When artists are overlooked because (for instance) they are women, it can leave frustrating gaps in the historical record. This 1789 painting by Marie-Victoire Lemoine (1754-1820) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is a case in point.
Needless to say, 1789 was a big year in France. There’s no sign of the storming of the Bastille in Lemoine’s painting. But the upheaval in French society brought on by the revolution would transform opportunities for female artists over the following decades.
Before the revolution, in 1783, two exceptional women, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, had been admitted to the Royal Academy. They were just the third and fourth women to be admitted in the institution’s 150-year history. Wanting to promote the cause of women artists, Labille-Guiard painted a work (also at the Met) that is a clear forerunner to Lemoine’s: It showed the artist herself, seated at an easel, with two female students behind her.
Lemoine’s 1789 canvas conveys a similar message: female capability. (It also features the same type of oval-backed, green upholstered chair.) For a long time, people believed the painting was intended as a tribute to Vigée Le Brun. But it is now believed to show Lemoine herself (standing) with her younger sister Marie-Élisabeth, who was also an artist.
Lemoine stands, palette in hand, in front of a large canvas still in an early stage of execution. I love pictures within pictures because they allow the painter to play games with different levels of illusionism. They can either bring the fiction to the surface or trick you, by implied contrast, into believing in it even more.
This unfinished canvas-within-a-canvas is mostly just sketched white lines. Only the kneeling figure with her extended arm has been painted in. The subject is clearly classical (the standing figure wears a laurel wreath). And that in itself feels significant. Women who chose to paint were encouraged to become proficient at still life and portraiture (Lemoine shows her skill in both genres here). But the most prestigious genre was “history painting” (classical and religious subjects), and history painting was still largely the preserve of men. Lemoine shows that she was willing to buck that trend.
The figures’ poses in the canvas on the easel seem to echo the overall picture: a standing figure looming over a seated woman. The overall painting is in a lovely key of mauve and green. This harmony is echoed in the pattern on the tablecloth, the flowers in the vase, the curtains and the chair. To me, the seated artist’s head seems a little too small in relation to her sister behind, but perhaps this was deliberate?
Given the wider turmoil, Lemoine had to wait a few years, but her painting was finally shown at the Salon of 1796. By that time, the Royal Academy had been abolished and women’s access to training, exhibiting opportunities and the market had started to expand significantly.
Compared to men, however, women remained at a disadvantage, and no one had heard of Lemoine when this painting came on the market in 1920. It had remained in her family since her death a century earlier. When it was lent to an exhibition in 1926, it was given the title “Madame Vigée Le Brun in her studio giving a lesson to her pupil Mademoiselle Lemoine.” But in fact, Vigée Le Brun was never Lemoine’s teacher, so this speculative title has since been rejected. Scholars settled instead on the idea that the painting shows Lemoine and her sister.
If they’re correct, the painting can be placed at the start of a long and fascinating story about female siblings in France (among them the great Impressionist Berthe Morisot and her sister Edma) studying art together, sharing studios, registering at the Louvre, and providing each other with crucial moral support in an art world, and a wider society, dominated by men.