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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Eighteenth-Century Women Painters in France

Between 1780 and 1810, many French women painters reached impressive heights of artistic achievement and professional success. Despite a cap on the number of women admitted to France’s prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and restrictions that barred women from the life drawing classes attended by young men aspiring to paint historical narratives, women ranked among the most sought-after artists in Paris in the 1780s. Three of the Académie’s four female members—Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803), Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744–1818), and Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842)—regularly exhibited at the biennial Salons.

Royal women were the most important patrons for many women artists. Vallayer-Coster, who joined the Académie in 1770, painted portraits and scenes from everyday life, but was chiefly admired for her still lifes of flowers (07.225.504), seashells, and fruit. However, it was her figural painting that won her the patronage of Queen Marie Antoinette and Mesdames Adélaïde and Victoire, the powerful daughters of King Louis XV. These same patrons supported Labille-Guiard (53.225.5) and Vigée Le Brun, who were both admitted on May 31, 1783; Marie Antoinette played an important role in the admission of Vigée Le Brun, one of her favorite portraitists, and in 1787 Labille-Guiard was named First Painter to Mesdames.

The simultaneous admission of Labille-Guiard and Vigée Le Brun caused a stir in the art world and beyond, and the press immediately cast them as rivals, pitting Vigée Le Brun’s “feminine” style (loose brushstrokes, high-toned color, and flattering renderings of her sitters [49.7.53; 50.135.2]) against the “masculine” characteristics (crisp handling, muted tones, and truth to nature) of Labille-Guiard’s paintings. Although many critics applauded their new prominence, others lamented the immodesty of women who would display their skills so publicly. Indeed, pamphleteers frequently conflated the exhibition of these women’s paintings with the display of their bodies, and they were hounded by salacious rumors.

The onset of the French Revolution in 1789 created difficult conditions for the artists who had established their reputations with assistance from the royal family. Vigée Le Brun and Vallayer-Coster fled the country, joining many of their aristocratic patrons at the courts of England and Russia, and elsewhere in continental Europe. Labille-Guiard, in contrast, remained in France and attempted to redefine herself as an artist in the new Republic. Not only did she exhibit the portraits of Robespierre and other leaders of the Revolution at the 1791 Salon, but she also built on her reputation as a teacher of young women by proposing a new system for educating girls. Yet in 1793, during the height of the Terror, a government committee ordered the destruction of several of her portraits. She survived the Revolution, but her career never recovered.

Lesser-known female artists, however, benefited greatly from the newly open Salons of the 1790s. In a marked shift from the ancien régime tradition that permitted only members of the Académie to exhibit at the Salon, the exhibitions held in the Louvre’s Salon Carré began to welcome all artists in 1791. Rose Adélaïde Ducreux (67.55.1) (1761–1802), a daughter of the pastellist Joseph Ducreux, was among hundreds of artists who first saw their works on Salon walls in 1791. Ducreux’s oeuvre, like those of the sisters Marie Victoire Lemoine (57.103) (1754–1820) and Marie Denise Villers (1774–1821), who also emerged in the 1790s, is slowly coming to light. For instance, the Metropolitan Museum’s portrait of a young woman drawing (17.120.204) once attributed to Jacques Louis David is now recognized as a work by Villers. Here the artist combines the sensuously curving lines and dramatic backlighting that characterize the works of her teacher, the male history painter Anne Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767–1824), with a subject appropriate to her gender. Indeed, many paintings, especially portraits of young women, formerly ascribed to David or Vigée Le Brun now appear to have been painted by women who established their reputations in the 1790s and early 1800s.