayed up all night when the catalogue for Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party came out. Reading the mini-biographies of 1,000 women of achievement made my heart race.

Today, women artists are having a moment. This year, we can see work by 20thc. women artists in Vienna (Sothebys, through May 19), Sixty Years of Work by Female Artists (Tate, London, opens in April), the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters (National Portrait Gallery, London, open in October), Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola (Prado, Madrid, also opens in October), and tipping over into 2020, a Joan Mitchell retrospective (San Francisco, SFMoMA, January, 2020.) And we can wallow in recent historical fiction about Judith Leyster, Sofonisba Anguissola, Lee Miller, and Dorothea Lange. And La Luministe, of course!

Greer: What can you tell us about your next book? 

Paula: I’m always reluctant to talk too much about my WIP. I’m of the school which holds that talking about a new book dilutes its strength. I need to keep all of my ideas percolating away in the back of my brain until they boil over onto the page. All I want to say is that my next book is about two rival American women artists. The idea of how there is only room for one outstanding woman in any given field, turning colleagues into competitors, is a construct that has no place in our world anymore. It never did.

And my question for you: What books did you read in your youth that might have led you to write about women detectives? The aforementioned Nancy Drew series? Or possibly From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler? Or maybe my favorite, Harriet the Spy?

Greer: I did read most of those (ah, Harriet) but the girl-detective series that will always be closest to my heart was Trixie Belden. My local library had every single book in the series except one — they’d been sent a book with the wrong cover and never gotten around to replacing it, but I checked it regularly, just in case. And it’s great to see real women detectives of the past — Constance Kopp in Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits With Gun and subsequent novels, Kate Warne in my novel Girl in Disguise — inspiring more of today’s fiction. As you mentioned, historical fiction about women artists is bringing their stories back into the spotlight. I’m thrilled by this trend toward biographical fiction inspired by women of the past — artists, detectives, spies, scientists, warriors, everyone — because so many of these are stories we should have been celebrating all along.


Find out more about Paula and La Luministe at twitter.com/@pbutterwriter or paula-butterfield.com.