ART HISTORY. The Luxembourg museum, close to the artists quarters of Saint Germain, in Paris, is situated in a lush park. Its opening exhibition shows women painters, a rarity in those days.
It was a big day, this 31 May 1783, when the prestigious Royal Academy of Painters welcomed a new member: the talented Adélaïde Labille-Gaillard. Soon afterwards, another woman, close to the royal family, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, also insisted on becoming a member. Her magnificent portrait of Marie-Antoinette, her protégée, is displayed in this intimate exhibition.
A quota to accept only four women had been established long ago among an abundance of men. However, a few years later, this one-hundred-year-old Academy was transformed into an Institute, and women painters were accepted in greater numbers. They excelled in the art of portraits. Women could not paint nudes because, at the time, the models were exclusively males…
The relative democratization between the genders opened up doors to otherwise closed ateliers for these women painters. They were thus accepted as pupils for male teachers. It further led to free of charges, highly classified, drawing classes for the impoverished ’demoiselles’ who possessed an artistic talent.
This short epoch was called la parenthèse enchantée – or the ’enchanted parentheses’. During this period, the art world experienced a women painters’ boom. During the 1783 painting exhibition, a commentator wrote that: ’women have truly become rivals of their male counterparts, and these shall have to deal with some real competition!’
I was surprised at the dexterity and vigour in those paintings, mostly depicting other women. Many of which were auto-portraits, often sitting painting, with their brushes and easel at hand or holding a child. They favoured intimate, domestic scenes sometimes with fun touches, like the woman who’s attaching her shoelaces. They also showed great dexterity in the ’sentimental genre’ that enhanced feelings by painting music being played for example.
However, apart from the two above-cited women painters, most of the others have been ’buried’ and forgotten in the collective memory… This exquisite, rather small, exhibition finally gives them justice.
Peintre Femmes, 1780 – 1830
Musée du Luxemburg, Paris
19 May to 4 July 2021