Challenging Sensibilité

Madeleine Françoise Basseporte (1701–1780), Patella, 1734. Red chalk on paper. Bibliothèque centrale du Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris

Madeleine Françoise Basseporte (1701–1780), Patella, 1734. Red chalk on paper. Bibliothèque centrale du Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris

In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were few opportunities for women to become professional artists; there were even fewer for those who were not members of the French bourgeois. Art institutions like the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture accepted very few women: at the highest quota, the prestigious institution admitted four in 1783. The justification was socially constructed—women were believed to possess too much “sensibilité,” or emotional capacity, and not enough reason, which kept them from mastering technique. Discouraged from painting “serious” themes, like history, women were confined to the genres of still life, floral, animal pieces, domestic scenes, and portraiture, all of which aimed to please the eye in a superficial way. Equally restricting were the moral codes, which kept women from the study of anatomy and painting of the male nude.

“It is very glorious for a woman to gain an honorable place among the greatest masters. Yes, but it is very dangerous.” —Stéphanie Félicité, comtesse de Genlis, 1784 

Sensibilité transcended all of society, inhibiting women not only in art, but in literature as well. Several women authors—Mary Anne Evans, Amantine Lucile Dupin, and Charlotte Brontë—found that the only way they could gain publishing rights was to use male “nom de plumes.” In their close-minded time, they became George Eliot, George Sand, and Currer Bell, respectively. While questions about Charlotte Brontë’s gender surfaced, critics repeatedly affirmed that her work was too good to have been written by a woman. A similar climate reigned in painting—any praiseworthy piece produced by a woman was thought to have been finished by a man. Even worse, women in power were derided with baseless slander, including allegations of sexual and professional impropriety that discouraged future women from pursuing the field.

Of woman author George Sand: “What a brave man she was, and what a good woman.” —Ivan Turgenev (novelist)

Marie-Victoire Lemoine, Portrait de l'artiste, ca. 1780/1790; Oil on canvas. Musée des beaux-arts, Orleans

Marie-Victoire Lemoine, Portrait de l’artiste, ca. 1780/1790; Oil on canvas. Musée des beaux-arts, Orleans

To generate the art they were capable of, women found small ways to challenge the stereotypes. One strategy was to portray themselves in the act of painting, a means of gaining authorship for their work, according to former NMWA curator Jordana Pomeroy’s essay in the Royalists to Romantics catalogue. This claim is exemplified by Portrait of the Artist, by Rose Adélaїde Ducreux, Portrait of the Artist, by Marie Victoire Lemoine, and especially Portrait of Adelaїde Binard, Wife of Alexandre Lenoir, by Marie Geneviève Bouliar, which all depict women holding brushes to prove their capability. Notably, Bouliar’s subject stares defiantly out of the frame, exhibiting strength in the possession of her own agency. Bravely, some women in the 18thand 19th century took action, whether through incorporating subversive meaning in their art, creating a network of women patrons, or revealing their true names.

—Kristie Landing is the publications and communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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