A Revolution on Canvas: The Rise of Women Artists in Britain and France, 1760-1830 
by Paris Spies-Gans.
Paul Mellon Centre, 384 pp., £45, June 2022, 978 1 913107 29 1
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At the Paris Salon​ of 1822, the young French artist Adrienne-Marie-Louise Grandpierre-Deverzy exhibited The Studio of Abel de Pujol, a painting of her teacher’s workshop. More than a dozen female trainees are shown going about their business. A little group looks over de Pujol’s shoulder as he critiques a sketch; others make copies from paintings selected for their improving moral content; in the background, two women are sketching from a ringleted, clothed female model, concentrating on getting the folds of the drapery right. Others aren’t working, or are only pretending to. Two students gossip on the left of the picture, one playing with her fan; behind de Pujol’s back, another draws back a curtain to peer out at the street. The kind of sight the students might be distracted by is suggested in the line-up of plaster male heads and figures on a high shelf. The buttocks and thighs of a muscular plaster torso, its front primly turned to face the wall, loom over the women below.

By the 1820s, ateliers specialising in female tutelage were a fixture of the Paris art world. At least thirty female artists made their debut at the Louvre’s Salon between 1822 and 1827; in 1824, 101 female exhibitors showed a record 237 works. In London the same year, at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition, submissions by women accounted for more than 10 per cent of all the works on display. (As Paris Spies-Gans notes at the beginning of her book, works by female artists comprise less than 5 per cent of the pieces on display in European and American galleries today.) Such unprecedented levels of activity and visibility, in the decade after the Napoleonic Wars, marked the culmination of a period of transformative opportunity for British and French women, who entered the public sphere as professionals – not only creating works, but submitting them for display, appraisal and purchase.

In both countries, female artists exhibited as soon as there were venues available for them to do so. For much of the 18th century, these were limited in number, comprising a handful of small, short-lived institutions. London’s first commercial showcase of contemporary art, organised in 1760 by a group calling itself the Present Artists, included work by Katharine Read and the future Academician Mary Moser; exhibitions held subsequently by two rival associations, the Free Society of Artists and the Society of Artists of Great Britain, displayed larger numbers of women. (Both groups allowed submissions in non-traditional media: needle-paintings, shellworks, waxworks and something called ‘Sea-Weed, a new Invention’.) Competition, in an art world finding its feet, was a shaping force. From 1804, female watercolourists could submit to the Society of Painters in Watercolours; those who felt excluded from its ranks flocked to the alternative Associated Artists in Watercolours, until it went bankrupt in 1812. In Ancien Régime Paris, small, insecure venues offered the majority of women artists their best hope of forging a public presence. A number exhibited at the al fresco Exposition de la Jeunesse, which was held annually in the Place Dauphine, and considered disreputable because it involved women mixing outside in a public space (‘it is murderous to encourage them like this,’ one journalist wrote). Others opted to submit to the Salon de la Correspondance, a private weekly showcase run by Mammès-Claude Pahin de la Blancherie, a self-aggrandising businessman who had a ‘tense’ relationship with the official arts administration. Showing under Pahin’s aegis guaranteed exposure but meant running the risk of having your paintings seized by his hungry creditors.

‘Adélaïde Lenoir’ (c.1796) by Marie-Geneviève Bouliard.

The rise of the Royal Academy and its French counterpart, the Académie Royale, two dominant, state-run institutions promising both prestige and commercial opportunity, transformed the uncertain arts landscape of the 18th century. In Britain, female artists submitted their work to the Academy from 1769, the year of its first public exhibition. In the 1790s, during the Revolutionary Wars, their numbers ballooned. Across the Channel, until the revolution, exhibiting at the Académie’s Salon was a privilege granted to only a handful of established académiciennes, female painters grudgingly accepted on the basis of talent that was impossible to ignore – and often because they came from well-connected art families. When, in 1791, as part of a series of democratising reforms, the National Assembly issued a decree permitting all artists, academician and non-academician, male and female, to submit their work, the change was dramatic. The first open Salon took place in September, just weeks after the decree; it accepted 22 female exhibitors, twenty of whom owed their visibility and commercial platform directly to the revolutionary upheavals.

