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.”
Many of the women came from well-to-do or at least prosperous families, among whom art was a respectable avocation. Others were born into artistic families and took up the calling even though they were often encouraged to aim low and their artistic training was limited by decorum (practice by drawing unclothed models wasn’t allowed). And yet the work in this exhibition consistently rises above the amateur watercolors and pencil likenesses one imagines Jane Austen’s bored heroines were making across the Channel.
The challenge, for women, wasn’t so much artistic accomplishment as professional status. Before the Revolution, the French Academy allowed four women among its limited membership, a small but meaningful participation in the highest echelons of artistic life. The Republican movement replaced the old “monarchical” Academy with a new, more democratic organization — which promptly limited women’s membership to zero. Social values were also changing, with increased pressure on women to limit their horizons to the family and cultivate domestic virtue.
And yet women kept on making art. Shut out of prestigious schools, they sought instruction directly from the masters and taught each other. Marie-Guillemine Benoist studied with both Jacques-Louis David and Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun. Her career (and that of her politician husband) rode the ups and downs of royalist and revolutionary politics. She is represented in the exhibition by a large-scale 1809 hagiographic state portrait of Napoleon (painted a few years after the more famous and polished portrait by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres). But when her husband was appointed to the Council of State with the second restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815, she gave up showing her work.
Particularly sad is the case of Constance Mayer, who studied with the romantic painter Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. She became so essential to Prud’hon that she ran his house for him after his wife was institutionalized with mental illness. Mayer collaborated with Prud’hon and is represented by “The Dream of Happiness,” a moody allegory designed by Prud’hon and painted by Mayer. But Mayer also struggled with mental illness, and her suicide in 1821 may have been related to unfulfilled hopes of marriage to her teacher and partner.
Even after their deaths, the female artists’ struggle for professional recognition continued.
“Many of these works were appropriated by male counterparts,” says NMWA chief curator Jordana Pomeroy.
Unscrupulous dealers would pass of the work of lesser-known artists as the product of more famous and marketable artists, an indignity that has particularly confused the legacy of women. Rediscovering the accomplishment of female artists often means reevaluating work that has sat in the “gray zone” of major collections for centuries.
The results, at least as seen in this exhibition, aren’t necessarily a new history of neglected masterpieces. Some of this work is frustratingly close to greatness but falls short technically or through miscalculation of effect. Angelique Mongez is billed as “the first French woman to lay full claim to the title of history painter,” meaning the first woman to compete successfully in the most respected arena of painting. Much of her 1841 “Mars and Venus” is beautifully rendered, but the figures don’t seem to be really floating in the clouds that surround them. They are all too earthbound. The amply proportioned actress in an 1812 portrait by Adele Romany sits on an impossibly wide chair, if you scrutinize the placement of its two arms. The figure of Napoleon in Benoist’s portrait looks a bit like he’s floating in space, whereas Ingres’ Napoleon seems to gather the earth up in the emperor’s pasty bulk.
It’s also worth remembering that our latter-day emotional embrace of the “cause” of female artists requires disentangling them from a morally complex history. Rose Adelaide Ducreux’s self-portrait, painted around 1799, is a highlight of the exhibition. She sits surrounded by sumptuous fabrics and markers of refinement. Attired in a classical-style dress, she points with her right hand to a round painting she holds with her left arm. On the floor are sheets of music, and nearby the iconic painter’s palette and brushes that are a staple of so many artists’ self-portraits. She seems the picture of liveliness, intelligence and good humor.
And perhaps she was. By 1802 she was dead from typhoid, contracted while her husband participated in the brutal French suppression of a slave revolt in Haiti.
It is an appealing painting from an artist who perhaps should have been better known. But like so much art, it exists at least in part because of the hierarchies of society, patterns of exploitation, luxury and freedom bought at the expense of other people’s misery.
Works by female artists from the Louvre, Versailles and other French national collections are at the National Museum of Women in the Arts until July 29. For more information, visit nmwa.org.