Peintres Femmes: A Review — by Paris A. Spies-Gans


Exhibition: Peintres Femmes: 1780-1830, Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, 19 May – 25 July 2021.


In the first room of the Musée du Luxembourg’s unprecedented exhibition on women artists from the Revolutionary era, Women Painters, 1780-1830: The Birth of a Combat, four lines from the French writer Constance de Salm’s Épître aux femmes (Epistle to Women, 1797) shine from the wall:

It is time for peace to be offered to our hearts:
The career of learning, of the arts, is open;
Let us dare enter it. Ah! Who could steal
The right to know them from those who can feel?[1]

De Salm was not, however, advocating a new path for women in learning or the arts: she was observing a shift that was well underway. From the mid-eighteenth century, and with extraordinary speed from 1791—when the prestigious Louvre Salon opened its doors to all artists, in the democratic spirit of the French Revolution—women had been entering Paris’s extremely hierarchical artistic sphere in unparalleled numbers.[2] Through (and past) the early decades of the nineteenth century, hundreds of women would forge widely recognized careers as high-earning painters of portraits, fine porcelain, and narrative scenes—even large-scale historical works—in France’s most venerated cultural spaces.

The Luxembourg show aimed to bring these long unsung accomplishments to light. If the goal was to impress and apprise, it certainly succeeded—it would take a rare visitor to leave the exhibition’s four rooms, full of radiant and towering works, without a conviction of these women’s remarkable, and remarkably neglected, skill. But by brushing over the singularity and depth of these artists’ lives, it also missed an opportunity to anchor their oeuvres in broader art historical narratives and embed their work into contemporary conversations and debates.

Women artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the “Age of Revolutions”—have only occasionally featured in the long, uneven history of women-focused shows. In 1976, Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris broke new ground with Women Artists, 1550-1950, an exhibition that highlighted the work of eighty-three women from twelve European and North as well as South American countries; it traveled from Los Angeles to Austin, Pittsburgh, and then New York, electrifying a generation of scholars along the way. In the slow but steady string of successors to Nochlin and Harris’s exhibition, women from early modern Italy and twentieth-century America have received the most attention. Paris’ Musée Cognacq-Jay held a show on Marguérite Gérard in 2009, but only in 2012 were French women artists united en masse in Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections, an exhibition held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.[3] Then, in 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held its first monographic show on a woman artist, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, which traveled to Ottawa and, finally, Paris. In the last three years, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, so many museums have hosted shows underscoring the activity of female painters that some writers have begun to question the value of women-only and one-woman shows. Among other critiques, one author recently argued that the separation of women practitioners from the implied male norm is “self-defeating in furthering a feminist art historical discourse.”[4]

One could say that with Peintres Femmes, an entire collective of French women finally managed to come home. Sixty-five works by thirty-nine women and six men graced the walls, including one piece by the contemporary media artist Sabine Meier. This was the first time that the “swarms” of women—in one nineteenth-century critic’s words—who exhibited at the Salon from 1791 through 1830 have been recognized both for their own practices and as a group in the city in which they built their professional artistic careers.[5] Although they were not allowed to enter the Academy’s schools, most of the women featured studied with the leading artists of their time—a cast of characters that included the Academicians Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Vigée Le Brun (who notoriously disliked teaching), Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Baptiste Regnault, and François Gérard. All except David are represented in the show.

In many ways, the Luxembourg was an apt venue for this triumphant return. It has no permanent collection of its own and is managed by France’s Réunion des Musées Nationaux. The curators, Martine Lacas and Séverine Sofio—who have long devoted their careers to uncovering female artists’ stories—divided the exhibition into four roughly thematic rooms, celebrating (1) artistic identity, (2) education, (3) the production of narrative works, and (4) a disparate medley of oil self-portraits and paintings on porcelain. Notably, not a single still life appeared on display—a refreshing break from a tired stereotype associating women predominantly with the “minor” Academic genres of flower and fruit paintings. Lacas and Sofio also capitalized on a key aspect of the RMN affiliation: unmatched access to France’s national collection. The majority of the paintings in the show hailed from French museums, many of which have collected works by women since the nineteenth century (even while rarely placing them on view). This begs a key question that the exhibition never really addressed: why haven’t they been better known before now?