France’s new exhibiting artists hadn’t learned to paint in a fortnight. Most of the sixty works they showed in 1791 must have been complete, or almost complete, before the National Assembly’s decree, and to produce them they must have undergone formal training. Female students weren’t admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts or the Royal Academy until the second half of the 19th century, but opportunities to learn their craft were available to them long before this. Eighteenth and early 19th-century British women often received tuition at home, mentored by fathers, brothers and, in some cases, mothers. The familial setting wasn’t itself considered gendered or domestic: many male exhibitors were trained by family members, too, and the instruction both sexes received was publicly oriented, defined by its ‘profoundly commercial bent’. All six of the Academician Dominic Serres’s children, two sons and four daughters, became exhibiting artists. Philip Reinagle trained both his sons and four of his daughters: Charlotte, Fanny, Harriet and Oriana Georgiana. (The painter and diarist Joseph Farington encountered ‘two or three’ of the Reinagle sisters in 1807 and noted their unsentimental approach to copying the Old Masters. ‘They work very quick, & said, “Picture painted one day; sold the next; money spent the third.”’) Training sometimes began early. Helena Beatson, Read’s niece and pupil, presented her first narrative scenes at the age of eight at the 1771 Society of Artists show; by the time she was twelve, she was done with exhibiting. The artist Ellen Sharples had her eight-year-old daughter, Rolinda, read Catrou and Rouillé’s Roman History (a six-volume work, originally in French), then use her imagination to make ‘drawings of particular events’ in the manner of a history painter. At thirteen, Rolinda declared herself set on ‘becoming a professional artist’, making her debut at the Royal Academy in 1820. Her double portrait The Artist and Her Mother (1816) shows her midway through a canvas, pausing to meet the viewer’s eye, while her mother leans in, proud and a little proprietorial, to study her brushstrokes.

Some French female artists also learned their craft at home. During the 1760s, the future académicienne Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun took drawing and pastel lessons from her father, the society portraitist Louis Vigée; her contemporary Anne-Rosalie Bocquet, who died on the guillotine during the Terror, studied at a drawing school run by her mother. In later decades, however, progressively smaller numbers of Parisian female exhibitors came from artistic households. The majority received extra-familial tuition, usually from established male painters such as de Pujol, who took them on as students in their ateliers.

Female pupils of Jacques-Louis David exhibited work at every Salon between 1791 and 1837: in a letter of 1787, defending the morality of his mixed Louvre atelier to the arts administration, David claimed that his women students, all ‘irreproachable’ in their conduct, were contained in a space resembling a ‘prison’, entirely separate from his male studio (in reality, the set-up was more porous). Artists took their instruction seriously. Jean-Baptiste Regnault, who, together with his wife, trained at least 34 future female exhibitors in the Louvre from the 1790s, oversaw a tough regime involving seven or eight hours of portrait and genre painting a day. How competitive these environments could be is clear from the letters of the portraitist Lizinka de Mirbel, who joined the studio of the miniaturist Jean-Baptiste Jacques Augustin as a teenager in 1813, and gleefully tracked the failures of her rivals as an index of her own success:

[Mme Lederick] tried to work for M. Augustin, but it was impossible for her, and she was forced to give it up … she will be even more mad when she knows that it is I who replaces her, yes, my dear friend, I will return to M. Augustin’s but it will be no longer on a student’s footing. I will copy all the portraits of princes that will be retouched and signed by Augustin … it will advance me amazingly.

