When speaking of female artists, it is customary to refer to Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking 1971 essay, Why were there no great female artists? As Paris Spies-Gans, independent researcher and author of this new book, rightly says, it was a call to arms to make them visible. But that was over 50 years ago. One may wonder now, what has changed since then? In recent years, the answer is a lot.
All over the world there has been a mini-flood of monographs and exhibitions on historical women artists, and their work has suddenly become a profitable commodity in the art market. How to evaluate their career remains a question, however. What was their place and contribution to the art worlds they inhabited? From what we know of them, what is the inherited stereotypes on the one hand or the over-greedy feminist reading on the other? And to what extent is the current vogue for their work just about diversity rather than genuine recognition?
This book aims to situate women artists working in Britain and France between 1760 and 1830—the “era of revolutions”—in the art history narratives of the time. The task, according to Spies-Gans, requires more intellectual rigor than simply improving knowledge of their existence; and in an ideal world, this should go beyond treating their careers as separate, simply because of their gender. A detailed analysis of the archives of public exhibitions in London and Paris, mainly 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 is a powerful way to convey that the handful of eminent names that enter standard art histories, such as Angelica Kauffman and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, are not exceptions in a male-dominated world, but do part of a much larger world. and neglected history. Women, it is shown, were a constant presence in public displays throughout the period. Over 800 individual female artists have exhibited in London and at least 400 in Paris. It’s an amazing statistic. It shatters clichéd but hard-to-change notions that female artists are few in number, pursuing careers that blur the lines between professional and amateur.
In fact, Spies-Gans credits this period as one that saw the professional female artist’s first collective ascent. Women used public exhibitions to promote themselves and seize opportunities. How they formed, what they chose to exhibit, their networks and business acumen, and the strategies they devised to overcome obstacles because of their gender, are examined in six chapters. Preconceived ideas are regularly challenged.
For example, rather than “still life” and “flowers” (the lower genres), most women exhibited portraits. Maria Cosway’s striking image of the Duchess of Devonshire as the moon goddess Cynthia (1781-1782) shows the guardian shrouded in ethereal clouds in a clever mix of ‘celebrity’, history and literary narrative . French academician (one of only four women) Adélaïde Labille-Guiard depicts herself at her easel with two attentive students behind her. It is one of many self-portraits or images of other female artists reproduced in the book that proudly show women creating. And it is one of many painted on a large scale, demonstrating ambition and painterly skill.
Another prejudice is the idea that women (in the broad sense) did not practice history painting because they did not have access to essential courses in drawing from a live model, or, conveyed at the time, for lack of ability ” of invention”, is successfully criticized here. . Angélique Mongez, a pupil of Jacques-Louis David, was one of many French women to exhibit large, complex classical narratives that incorporated nude figures while emphasizing female protagonists. Against this background, Kauffman’s decision to portray “Design” – one of four allegorical paintings for the ceiling of the Royal Academy – as a woman rather than a man suddenly takes on more weight.
In support of its central and forceful point of not classifying women along conventional lines, A revolution on canvas is illustrated mainly with portraits and historical works: those of Marie-Victoire Lemoine, Marie-Nicole Dumont (showing herself juggling between painting and motherhood), Marie-Geneviève Bouliar and Marie-Denise Villers, or even Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Adèle Romany and Constance Mayer, may be a revelation for most readers. And yet, while applauding this desire to avoid stereotyping, perhaps the focus on history and portrait painting, despite data showing that they were the two most exposed genres (storytelling Paris was the second after the portrait), meant a drift from complete truth. Because the reality is that women did paint still lifes, flowers and portrait miniatures. This is what artists like Anne Vallayer-Coster have done brilliantly. And where is the landscape? The second most exposed genre in London, we learn, but not at all discussed by Spies-Gans.
Setting the context for women’s growing ambition to pursue creative and public careers was the era itself – the revolutionary turmoil that sparked debates about democracy and citizenship, which in turn shone a light on rights women. It was the time of the philosophical writings of Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft. Spies-Gans acknowledges the paradox of tracing women’s growing creative freedom to a time when political democracy did not extend to them. Another inevitable contradiction – in a book devoted to women artists – is the author’s call for integrating their stories into larger art historical narratives, rather than continuing to treat them separately. This is surely 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? Still, when we talk about female artists, the question “Were they good?” still hovering. Genre-focused books are arguably still needed. By making the case convincingly and pushing the agenda forward, A revolution on canvas is an important contribution in the field.
Paris Spies-Gans, A Revolution on Canvas: The Rise of Women Artists in Britain and France 1760-1830, Paul Mellon Centre/Yale, 384pp, 157 color and b/w illustrations, £45/$55 (hb), published June 28 (UK) and July 5 (US)
• Tabitha Barber is the Curator of British Art 1500-1750 at the Tate and was the Principal Curator and catalog editor/contributor to British Baroque: power and illusion (Tate, 2020). She is currently preparing an exhibition on historical women artists which will be presented at Tate Britain in 2024