Women’s (Artistic) Liberation

A new show collects classical works from French female artists

April 4, 2012

Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun's portrait of artist Joseph Vernet is part of “Royalists and Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles and other French National Collections” show at NMWA.

The show is at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, so of course the 77 works in “Royalists and Romantics” are by women. Anywhere else, though, viewers would likely be surprised to encounter so many accomplished paintings, prints and sculptures made by women from 1750 to 1850.

Even the owners of the artworks were startled to learn they had such significant work by women artists of that era, reveals the exhibition’s organizer, Jordana Pomeroy, chief curator at the museum.

The show’s subtitle, “Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles and other French National Collections,” reveals the source of its contents. Despite having such riches in its national holdings, France hasn’t paid much attention to the women who painted and sculpted during that period, Pomeroy says.

“French art historians are just now looking at the history of women artists,” she says. “In the U.S. we started doing this back in the mid-’80s.”

The works are divided into seven themes, including “families,” “scandal and power,” “reinventing the past” and “portraits” — one is of Napoleon’s dog. They were often done without live models, or were based on other works of art, because these artists didn’t have the freedom their male counterparts enjoyed. Many were taught by male painters — and sometimes exploited by them. “Often men took credit for women’s work,” says Pomeroy.

The works on display resulted from a unique flowering of women’s creativity that separated France from all other countries at the time. France in the 18th century, museum director Susan Fisher Sterling says, experienced an age of “liberty, equality and sorority.”

“France was very special in the period,” agrees Pomeroy. “I don’t know where I would focus” if coordinating another show on women’s art of this era.

“Royalists and Romantics” will travel to Stockholm after its run at the National Museum of Women ends, on July 29. Then the artworks will return to France, perhaps to increased prestige. “One of our hopes,” Pomeroy says, “is that when they go back, they’ll be looked at anew.”

Spotlight

Jacques-Louis David. Eugene Delacroix. Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun. That last name isn’t as well-known as the others, but it once was. National Museum of Women in the Arts curator Jordana Pomeroy calls Vigee-LeBrun “the best-known woman artist of her time.” She lived from 1755 to 1842 and served for six years as Marie Antoinette’s official portraitist. Among her subjects was artist Joseph Vernet, left, one of three Vigee-LeBrun works in the show.

National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW; through July 29, $10; 202-783-5000. (Metro Center)

 

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