Even for de Mirbel, transforming talent into a viable career wasn’t easy. Succeeding commercially, for women artists as well as men, required smart cultivation of the right client relationships, unabashed self-advertisement and, above all, the ability to court and juggle multiple commissions. (‘It realy cracks my brain to think how she is to get the pictures she has on hand finishd,’ the portraitist Anne Forbes’s mother wrote despairingly in 1772. ‘Fourteen she has in number great and small.’) In London and Paris, cultivating a successful exhibition presence was an avenue not only to public recognition but, more practically, to income, as the Academy and Salon allowed artists to list their names and studio addresses in catalogues for clients. In Paris, from 1802, Empress Joséphine began buying works by women artists directly from the Salon; in 1804, Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s medal-winning submission precipitated ‘a flood of imperial commissions’, including the dubious honour of being chosen to produce official images of Napoleon for the ‘towns of Ghent, Brest, Mans, Sarthe and Angers’. Sometimes, the best way to catch a powerful patron’s eye was not to wait to be asked. In 1785, Caroline Watson was appointed ‘Engraver to the Queen’, a new office, on the basis of having designed and published an unsolicited image of Queen Charlotte’s daughter, Princess Mary.

The most commercially savvy female artists, including the history painter Angelica Kauffman, exhibited pictures with an eye to having them reproduced for the print market. In 1819, Rose Emma Drummond showed a portrait of Hannah Thatcher, ‘a young lady born deaf and dumb’, as the catalogue entry explained gravely, ‘who was presented to Her late Majesty on acquiring the faculty of speech, and the sense of hearing’. Few subjects, Drummond must have known, could have been more perfectly calibrated for middle-class print sales than this, with its combination of royalty and sentiment.

For French artists​ in particular, a successful practice could spell the difference between survival and ruin. Jeanne-Marie Doucet de Suriny, who exhibited miniatures at the Louvre between 1791 and 1806, became her family’s ‘sole support’ after her husband, a banker, lost all his money in 1789 and was imprisoned three times. (After the Bourbon Restoration in 1814, artists petitioned the royal administration for work on the basis of what had been ‘stripped’ from them or their parents, often violently, twenty years earlier.) Ellen Sharples, reflecting in her diary on the dramatic ‘reverses’ occasioned by the revolution – visible in Britain in the arrival of displaced exiles – explained that her hope in building a career was to become ‘independent of the smiles and frowns of fortune’, the ‘fluctuating & precarious nature of property’ in a world turned upside down. But losing everything might happen through bad management or bad luck as well as political turmoil, ‘by thoughtlessness & extravagance … by the loss of friends, by fire, & other casualties’, in her gloomy list. Anne Jessop Beechey, the second wife of the portraitist William Beechey, began to show miniatures a year into their marriage in 1795. ‘She proposed it as a resource in case of any accident happening to him,’ Farington reported in his diary. ‘They have Six children.’ The painter Amelia Noel, soliciting Farington to have one of her pictures placed advantageously at the 1804 Academy exhibition, explained that she had been left with no choice but to ask for help. ‘Her fortune had been taken by Her Husband,’ Farington noted, who had run away and left her.

Narrative paintings, in this context, could be self-reflexive, projections onto canvas of private feelings of powerlessness or instability. Eugénie Servières’s Inès de Castro and Her Children Throwing Themselves at the Feet of King Alphonso IV of Portugal (1822) was both a richly coloured medieval history, and, as Spies-Gans suggests, a dramatisation of the subservient position Servières herself occupied: she had written repeatedly to the French government that year, requesting a bigger state-sponsored studio to allow her to take on more students and provide for her family. At the Louvre and the Academy, large-scale narrative painting – a genre consistently popular among women exhibitors, despite the high (and traditionally masculine) painterly ambitions it connoted – was a vehicle for the representation of female concerns. One of Maria Cosway’s first Academy pieces, Like Patience on a Monument, Smiling at Grief (1781), took its inspiration from a Shakespearean simile – Viola’s description of her romantic misery in Twelfth Night – and transformed it into an allegory of female suffering. Patience, with hands clasped, looks down on the huddled, robed figure of Grief, shrinking into the corner of the composition. Kauffman’s classical histories, though typically more orthodox in their subject matter, foregrounded male deeds and exchanges but drew the eye elsewhere. Her Hector Upbraiding Paris for His Retreat from Battle (1770) shows the two brothers gesticulating, remonstrating with one another, their bodies forming a hard diagonal across the picture plane – a line interrupted, or softened, by the figure of Helen, brightly lit and placed between them, there to remind us what the story is really about.

