A Revolution on Canvas: A Review – by Yasemin Altun

Paris A. Spies-Gans, A Revolution on Canvas: The Rise of Women Artists in Britain and France, 1760–1830 (New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in Association with Yale University Press, 2022). 384 pp.; 157 color + b-w illus. Hardcover $55. (ISBN 9781913107291)

Shortly after visiting the Paris Salon of 1861, the journalist Alphonse Pagès decided to do some math. Impressed by the women artists’ showing that year, Pagès set out to calculate the proportion of male-to-female painters who had exhibited their work in France since the reign of Louis XIV. In 1862 he published his findings in the Revue artistique et littéraire. Straightaway, Pagès assures readers he is an advocate of progress and that “to love progress is to love women.”[1] It was therefore against all his better expectations that, after counting (and recounting) through Salon catalogs new and old, he came up with the following results:

Until around 1812, women are excluded from all exhibitions.
From 1812 to 1824, they are admitted on average:
1 for every 6 men
From 1824 to 1834…             1 for every 7
From 1834 to 1844…             1 for every 8
From 1844 to 1854…             1 for every 9
From 1854 to 1861…             1 for every 10.[2]

To explain these “unfortunate calculations,” Pagès then provides an excerpt of his interview with an unnamed female painter, who leads him to conclude that women’s dwindling participation in the Salon was due to their lack of institutional training. Thus, he calls on readers to support women’s admission to the École des Beaux-Arts.[3] He himself later invested in women’s education.[4] Yet his cursory calculations raise more questions than answers: Which sources did he consult? Who did he interview? Most importantly, by beseeching readers of the brief report to help “his feeble voice to protest such an injustice that can only derive from an oversight,” he perpetuated the very patterns of critical amnesia that have prevented women artists’ rightful recognition in art history.[5] After such “fastidious research,” Pagès managed to miss the fact that female painters were decidedly present at public exhibitions in Paris—and across the Channel—before 1812. Paris Spies-Gans’s new book, A Revolution on Canvas: The Rise of Women Artists in Britain and France, 1760–1830, presents the data to prove it.

A Revolution on Canvas is a collective history of professional women artists active in London and Paris from the late eighteenth through early nineteenth centuries. Spies-Gans traces the careers of over 1,300 women who exhibited their paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints at the leading venues in either city during the age of revolutions. Mobilizing an innovative array of visual, quantitative, and textual evidence, she reveals that this commercially and politically turbulent period occasioned an equally momentous shift in women’s artistic production. Not only did women publicly display their art in record numbers, but they also depicted similar subjects, earned similar pay, and garnered similarly mixed critical reception as their male peers. In the process, they used art to partake in overlapping debates about citizenship, family, and empire that were transforming their societies.

According to a long-accepted narrative in art history, reflected to varying degrees by Pagès in 1862 and Linda Nochlin in 1971, women in western Europe could not widely take up painting as an occupation until they were accepted to official art schools in the late nineteenth century.[6] A Revolution on Canvas convincingly challenges that assumption. Already a century earlier, hundreds of women artists were working in Europe’s two largest urban centers. Far from exceptional or isolated, these artists were savvy, well-integrated professionals who successfully navigated the prejudices against their sex and the volatile political and economic demands of visual culture in their time. To make that argument, Spies-Gans mines a diverse data set of artworks, exhibition pamphlets and reviews, letters, journals, administrative records, visual satire, among other published and unpublished sources documenting women’s unprecedented artistic activity during the revolutionary era.

Chronologically, Spies-Gans’s study encompasses London’s first public show in 1760 until around 1830 when, as Pagès rightly, though incompletely, observed, women artists began exhibiting less frequently in both nations. Chapter 1 introduces the book’s empirical methods and provides concise histories of the institutional settings in Paris and London where women displayed their art. The following four chapters consider three consecutive strategies by which they professionalized, charting trends in their educational backgrounds (chapter 2), the subjects they chose to exhibit (chapters 3 and 4), and their cultivation of commercial networks, particularly through print (chapter 5). 

A Revolution on Canvas marks one of the latest contributions to a recent trend of data-driven scholarship in feminist art history.[7] Notably, in 2016 French sociologist Séverine Sofio published an important study that treats women artists as a newly pervasive phenomenon in Paris circa 1750–1850.[8] Building on this and the earlier work of art historian Margaret Oppenheimer, Spies-Gans performs a Bourdieusian analysis of exhibition catalogs and criticism to assert a parity between male and female painters in the increasingly competitive field of artistic production staged by the Louvre Salon, especially after its opening to all artists in 1791. Moreover, as a comparative history, A Revolution on Canvas also studies contemporary women artists’ growing visibility in the British capital, principally at the Royal Academy’s annual show.

