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Elizabeth Thompson: One And Done

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Elizabeth Thompson was a 20-something artist in the 1800s when art was everything and men ruled art. In 1874, Elizabeth painted “Roll Call”, a painting that was so good, it had to be guarded by policemen.

During this time, there was something called the Royal Academy; the Royal Academy was made up of 40 men, and being inducted into the academy was the highest honor any artist could get. Membership meant reputation, and reputation meant success as an artist. Every year the Royal Academy put on an art exhibition that thousands of people from all over the world came to, but very few artists’ were able to have their work exhibited.

In 1874, Elizabeth Thompson’s “Roll Call” was chosen to be exhibited. Not only that, but it was basically front and center in the hall. Its location was prime and envied by all other artists. The painting became so famous Thompson was nominated for candidacy into the Royal Academy. What?! This is the most prestigious men’s club in the world. There is no greater honor. No woman has ever even dreamt of getting in, and yet this 20-something girl gets nominated.

Thompson ends up losing the vote, but only by 2 votes. There is still hope, because she’s a shoo-in for next year.

The next year, she enters another painting into the exhibition and gets in again, although this time, it’s put in the very back. The farthest, darkest corner. Not much better than not getting in at all. And with that placement, she kissed her nomination into the Royal Academy goodbye as well. What happened? How did she do so well one year and so poorly the next?

As it turns out, the men in the Royal Academy were the ones judging which paintings were allowed in their exhibitions, and where they would be placed. If Elizabeth Thompson’s painting was as big of a success this year as it was last year, there should be no reason for her not being inducted into the Royal Academy, right? But then, how would things change in the Academy? There was tradition to uphold, and it didn’t really allow for women. Would they change that tradition? Certainly not. So there wasn’t really a place for Elizabeth Thompson.

In 1881, they showed her that once and for all by not even allowing her painting (perhaps her most famous painting of all time) into the exhibition. And so Thompson gave up.

To me, this isn’t a story about feminism. It’s not about art. It’s not even about giving up or fighting. Malcolm Gladwell sums it all up when he says, “When we do something good, sometimes we give ourselves permission to do something bad.” In 1874, the Royal Academy blew the world’s mind by giving Elizabeth Thompson the front and center placement and nominating her for induction into the Academy. But that was their good deed for the century. They met their quota, and the next year, they proved that.

When I heard this story, Malcolm Gladwell’s phrase made me stop and think. How often do I do something good just for the sake of making myself feel a little better for the time being? How often do I stop and give the man at the corner a dollar just so I don’t have to do it the next time?

I hate to admit it, even to myself, but I resonate with that phrase way more than I should. Doing good gives me permission to do bad. Or, better yet, doing good gives me permission to not do good. But since when was doing good about not having to do good again? When Jesus gave us the command to love God and love others, He didn’t say that so we would do it and feel better about ourselves (although that is a natural byproduct). We were created to love and serve others because it serves others, not because it serves ourselves. If we’re serving others so we can feel better about ourselves, we may be missing the whole point.

I wonder how Elizabeth Thompson’s story would be different if she’d been given the same placement and inducted into the Royal Academy the next year. Would she have given up her fight? Would she have felt so defeated? I can guarantee she wouldn’t have. But that’s not how the story ended. The artists in the academy had done their good deed and they didn’t feel the need to do it again until 1936, when the next woman was nominated for induction.

So I guess my question is, how might the world be different if we did good because God asked us to do good, and not simply because it gave us permission to not do good later?

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