When it comes to female artists, it is normal to refer to Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay from 1971, Why weren’t there great women artists? As Paris Spies-Gans, independent scholar and author of this new book rightly puts it, it was a call to arms to make them visible. But that was over 50 years ago. You may be wondering now, what has changed since then? In recent years, the answer has been great.
Around the world there has been a mini-deluge of monographs and exhibitions on historical female artists, and their work has suddenly become a profitable commodity for the art market. How to evaluate their careers remains a question, however. What was their place and their contribution to the worlds of art in which they lived? Of what we know about them, what is inherited from stereotypes on the one hand or overly anxious feminist reading on the other? And to what extent is the current fashion for their work simply a ticking of diversity rather than real recognition?
This book aims to place the artists who worked in Great Britain and France between 1760 and 1830 – “the age of revolutions” – firmly within the historical-artistic narratives of the period. The task, argues Spies-Gans, requires more intellectual rigor than simply improving the knowledge of their existence; and in an ideal world it would have to go beyond treating their careers as separate, simply because of their gender. A detailed analysis of the registers of public exhibitions in London and Paris, in particular at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Académie Royale respectively, is at the heart of this investigation.
Unusually for an art history book, the data is presented in the form of tables and graphs. It’s an effective way to insist that the handful of prominent names that have entered standard art history, such as Angelica Kauffman and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, are no exceptions in a world dominated by men, but part of a very world. wider and neglected history. Women, it is shown, were a constant presence in public exhibitions throughout the period. More than 800 individual artists have exhibited in London and at least 400 in Paris. This is a surprising statistic. It blows up cliched but hard-to-shift notions about female artists like few in number, pursuing careers that blurred the boundaries between professional and amateur.
Indeed, Spies-Gans sees this period as the one that saw the first collective rise of the female professional artist. Women used public displays for exposure and opportunity. How they formed, what they chose to exhibit, their networks and business acumen, and the strategies they devised to overcome obstacles due to their gender, are examined in six chapters. Preconceptions are regularly challenged.
For example, rather than “still life” and “flowers” (the minor genres), most women exhibited portraits. Maria Cosway’s striking image of the Duchess of Devonshire as the moon goddess Cynthia (1781-82) shows the model shrouded in ethereal clouds in a skilful blend of ‘celebrity’, history and literary fiction. The French academician (one of only four women) Adélaïde Labille-Guiard is pictured at her easel with two attentive students behind her. It is one of the many self-portraits, or images of fellow artists reproduced in the book that show proud women in the act of creation. And it is one of many large-scale paintings, demonstrating ambition and pictorial skill.
Another preconception, the idea that (in a broad sense) women did not practice historical painting because they did not have access to essential life drawing lessons, or, implemented at the time, because they lacked the ability to “invent”, it is successfully criticized here. Angélique Mongez, a pupil of Jacques-Louis David, was one of many French women to exhibit broad and complex classical narratives that incorporated nude figures with an emphasis on female protagonists. In this context, Kauffman’s decision to represent “Design” – one of four allegorical ceiling paintings at the Royal Academy – as a woman rather than a boy suddenly takes on more weight.
In support of its central and strong point of not pigeonholing women along conventional lines, A revolution on canvas is illustrated mainly with portraits and historical works: those of Marie-Victoire Lemoine, Marie-Nicole Dumont (who shows herself juggling painting and motherhood), Marie-Geneviève Bouliar and Marie-Denise Villers, or Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Adèle Romany and Constance Mayer, it can be a revelation to most readers. Yet, while applauding this desire to avoid stereotypes, perhaps the emphasis on history and portraiture, despite the data showing that they were the two most exposed genres (fiction in Paris was second to portraiture), meant a drift from the truth. complete. Because the reality is that women done paint still lifes, flowers and miniature portraits. It was what artists like Anne Vallayer-Coster did brilliantly. And where is the landscape? The second most exposed genre in London, we learn, but not discussed at all by Spies-Gans.
The era itself created the context for women’s growing ambition to pursue creative and public careers: the revolutionary turmoil that prompted debates on democracy and citizenship, which in turn shed light on women’s rights. It was the time of the philosophical writings of Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft. Spies-Gans recognizes the paradox in charting the growing creative freedom of women at a time when political democracy did not extend to them. Another inevitable contradiction – in a book dedicated to female artists – is the author’s invitation to incorporate her own stories into larger historical-artistic narratives, rather than continuing to treat them separately. This, of course, is the ultimate goal.
But how many of the artists discussed in this book are truly recognizable names, and how many of the 1,200 named exhibitors are represented in public collections? It is still true that when artists are mentioned, the question “Were they good?” still hovers. Genre-focused books are probably still needed. By making his points convincingly and pushing the agenda forward, A revolution on canvas is an important contribution to the field.
Spies-Gans of Paris, A Revolution on Canvas: The Rise of Women Artists in Great Britain and France 1760-1830, Paul Mellon Center / Yale, 384pp, 157 color and b / w illustrations, £ 45 / $ 55 (HB), released 28 June (UK) and 5 July (US)
• Tabita Barber is the curator of British Art 1500-1750 at Tate and was the principal curator and editor / contributor of the catalog of British Baroque: Power and Illusion (Tate, 2020). She is currently preparing an exhibition on historical artists which will be staged at Tate Britain in 2024