Fig. 1. Aimée Brune, A Young Girl on her Knees, 1839. Oil on canvas, 116 x 89 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans. Image in the public domain. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

This relegation is especially baffling after one has seen the Luxembourg show, in which painting after painting, quite simply, astounded. Aimée Brune’s ethereal Une jeune fille à genoux (1839, purchased by the Orléans Musée des Beaux-Arts the year it was painted) radiated from the walls, with its subtle play of color and light, the contrast of taupe and mauve (Fig. 1). So did Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont’s Vue du Forum le matin (gifted to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours by the artist in 1865), which captures a softly sunlit Roman morning and a small figure of a seated man sketching, dwarfed by the crumbling ancient structures. Brune exhibited at the Salon for thirty years (from 1822 to 1853), Sarazin de Belmont for more than fifty (from 1812 through 1868). The latter was supported in her art by two prominent female patrons: the Empress Josephine and, later, the Duchesse de Berry.

Fig. 2. Exhibition view of Césarine Davin-Mirvault, The Death of Malek-Adhel, n.d. [exhibited at the 1814 Salon]. Oil on canvas, 200 x 270 cm. Musée d’Aurillac, Aurillac. Photograph taken by author.

Other canvases forcefully upended deeply entrenched, gendered narratives. An influential argument has long maintained that women were unable to become history painters—the most prestigious artistic genre—until they were allowed to attend life drawing classes in the late nineteenth century. Specialists have, however, known for some time that several women did manage to study from the nude and paint these most celebrated scenes.[6] Sofio and Lacas dealt a particularly powerful blow to this fiction by including two historical works (one literary, one classical) that took up entire walls. Césarine Davin-Mirvault’s The Death of Malek-Adhel (exhibited at the Louvre Salon of 1814; Musée d’Aurillac), based on a scene from Sophie Cottin’s Mathilde (1805), measures 6.5 by nearly 9 feet (Fig. 2). By executing and exhibiting a canvas of this large size, with life-size figures, Davin-Mirvault ensured that her painting would fall within the uppermost genre of Academic art. Moreover, her racialized and arguably feminized portrayal of the character of Malek Adhel reveals another little-known history: one of white women participating in the practice, prevalent in the Napoleonic era, of painting (and exhibiting) racialized, gendered portrayals of North African and Middle Eastern figures. 

Fig. 3. Exhibition view of Angélique Mongez, Mars and Venus, 1841. Oil on canvas, 246 x 299 cm, Musée des Beaux Arts, Angers. Photograph taken by author.

Angélique Mongez’s Mars and Venus (Musée des Beaux Arts d’Angers) loomed even larger. Measuring 8 by 9.8 feet, it constituted the gravitational center of the show’s third room (Fig. 3). This canvas, painted in 1841, is a replica of a work Mongez exhibited at the Louvre Salon of 1814 and sold even before the show had opened to Giovanni Battista Sommariva, one of the leading art collectors of the era. Mongez was a student of David and Regnault, and regularly exhibited massive classical canvases depicting life-size nude figures. Here, Mars appears clothed, but Venus does not: the sheer, partial covering and the turn of the goddess’ torso stress Mongez’s knowledge of the female form (and perhaps her patron’s desire to see such a form on display), while the placement of the cherub’s sheath jests at notions of propriety. Mongez seems to have anticipated the growing trend in French Academic painting towards the representation of female nudes.

Unfortunately, it was exactly at these (literally) show-stopping works that the exhibition came up short. For far too often, these pieces were left to speak for themselves, as evidence that women were, indeed, able and successful painters. This was not accidental. In the exhibition’s introductory text panel, Sofio and Lacas explained that women artists who were active from 1750-1830 have been hidden by art history’s dominant narratives. The show, they wrote, aimed to make these painters (or rather, their work) visible, while escaping three tired tropes that have often separated the study of women artists from the history of art more generally—ideas of a feminine aesthetic, greatness, and exceptionality.