Some reviewers disliked this re-weighting. According to Jacques-Philippe Voïart, the history painter Angélique Mongez’s prize-winning Alexander Mourning the Death of Darius’s Wife (1804) was a narrative failure, too focused on the emotions of ‘the accompanying women’ and not enough on Alexander. Others were willing to praise ambitious narrative pictures by women, particularly those by specialists such as Kauffman and Mongez, reserving their nastiest attacks for painters, such as Moser, who were better known for their work in ‘lesser’ genres and had dared to step out of line. (One of Moser’s compositions from Tasso, according to the Morning Post, looked like ‘three drunken misshaped animals; dancing a Scotch reel’.) Nearly all British and French commentators agreed that there were subcategories of narrative to which female painters were suited, and ones to which they weren’t. Constance Mayer’s classical scenes, such as her softly lit The Sleep of Venus (1806), were perfect expressions of feminine talent, according to the critic Charles-Paul Landon, whereas ‘ambitious, moving, and often terrible conceptions’ wouldn’t have been. In Britain, Cosway was scolded for attempting ‘grand or horrible’ narratives (those closest in aesthetic to the Burkean sublime), once being informed that her Altham Stood in the Wood Alone, and Saw a Ghost (1783), from Ossian, contained an ‘uninteresting’ main character and a ‘Marble Ghost’. In Maria Costive (1786), an unpleasant contemporary caricature, she figures as a vacuous, snub-nosed lunatic in a Bedlam cell, hair untidy and eyes popping, surrounded by efforts in the narrative sublime that form both the proof and substance of her madness.

History painting, the representation of ‘great deeds’ and full-scale (usually male) figures, required training in the contours of the human body. Against the long-held scholarly view that 18th and early 19th-century women were barred (on moral grounds) from observation of the nude figure, Spies-Gans argues that many did receive life-drawing instruction of a more or less formal kind, or found other ways of familiarising themselves with anatomy. Rolinda Sharples studied plaster casts as well as volumes of John Bell’s Anatomy and Physiology of the Human Body. Frances Reynolds, Joshua Reynolds’s younger sister, explained to the Academician James Northcote that she did, out of propriety, ‘draw all her figures cloath’d’, except infants, ‘which she often paints from life’, Northcote reported, using ‘some beggar woman’s child which is laid naked on a pillow’. Kauffman, whose large classical scenes are evidence of her mastery of the human form, may have studied statuary, plaster casts, other artists’ drawings or, as later rumour had it, an obliging male model, Charles Cranmer – who claimed that he visited her house to sit, with her father present, chastely ‘expos[ing] his arms, shoulders and legs’ while keeping his genitals covered.

Jacques-Louis David was responsible for several artists’ command of the figure. The Swiss painter Amélie Munier-Romilly, training in Paris, opted to practise figure-drawing in the sexless surrounds of the Louvre’s Salle des Antiques rather than join his studio, explaining that she feared drawing from nude models ‘in front of others’. The future history painters Benoist and Mongez, two of David’s star students, didn’t share her qualms. Between 1802 and 1827, Mongez exhibited nine grand classical canvases involving large-scale nude figures. In Theseus and Pirithous, Cleansing the Land of Brigands (1806), the muscular male protagonists are presented in profile, a dangling scabbard helpfully – or cheekily – covering the division between Pirithous’ buttocks. Her monumental Oath of the Seven against Thebes (1826) goes a step further: one nude warrior’s rear is fully on show, while another figure is positioned facing the viewer, his suggestively positioned sword doing little to cover (and nothing to divert attention from) the shadowy area between his legs. Buyers were delighted – Theseus and Pirithous went to the wealthy collector Prince Nikolai Yusupov for six thousand francs – but the critics were frosty. ‘Austere men are shocked by the kind of studies which all this knowledge suggests to them,’ Jean-Baptiste Boutard wrote in 1806. One might hope, he said, that ‘Madame Mongez’ had ‘studied and even executed her paintings more after the antique, and what are known as casts’ than from life; but her ‘unseemly’ familiarity with the male form suggested otherwise.

