The French Revolution Put the Kabosh on Lady Artists

Sure the ancien régime cavorting in pre-bloodbath France fed their gluttonous lifestyle by shaking down the country's peasants and bourgeoisie with inordinately high taxes, but even in the days of the oppressive monarchy, ordinary French citizens enjoyed a ton of privileges that their mud-digging European peers hadn't yet realized, such as political freedom, diminished risk of arbitrary punishment, and access to some awesome lady art.

Writing Saturday for the Wall Street Journal's increasingly entertaining arts & culture section, Rachel Wolff explains that women, nurtured by an excessively wealthy monarchy, flourished in the art world in the decades before the French Revolution. The success of female artists in 18th century France is the subject of an exhibit at Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts succinctly called "Royalists to Romantics: Women Artist from the Louvre, Versailles and other French National Collections," which features 35 different artists with 77 paintings, prints, and sculptures dating from 1750 to 1850. For many of these artworks, the exhibit represents their first trip across the Atlantic, so if you want to foul them up with your grubby American fingers (really, don't touch anything), you'll have until July 29 to book your trip to our nation's capital and visit the NMWA.

The exhibit, explains Laura Auricchio, chair of humanities and associate professor of art history at the New School, dispels some popular misconceptions about the French Revolution opening more opportunities for all French citizens. She says, "We tend to think of revolutions as being universally good and opening all boundaries all the time," but that in the case of revolutionary France, women who had previously enjoyed the opportunity to exhibit their work in the Paris Salon and attend the Royal Academy (with the caveat, of course, that they didn't attend any of the academy's feeder schools) were suddenly barred from the art world, encouraged instead to become the domestic stewardesses of the fledgling republic. "The logic was," says Auricchio, "that women had a higher calling than to be artists, that they should be at home nurturing citizens for the nation." You know, like the way an ant colony works, churning out new generations to walk in single-file lines and carry bits of leaves.

Some of these female artists were — and this is really going to shock you — executed because they were so close to the monarchy, while others, like Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun, who had, writes Wolff, "shrewdly married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun, then the most powerful and well-connected art dealer in Paris" to advance her own career, were forced into exile. Vigée-Lebrun landed on her feet, though, and soon found other European buyers for the painting at the top of this post — a lovely cephalic portrait of her most gracious patron, Marie Antoinette.

Feminism in Old France [WSJ]