Art history is so often a story of radical ruptures and profound innovations that it is easy to forget that it is also about established taste, about artists working within expected conventions and in pursuit of commonly held ideals of beauty. A new exhibition of art made between 1750 and 1850 by female artists in France is surprisingly, refreshingly conventional. “Royalists to Romantics,” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, is billed as a rediscovery of women’s art, carefully recovered from important national collections in France, including the Louvre and Versailles.
But far from being an alternative history of French art, it is in many ways a show about the backdrop of art, the history of ordinary image-making. It includes sentimental portraits, meticulous still lifes and landscapes, and dramatically overblown allegories and history paintings. Even the frames, enormous gilded fantasies, are small lessons in outmoded taste.
And yet as you wander through this exhibition of 77 works by 35 (mostly unknown) artists, many of which have never been seen outside of France, there’s always the possibility that something more is happening. The show is heavy with portraits, in part because female artists were allowed to pursue portraiture as a form more in keeping with gender expectations. Yet many of these relatively conventional portraits are uncommonly interesting, especially those of male sitters. Is there a psychic reversal here, an inversion of the usual power dynamic between the “male” gaze and the submissive “female” subject?
And how much should one make of that role reversal? Herminie Deherain’s portrait of Antonin Moine, a contemporaneous artist, shows a man in his mid-30s, head slightly bent, with a look in his eyes that is either faintly tired or slightly supercilious. Does his right eyebrow arch? Is the smile a touch patronizing? Deherain wasn’t an artist to be trifled with. She exhibited regularly in the annual show of shows — the Salon — between 1827 and 1839. And although it is tempting to read some kind of hostility or suspicion into the exchange between artist and subject, at least one prominent contemporary critic singled out this work for high praise, saying it had “intelligence and truth,” and “proved itself to be the happy rival of nature.”
A few of the artists in the exhibition are familiar. Marie Antoinette helped secure Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBruncoveted membership in the prestigious Academy, and the queen also signed the marriage contract of Anne Vallayer-Coster, one of the most respected still-life painters at the time. Connections never hurt, and most of the artists, even the unknown ones, had some kind of access to larger artistic and cultural circles. Marguerite Gerard, represented in the exhibition by several paintings including a wispy portrait of the eminent and visionary architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, was the sister-in-law of the painter Jean-Honore Fragonard. Gerard also created illustrations for the racy bestseller of the age, Choderlos de Laclos’ “Dangerous Liaisons.”