Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Women Artists: Royalists to Romantics

A review of the on-going exhibition of women artists from The Washington Post:
A few of the artists in the exhibition are familiar. Marie Antoinette helped secure Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun coveted 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. (Read entire article.)

Details: Feb. 24-July 29 Information: 202-783-5000

National Museum of Women in the Arts
1250 New York Ave. NW
Washington, DC


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