Women Painters 1780-1830

A Place at the Easel

April 28, 2021By Heidi EllisonExhibitions

In an entrepreneurial spirit not often found among state-run French museums, the Musée du Luxembourg is offering its exhibition “Peintres Femmes, 1780-1830.” (“Women Painters”) for online viewing for €5 (€9 if you agree to visit the exhibition in the company of a guide). (Note: the museum is now open, and the show continues through July 25, 2021.)

It took me quite a while, but I finally managed to pay and get into the online show, and after a couple of highly frustrating hours, marked by error messages and crashing browsers (I eventually got it to work on Firefox), I finally became adept at moving around the rooms, zooming in on those works that were zoomable and listening to the audioguide descriptions provided for some of them.

The premise of the exhibition is that although success for women artists during the 50-year pre- and post-Revolutionary period covered by the show was not easy to come by, a surprising number were nevertheless able to make their living at it and even to be accepted by the institutions of the time. Especially at first, most were portraitists, like the most famous among them, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.

"La mort de Malek-Adhel" (1814), by Césarine Davin-Mirvault © Aurillac, Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie
“La mort de Malek-Adhel” (1814), by Césarine Davin-Mirvault © Aurillac, Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie

History was not as kind to them, however, and many have since been forgotten. Now that resurrecting neglected women or minority artists from the past has finally become not only acceptable but a must, the curators have come up with 40 talented women painters from the time.

Vigée Le Brun, Marie-Antoinette’s official portraitist and the subject of a major retrospective at the Grand Palais in 2015, is well-represented here, along with such contemporaries as Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Adèle Romany and Marie Victoire Lemoine. Vigée Le Brun and Labille-Guiard were actually admitted to the French Royal Academy of Painting in 1783, a small revolution in itself, but women were considered incapable of making grand history paintings and were not allowed to paint the nudes that were often part of such subjects.

"Vue du Forum le Matin," by Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont. © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours
“Vue du Forum le Matin,” by Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont. © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours

Then came the real Revolution, after which women were free to exhibit and sell their works. By the 1820s, the number of professional women artists showing their work in the salons had multiplied from 30 to 200, and many had branched out from portraiture to landscapes and other genres. More and more male artists – Jacques Louis David and Jean-Baptiste Greuze among them – began to accept female students, who later took on their own students.

"L’Attrapeur de Mouche" (1808), by Isabelle Pinson. © Collection of the Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame
“L’Attrapeur de Mouche” (1808), by Isabelle Pinson. © Collection of the Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame

As more works by women began to fill the salon exhibitions, which were increasingly popular with the public, oversized historical and mythological works began to look old hat and the smaller, more intimate paintings by women more up to date to some observers. And, judging by this show, women sometimes chose rather unusual subject matter.  A good example is Isabelle Pinson’s “The Flycatcher,” a wonderfully humble scene with a Paris monument visible through the window and a couple of well-worn books on the windowsill.

A highly accomplished self-portrait by Julie Duvidal de Montferrier takes a modern, stripped-down approach to her subject, even though she was a proponent of the “troubadour” style, a sort of romantic, idealized version of the medieval past, a reaction to the cool reserve of neoclassicism. The artist depicts herself smiling almost impudently at the viewer, dressed in an oriental costume consisting of a gold-flecked red turban, yellow dress and blue shawl, painted in luscious detail, unlike the sketchily depicted backdrop of a cave opening through which a bit of greenery can be seen.

One of her predecessors, Marie-Geneviève Bouliard, the daughter of a Paris dressmaker, was a well-known portraitist who was especially sought-after during the period of the Revolution. In a 1794 self-portrait, she daringly portrayed herself, one breast exposed, as Aspasia, counselor to Pericles, a choice she was much criticized for, which discouraged her from painting more such works. As the audio guide points out, by showing herself looking into a mirror, Bouliard chose to “literally see herself” as Aspasia, variously known to history as a brilliant intellectual and a brothel keeper. No comment.

The great thing about the virtual show is that you can spend as much time as you like studying a painting, but it’s a shame that the process is still so very laborious, and, of course, it can never replace the real thing. Maybe one day the technology will advance enough to make it a fluid, pleasurable experience, but for now, we can only pray that museums will soon be able to open their doors again. Let’s hope it happens before this exhibition’s end date of July 4, 2021.


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