I empathize enormously with this goal. But one has to ask: making these artists visible to what ends?

Many of the Luxembourg artists’ outlines remained quite—unnecessarily—hazy. One curatorial coup, for instance, was Rosalie Filleul de Besnes’ Self-Portrait from 1775, held in a private collection. Filleul was a childhood friend of Vigée Le Brun; the two pursued art lessons together, sometimes in male painters’ Louvre studios, and both exhibited at the final show of the Académie de Saint-Luc, the Parisian artists’ guild, in 1774. In 1778 or 1779, Filleul painted a famed portrait of Benjamin Franklin (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art); it appeared at the Louvre Salon in 1779 as an engraving by Louis-Jacques Cathelin. Yet in contrast to her peers, the Revolution did not open new pathways for Filleul. She was a royalist, and died on the guillotine in 1794. We learn none of this in the exhibition. Rather, the label only quotes a passage from Vigée Le Brun’s Souvenirs.[7]

Fig. 4. Marie-Nicole Dumont, The Author at Her Occupations, n.d. [exhibited at the 1793 Salon]. Oil on canvas, 54 x 44 cm. Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille. Inv. MRF 2017-5. Image in the public domain. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

This is not solely a matter of lost historical context. Shying away from these women’s specific experiences and group actions omits major aspects of their participation in their cultural and political worlds—contributions that could be thoughtful, purposeful, and full of meaning. For instance, in Marie-Nicole Dumont’s The Author at her Occupations (n.d., Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille) the artist shows herself juggling two tasks: painting a life-size portrait and caring for her infant son (Fig. 4). The surfaces are shiny and the patterned carpet gleams in this visualization of a quandary so familiar to parents today. Beyond the remarkable content of the piece, Dumont was one of eleven wives, daughters, and relatives of artists—many of them artists themselves—who went to Versailles in 1789 for a highly publicized donation of their jewels to the National Assembly. She actively engaged in early Revolutionary events and surely incorporated its notoriously evolving gender roles in her work. In fact, she exhibited this canvas at the Louvre Salon of 1793—her own exhibition debut—two years after women had been categorized as “passive” citizens, and a moment of heated renegotiation of women’s civic and domestic roles. Yet the label for Dumont’s work had no descriptive text at all. Markedly, visitors learned more about the painter Henriette Lorimier’s partner François Pouqueville—shown in the third room in a portrait by Lorimier—than they did about the lives of any of the women artists in the show.

If more space had been given to historical context or visual guidance, viewers could have left with a much clearer understanding of why the exhibition featured these women. This, in turn, could have benefitted impassioned field-wide conversations about the woman-focused show. In 1976, Nochlin and Harris’ Women Artists was pioneering and eye-opening, a foundation and a spark for future feminist work; in 2021, do similar shows run the risk of undermining a feminist agenda? Do exhibitions about women artists automatically tell separate stories, or can they make a case to include women in broader narratives? Are separate stories to be necessarily avoided, and would any efforts at integration nevertheless reinforce a male norm? Most urgent of all, given the gender wars raging today, can an exhibition or academic study unreflexively use “woman” as a conceptual framework without implicitly advocating gender binaries? The conceptualization of gender that framed the Luxembourg show did not expressly uphold these binaries as such—the curators’ use of “male” and “female” was presumably based on the ways these particular artists publicly identified in their own lifetimes. However, the curators did not acknowledge or discuss their use of this implied binary, either. This is a shame, because their conceptualization of “woman” could have been productively and directly complicated with references to several of their subjects’ well-known peers and successors: the British sculptor Anne Damer, for example, who worked across the Channel but visited Paris, or the French painter Rosa Bonheur, who would become a Parisian celebrity later in the century. The current, heated debates around gender, often associated in the U.S. and U.K. with TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) discourse but increasingly prevalent in related forms throughout Europe, are too virulent, too pressing at the moment to have been fully sidestepped.