This dual focus yields new insight into how women joined in national efforts to forge a British school of art distinct from older academies on the Continent, and their participation in the commercial transition from Paris to London as the center of the European art market in the 1790s.[9] Spies-Gans carefully defines the pedagogical programs, aesthetic traditions, and political events that, among other factors, uniquely conditioned artmaking in each nation. These factors notwithstanding, she detects that female painters were markedly active in both cultural hubs during the same decades. This international scope strengthens her contention that even if the global wave of revolutions did not improve women’s sociopolitical status, it did present new opportunities for them to make and show their art as forms of political expression.

Professional artmaking was not synonymous with institutional artmaking. Outside of academies, women artists found effective ways to acquire both the technical proficiency and social know-how required to vie in an increasingly saturated market. Chapter 2 explores how women o­­btained that interrelated skillset by embracing their artistic lineages. Whereas in France painters trained in an extrafamilial studio system, in Britain it was more common to receive home-based, though still professionally oriented, instruction. In both contexts, artists of either sex benefitted from family connections that facilitated their entrance into top studios, sponsored their study in museums and galleries abroad, and/or secured their private lessons with influential figures in the business. Returning to women artists’ networks and patronage, chapter 5 adds to the rich and recent historiography on that topic by providing new insight into how women secured commissions by appealing directly to arts administrators and capitalized on print-based strategies of self-promotion.[10]

When it came time to exhibit, artists knew that the selection and placement of their works by hanging committees, a key factor in their professional success, depended not only on their reputation as a student of someone more established, but, relatedly, on what they painted and submitted for display. In A Revolution on Canvas, Spies-Gans makes two valuable interventions into the gender/genre discourse integral to feminist art history’s response to the canonical view that history painting, and to a lesser degree portraiture, was the elevated and intellectual domain of men, whereas the lowest genres of still-life and flower painting were expressly feminine, imitative arts. On the contrary, Spies-Gans presents ample new evidence that, by the 1810s, women were regularly drawing the nude figure and exhibiting their history paintings that grew out of that exercise. She also emphasizes that the sexist rhetoric against female history painters in the press and strict theoretical hierarchies often did not reflect the realities of art making and selling during the revolutionary era. Chapters 3 and 4 historicize how exhibiting artists adapted their subjects and styles to maximize commercial profit, professed their political and national allegiances, and experimented with genre hybridity. Portraiture proved most flexible to these shifting concerns, especially in Britain, where a budding celebrity culture and Joshua Reynolds’s valorization of a “grand style” of portraiture (114–115) led painters to integrate elements from national history and literature into their portrayals of famous, contemporary sitters.

The French side of this discussion could have been expanded in the book. A revolution, though effective, was not necessary to destabilize the academic hierarchy of genres. One could argue that this hierarchy was vulnerable from the beginning. Spies-Gans rightfully originates the ranking of pictorial categories to Andre Félibien and his influential preface to the earliest conférences of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture (173). However, she appears to assume a direct dialogue between history painting in 1669, when those lectures were published, and Davidian neoclassicism, where she situates female history painters in the revolutionary era. Much had happened to French history painting in the intervening century. Already in the later volumes of his Entretiens (1666–88), held as the founding text of French art history, Félibien expresses anxiety about Nicolas Poussin’s average-sized cabinet paintings. Moving closer to Spies-Gans’s period, one thinks of Antoine Watteau’s fêtes galantes, Jean-Marc Nattier’s mythologized portraits, or artists like Jean-Baptiste Greuze, who tried to ennoble contemporary scenes of family life with the dignity of classical history painting, much to Denis Diderot’s chagrin.[11] How did these previous subversions of genre inform the production and reception of women artists in the revolutionary era, when “portraiture and narrative scenes of a wider range gained prominence” (173)?

A Revolution on Canvas executes its own feat of genre-bending. Spies-Gans admirably converges critical methods from cultural sociology and gender studies with more familiar features of historical and art historical research. Bountifully illustrated, with most captions including the original exhibition year and number, her book recalls a catalogue raisonné in its resourcefulness for readers wishing to pursue further study. (Although a list of illustrations somewhere with the front matter would have eased the book’s viewing experience.) The author mentions that this visuality of abundance was “a conscious and core part of [her] argument” (305). Indeed, the sheer amount and variety of art reproduced in this volume makes a firm statement about women artists’ deep engagements with all media and genres. Furthermore, the author’s stirring juxtapositions of certain images (e.g., Mary Moser’s Standing Female Nude opposite Johan Joseph Zoffany’s The Academicians of the Royal Academy [20–21]) and attentive visual analyses throughout will resonate with those art historians wary of integrating numerical methods lest they sacrifice close, qualitative looking at art objects.