Gendered rhetoric of this kind, as Spies-Gans emphasises, only tells us so much. It’s evident from the artworks women exhibited and sold in the period that they had greater room to manoeuvre than the space circumscribed for them by male polemics. It’s true, too, that the nastier or more thin-skinned critical outbursts were often reactions to female success, or to increased visibility on the part of women artists more generally, and might therefore be read as indicators of progress. The Paintress, a caricature from 1772 that shows a female portraitist (and Kauffman-lookalike) concentrating on capturing the features of a grinning, idiotic-looking urchin, appeared shortly after a sudden rise in the number of named female portraitists exhibiting at the Royal Academy. Similarly, Thomas Lawrence’s ‘anxiety’, twelve years into his tenure as an Academician, about a picture of his being hung next to a female artist’s work at the 1806 exhibition (he was ‘fretted’, Farington reported, ‘abt. two very small pictures by Mrs Wheatley’), tells us nothing about women’s art and something about Thomas Lawrence.

Nonetheless, male commentators’ efforts had the effect of making female artistic success seem more anomalous, unwarranted or freakish than it might otherwise have appeared. A caricature of 1782, A Smuggling Machine, or a Convenient Cos(au)way for a Man in Miniature, makes plain the social anxieties a prominent woman could spark. A giant Maria Cosway looks down on her tiny husband, the Academician Richard Cosway, smuggled like a baby in the voluminous folds of her dress (there were sneers that Cosway had been carried by his wife’s fame). John Wolcot, alias Peter Pindar, told the Cosways exactly what he thought of their unconventional marriage in a satire of 1782:

Fie, Cosway! I’m asham’d to say
Thou own’st the title of R.A. –
I fear to damn thee ’twas the devil’s sending –
Some honest calling quickly find,
And bid thy wife her kitchen mind,
Or shirts and shifts be making or be mending.

If madam cannot make a shirt,
Or mend, or from it wash the dirt,
Better than paint – the poet for thee feels –
Or take a stitch up in thy stocking,
(Which for a wife is very shocking)
I pity the condition of thy heels.

Here, the wrong-headedness of Maria Cosway’s artistic ambition shows itself in a conflict between public and private spheres – between the world of painting and exhibiting, and the wifely one of ‘shirts and shifts’, washing and stitching. Other critics insisted that what was wrong was something more explicitly sexual: they understood the blurring of traditional gender roles as an invitation to female sexual licence, and the mixed spaces of art production as sites of seduction. ‘Publick practice of any art, and staring in men’s faces, is very indelicate in a female,’ Johnson told Boswell in 1775. The mere sight of Benoist’s The Farewell of Psyche to Her Family (1791) – which, incidentally, contained not a single nude figure – was enough to send the French painter Philippe Chéry into paroxysms, prompting a quasi-pornographic rant about the plight of impressionable female artists, ‘exposed to all seductions’, cavorting indiscriminately in a ‘mass’ of male students and ‘entirely naked’ studio models. (‘The models sometimes display in the most apparent manner the impression that the young girls have on them,’ Chéry declared. ‘I have seen them forced to leave their pose and stand to one side in order to let their nature regain its state of calm.’) In a French print of the 1820s, Atelier de Peinture, a pretty female artist is shown studiously copying the contours of a nude model, who poses heroically, chest out and muscular legs splayed; behind her, her elderly male tutor leans over, monocle pressed to his eye, squinting to see every detail.

Some kinds of gendered prejudice translated into political realities. In 1814, Benoist was forced to stop exhibiting when her husband was given a high-ranking position under the restored Louis XVIII: state dignitaries didn’t have wives who participated in public shows. (Benoist, in a ‘wounded’ letter, called this ‘a prejudice of society to which one must, after all, submit’.) Between the revolution and the restoration, through a series of rapid, disorientating regime changes, the social position that French women of all classes occupied became increasingly precarious. In 1789, female members of the Ancien Régime elite found themselves in danger, and the networks of patronage they controlled also came under threat: Vigée Le Brun, a favourite of Marie-Antoinette, emigrated; her fellow académicienne, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, burned a royal commission she had begun. In 1791, the revolutionary government accorded single women (limited) property rights but not political ones; the Jacobins, violently opposed to female civic participation, consolidated this position during the Terror. In 1804, the Napoleonic Code largely excluded married women and mothers from civic life, vesting all familial and public authority in husbands on the basis of ‘natural’ imperatives of dominance and subordination, protection and obedience.

