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.
A search for status
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.