To similar success, Spies-Gans fluidly oscillates between micro- and macro-historical perspectives, narrating individual women’s experiences and contextualizing them within broader historical patterns. This approach affords her an expansive, yet still concrete, view of women’s artistic trajectories that normalizes—and humanizes—their successes and failures to gain clients and attention in the press, and to strike that ever-elusive work-life balance. If the book’s loosely biographic structure recalls the Vasarian tradition of life writing, Spies-Gans certainly does not reduce her subjects to their biographies or to anonymous data points. Nor does she mythologize them as more heroes for art history. Instead, she shows how quantitative tactics can help to root out gendered notions about genius and amateurism implanted within modern historiography and addressed in the book’s conclusion and coda. Granted, such tactics are not objective or necessarily progressive, as the 1862 report makes clear. However, when mindfully deployed, they enact the kind of reconciliation that art historians, including the late Mary Sheriff, have encouraged between recovery and restructuring approaches to the canon, which have divided feminist scholars in various disciplines since the 1970s.[12]

Neither a conclusive History nor a dismal tale of exclusion, A Revolution on Canvas is an enticement to explore all the art that women did create with the particular and complex situations in which they found themselves during the revolutionary era. These situations were never determined only by the sex, but also by unique mixtures of the age, race, religion, nationality, class, medium, and political leaning of each artist involved. Spies-Gans invites us to investigate the contributions of these countless new protagonists. Thus, she reveals just how much work we must still do to fully understand how and why women became artists, and the aesthetic, economic, and political values of their art. 

Yasemin Altun is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art History at Duke University, Durham, NC

[1] “Aimer le progrès, c’est aimer les femmes…” Alphonse Pagès, “Les Femmes peintres: Renseignements et enseignements curieux donnés par la statistique sur les variations du nombre des femmes peintres,” Revue artistique et littéraire 3, no. 3 (1862): 16.
Translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

[2] Pagès, “Les Femmes peintres,” 17. Curiously, this comes right after Pagès had acknowledged on the previous page that three women exhibited at the Salon of 1673.

[3] The École des Beaux-Arts, France’s state-sponsored school of fine arts since 1819, descends from the ancien régime’s Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, and from subsequent, short-lived institutions following the abolishment of the Académie royale in 1793.

[4] From 1868–1872, Pagès spearheaded the publication of a liberal arts curriculum for girls titled L’Écho de la Sorbonne.

[5] “Mais vous aiderez ma faible voix à réclamer contre une telle injustice qui ne ne [sic] peut provenir que d’un oubli.” Pagès, “Les Femmes peintres,” 18.

[6] Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” ARTnews 69, no. 9 (1971): 22–39, 67–71.

[7] Including Babette Bohn, Women Artists, Their Patrons, and Their Publics in Early Modern Bologna (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2021); Diana Greenwald, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Artistic Labor and Time-Constraint in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Painting by Numbers: Data-Driven Histories of Nineteenth-Century Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021), 85–114.

[8] Séverine Sofio, Artistes femmes: La parenthèse enchantée, XVIIIe – XIXe siècles (Paris: CNRS, 2016).

[9] Susanna Avery-Quash and Christian Huemer, London and the Emergence of a European Art Market, 1780–1820 (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2019).

[10] For example, see Jennifer G. Germann, “Tracing Marie-Éléonore Godefroid: Women’s Artistic Networks in Early Nineteenth-Century Paris,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 41 (2012): 55–84; Art and the Politics of Identity in Eighteenth-Century Europe, ed. Melissa Hyde and Jennifer Milam (Burlington: Ashgate, 2003); Women and Art in Early Modern Europe: Patrons, Collectors, and Connoisseurs, ed. Cynthia Lawrence (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1997).

[11] Mark Ledbury, Sedaine, Greuze and the Boundaries of Genre (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2000); Emmanuel Faure-Carricaburu, “The Fantasy Figures of Jean-Baptiste Santerre and the Limits of Generic Frameworks of Interpretation,” in ‘Fancy’ in Eighteenth-Century European Visual Culture, ed. Melissa Percival and Muriel Adrien (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press on Behalf of the Voltaire Foundation, 2020), 15–28. Thank you to Susanna Caviglia for the latter reference, and for the example of Nattier.

[12] Mary Sheriff, trans. Françoise Jaouën, “Pour l’histoire des femmes artistes: historiographie, politique et théorie,” Perspective 1 (2017): 91–112, https://doi.org/10.4000/perspective.7155; Sheriff, “Seeing Beyond the Norm: Interpreting Gender in the Visual Arts,” in The Question of Gender: Joan W. Scott’s Critical Feminism, ed. Judith Butler and Elizabeth Weed (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 161–86.

Cite this note as: Yasemin Altun, “A Revolution on Canvas: A Review,” Journal18 (May 2023), https://www.journal18.org/6852.

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