Professional survival, in these circumstances, required an extraordinary degree of political flexibility, an ability both to stand out and, where necessary, to shrink back. For the 1791 Salon, Vigée Le Brun, from the safety of Italy, sent in three ‘innocuous’ portraits. Labille-Guiard made annual donations to the new state in order to demonstrate her loyalty. At the height of the Terror, only the bravest artists dared produce – and the bravest clients commission – politically engaged works. A lost narrative by Fanni Ferrey, The Awful News (1796), depicting a wife learning of ‘the cruel death of her husband, the victim of a revolutionary trial’, could not have been shown safely at earlier Salons. It was possible, of course, to represent in paint forms of agency women didn’t possess in real life: Nanine Vallain’s Liberty (1794), a sober, unexceptionable female allegory packed with republican iconography, was hung in the Jacobin Club headquarters, just as women were barred from participating in revolutionary clubs themselves. Henriette Lorimier’s Jeanne of Navarre (1806), a depiction of the woman who had ruled as Brittany’s regent between 1399 and 1403, showed female power on the walls of the Louvre during the repressive years following Napoleon’s reforms. Professional longevity, nonetheless, meant sometimes painting what other people wanted, rather than making statements. Pauline Auzou, a student of David’s, exhibited images of Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s Austrian second wife, in 1810 and 1812, playing to the imperial regime by trying to naturalise, in paint, a marriage of extreme political convenience. When the winds changed, her art changed with them: Auzou’s 1814 Salon submission included a genre scene, One of the Windows of Paris, the Day of His Majesty Louis XVIII’s Arrival, complete with eager spectating children and a prominent fleur-de-lis.

Portraiture, the most popular genre among exhibiting women in both France and Britain throughout the period, had particular political valences in the revolutionary context. ‘Artists and audiences alike knew that portraits could be political, narrative and subversive,’ Spies-Gans writes. During the Ancien Régime, portraiture was already a genre freighted with public meaning, able to say some things and not others. Vigée Le Brun’s 1783 submission, Marie-Antoinette in a Chemise Dress, had to be removed from the Salon for depicting the queen in clothing that looked not only insufficiently expensive but also like an undergarment. After 1789, as Amy Freund has shown, portraiture became both powerful and ideologically charged – a genre no longer associated with aristocratic vanity but with the self-defining ambitions of a body of citizens, former royal subjects seeking to remake their identity in line with their new political authority. That this change was a matter of style and tone as well as subject is clear from the politically astute canvases Labille-Guiard exhibited during the 1790s, including, in 1791, seven portraits of various deputies to the National Assembly. In contrast to her Ancien Régime depictions of the king’s aunts (neoclassical, opulent, highly coloured), the revolutionary portraits are cerebral, uncluttered and muted in tone. Their subjects meet the viewer’s eye with a level gaze.

The majority of women artists who exhibited at the Salon in the revolutionary period had never before shown their work in public. During the 1790s and early 1800s, several of them submitted self-portraits or portraits of other women artists, presenting, implicitly, an idea of the female painter as both a subject for portraiture and a professional in her own right. Marie-Denise Villers’s Charlotte du Val d’Ognes, and Lorimier’s self-portrait, Portrait of the Artist, both exhibited in 1801, show their subjects in half-profile, turned towards the viewer, their look of having been caught sketching unawares somewhat belied by the delicate, impractical empire-line dresses they wear. Marie-Geneviève Bouliard’s Adélaïde Lenoir (c.1796), an intimate depiction of Lenoir, a portraitist who exhibited at the Salon for over twenty years, is more radical: shown in her painter’s smock, her hair falling around her ears, Lenoir is clearly at work, her palette already daubed with smudges of colour. She stares straight out of the picture, her gaze more than a little challenging: as though she were the painter, not the subject.

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