What comes to mind when you think about Marie Antoinette? You might associate this unfortunate queen and her entire retinue as the epitome of frivolity and naiveté, aristocrats with little awareness of (or interest in) the realities of the outside world. In many ways you would be right. But what if I suggested that this society of lavish luxury and Dangerous Liaisons also witnessed the early expression of some feminist attitudes?
For instance, Parisian ladies like Madame de Pompadour, Madame Geoffrin, and Madame d’Epinay actually wielded significant influence in the political and intellectual landscape of the Enlightenment, hosting salons where the greatest philosophers, writers, and artists came together to discuss their ideas. In fact, one of the major criticisms against elite Parisian society at this time was that it was “too feminine,” referring not only to artistic styles and customs but also to the powerful presence of women.
Within the art world in particular, several French women artists rose to prominence and even became members of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, including Rosalba Carriera, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, and Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, whose talents rivaled those of all the “great masters” revered in artistic tradition. Although painting “of the highest caliber” was traditionally a masculine occupation, several male artists such as Jacques-Louis David supported the training and education of women in this field. Nevertheless, no female artist was inducted into the academy as a history painter, which was “highest” form of painting at the time (for more information on the social ladder of paintings, click here). For instance, even though Lebrun was a masterful painter of allegory and mythology, she was admitted as a portrait painter, considered a “lesser” form a painting.
Through their work, some women, like Vigée-Lebrun, challenged this obvious gender (and genre) discrimination by not only producing amazing works of history as well as any other male history painter, but also by blurring the distinctions between genres. Next time, we’ll explore why Vigée-Lebrun’s Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat is much more than “just a portrait,” part of an female artist’s quest to build a professional identity as a grand-master of art…