Received wisdom has it that the period stretching from the end of the French Enlightenment to the blossoming of Romanticism was a culturally barren time. Perhaps this explains why, until recently, music by the once-popular composers Ferdinand Hérold, Étienne Nicolas Méhul, and François-Joseph Gossec had been largely forgotten. In painting it is much the same. The school of David dominated: Jacques-Louis himself and his pupils Antoine-Jean Gros, François Gérard, and Anne-Louis Girodet (male, despite the name) are among the few of these artists still familiar today. 

But, as the Musée du Luxembourg’s new exhibition shows, there was plenty of good work produced in France between 1780 and 1830. Female artists, many of them influenced by David and trained by his contemporaries, were coming into their own, slowly being admitted to guilds and learned societies while establishing their own successful teaching studios. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, both admitted to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture on the same day in 1783, led the way for Marguerite Gérard, Constance Mayer, and the other artists featured in this splendid seventy-work show. 

Marie-Nicole Vestier, L'auteur à ses occupations, 1793, Oil on canvas, Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille.

Rich in self-portraiture, each section offers us a view of individual artists in the flesh, as it were. At the entrance we see Vigée Le Brun with her trademark smile, while a more reserved version, painted a decade earlier, is positioned almost at the exit. A charming “oh-yes-I-can” autoportrait is Marie-Nicole Vestier’s L’auteur à ses occupations (ca. 1791), showing the smiling artist tending to her infant with one hand while holding her palette and brushes with the other, presided over by one of her portraits-in-progress. Other strikingly attractive examples are a pensive Mayer in a white dress, a turbaned Julie Duvidal de Montferrier looking very self-possessed, and the handsomest in the show, Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot’s Autoportrait (1800).

Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot, Autoportrait, 1800, Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Two of the more interesting works in the first room center around the male academician Joseph-Benoît Suvée, the first being his study L’invention du dessin (1776–91), which depicts Pliny the Elder’s account of a young potter memorializing her lover’s image by tracing his shadow on the wall—the curator’s not-so-subtle reference to this tale of how a woman invented drawing. The second work is Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s highly flattering (and technically superb) pastel of Suvée himself, executed before the vote on her candidacy to the Académie royale—needs must, as they say.

The adjacent room shows portraits of Jacques-Louis David by Marie-Éléonore Godefroid and François Gérard, David’s pupil and Godefroid’s teacher and collaborator, and of Jean-Baptiste Regnault, who himself trained numerous young painters. Regnault’s studio, we are told, had two groups, “one of laughing girls heedless of a life they only glimpsed, the other of grave, reflective figures, living in the future, only putting down their brushes to load their palettes . . . these were the artists.” As if to substantiate this observation, a few feet away we see a grouping of atelier scenes by Caroline Thévenin and Marie-Amélie Cogniet in which female painters appear in studious contemplation, and by Adrienne Marie Louise Grandpierre-Deverzy where, at least in part, a lighter atmosphere prevails. Several of the exhibition’s artists were taught by Vigée Le Brun or Labille-Guiard, among them Haudebourt-Lescot and Marie-Gabrielle Capet, whose touching L'atelier de Madame Vincent en 1800 (1808), executed after Labille-Guiard’s death, shows Labille-Guiard working on one of her last commissions surrounded by a group of engaged and attentive (male) onlookers.  

Nisa Villers, Portrait présumé de Madame Soustras laçant son chausson, 1802, Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Though dominated by portraiture, like Nisa Villers’ spectacular 1802 work Portrait présumé de Madame Soustras laçant son chausson (“I bet that woman was a widow at 9 a.m. the day after she got married!,” breathed one bystander), the exhibition shows other genres too, including landscapes of the Italian countryside by the well-regarded Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont. Jeanne Elisabeth Chaudet’s radiant Portrait d’une dame en novice (1811), Julie Duvidal de Montferrier’s exuberant Tête d’Eve (1822), and Aimée Brune’s bashful but coquettish Une jeune fille à genoux (1839) made more than one visitor go back for a second look, as did Isabelle Pinson’s enchanting L’attrapeur de mouche (1808), a small canvas depicting a young boy standing at a window, stalking a fly.

Isabelle Pinson, L’attrapeur de mouche, 1808, Oil on canvas, Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

Far from being a dead zone, the fifty years covered by the exhibition were in fact a time of significant and lasting change. Salon records, contemporary press, and private accounts tell a different story than found in traditional histories, as the curator, Martine Lacas, shows in her thoughtful catalogue notes. While womens’ professional formation certainly suffered from their secondary status, as well as from certain professional barriers (including prohibitions on painting the nude and membership limits in learned societies), “Peintres femmes” shows how some women found ways around these obstacles. Female artists benefited from being taught by established names (Vigée Le Brun and Mayer were advised by none other than Jean-Baptiste Greuze, for instance), but even more important, Lacas says, were personal associations—durable artistic collaborations, romantic unions with prominent men, and social connections. Angelique Mongez, for example, married a favored pupil of David, and the couple remained personally and professionally attached to the older artist. Capet not only was Labille-Guillard’s pupil, but also lived with her family for years. De Montferrier (herself a pupil of Gérard) taught the future Adèle Hugo. Augustine Dufresne made a happy marriage with Baron Gros, as did several others who married their illustrious teachers. An important part of Paris’s artistic life involved the social diversity of the city’s salons and studios, and young female artists used their connections to help advance their careers.

In sum, female artists used the means available to them to their best advantage. Wouldn’t it be interesting, Lacas seems to suggest, if we reevaluated this period in a more festive light, rather than focus solely on narratives of oppression? Perhaps we can achieve this by recognizing what female painters accomplished, understanding how they helped to create a more welcoming future for their sister artists, and, above all, by celebrating their skilled and uplifting works.

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