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.
A complicated legacy
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.
Royalists to Romantics
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.