The women in Peintres Femmes traversed innumerable sociopolitical and institutional hurdles to have their art put on display; I would have liked to know what Lacas and Sofio thought the canvases by Mongez, Dumont, Sarazin de Belmont, Brune, and their peers might be able to contribute to these ongoing disputes. A reflection on the exhibition’s own conceptualization of gender could have sent a meaningful signal to viewers and provided a valuable reflection on the past.

Illuminating the unseen is unquestionably a vital step in the imperative work of rewriting historical narratives in a way that incorporates the experiences of historically marginalized groups—efforts that are, needless to say, long overdue. But members of these groups also deserve to be studied with the same intellectual rigor as those who have been traditionally celebrated. The stunning and monumental canvases in the Luxembourg’s important exhibition provided ample grounds for deep and expansive consideration of these painters as the influential and historically complex players they often were; I, for one, left both dazzled and craving more.

Paris A. Spies-Gans is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, Cambridge, MA


[1] My translation, from: “Il est temps que la paix à nos cœurs soit offerte:
de l’étude, des arts, la carrière est ouverte;
osons y pénétrer. Eh! Qui pourrait ravir
le droit de les connaître à qui peut les sentir?”

Like many of the women whose paintings appeared in the following four rooms, de Salm’s life was transformed by the French Revolution; after 1789, she began publishing in periodicals, obtained a divorce, remarried, and penned further plays, poems, and ballads.

[2] In 1791, France’s new National Assembly declared the Louvre Salon, formerly restricted to Academicians and thus (since 1770) to a maximum of four women, open to all artists, regardless of their sex or Academic status.

[3] It featured 77 painting, prints, and sculptures by 35 women artists who worked from 1750 to 1850. This is not a complete list of all shows.

[4] Sofia Cotrona, “We Don’t Need More Temporary Exhibitions of All Women Artists,” Hyperallergic (June 10, 2021), https://hyperallergic.com/652334/we-dont-need-more-temporary-exhibitions-of-all-women-artists/; see also Camille Nouhant, “In defense of monographic exhibitions of female artists: The case of Fede Galizia,” Art Herstory (July 16, 2021), https://artherstory.net/fede-galizia-at-castello-del-buonsiglio/; and, directly responding to the Luxembourg show, Eva Belgherbi, “‘Peintres femmes, naissance d’un combat (1780-1830) – quand les oeuvres ne suffisent plus,” un carnet genre et histoire de l’art (May 9, 2021), https://ghda.hypotheses.org/1580 (all accessed September 10, 2021).

[5] Charles-Paul Landon, Nouvelles des Arts, Peinture, Sculpture, Architecture et Gravure, TomeI (Paris: Landon, An X-1801), 80.

[6] See, for instance, Vivian P. Cameron, “Woman as Image and Image-maker in Paris during the French Revolution” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, New Haven, Conn., 1983); Margaret Fields Denton, “A Woman’s Place: The Gendering of Genres in Post-Revolutionary French Painting,” Art History 21:2 (June 1998), 219–246; Mary Vidal, “The ‘Other Atelier’: Jacques-Louis David’s Female Students,” in Melissa Hyde and Jennifer Milam, eds., Women, Art and the Politics of Identity in Eighteenth-century Europe (Aldershot and Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003), 237–256; Angela Rosenthal, Angelica Kauffman: Art and Sensibility (New Haven and London: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2006); and France Nerlich and Alain Bonnet, eds., Apprendre à peindre: Les Ateliers privés à Paris 1780–1863 (Tours: Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2013), especially the essays by Séverine Sofio and Nina Struckmeyer.

[7] This brief quotation described Filleul’s young talent, supposed abandonment of painting upon her marriage, and death on the scaffold.


Cite this note as:  Paris A. Spies-Gans, “Peintres Femmes: A Review,” Journal18 (October 2021), https://www.journal18.org/5872.

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