By Paris Spies-Gans
“[I]t is very difficult to convey an idea today of the urbanity, the graceful ease, in a word the affability of manner which made the charm of Parisian society forty years ago,” the French painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) reminisced in her autobiographical, three-volume Souvenirs (1835–37), the first published memoir by a female artist. “The women reigned then,” she explained; “the Revolution dethroned them.”
Vigée Le Brun expressed the plight that she and other women who had been the “charm of Parisian society” in the ancien régime experienced in the wake of the French Revolutionary Wars. While she undoubtedly indulged in a considerable degree of mythmaking in composing this nostalgic account, Vigée Le Brun’s own fall had been swift and scholars have long used her experience to reinforce a powerful historical narrative: that the Age of Revolutions was, for women, inescapably an age of exclusion. And yet, between 1760 and 1830, women’s artistic presence was newly palpable. For the first time, women were beginning to exhibit their art in sweeping numbers, with more than 1,300 female artists exhibiting more than 7,000 works in Paris and London’s premier public exhibitions, regularly contributing 7 to 12 percent of the pieces placed on display. By contrast, works by women were recently calculated to average less than 5 percent of the pieces currently on view in American and European museums. Female artists were decidedly more present in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries’ leading art spaces than they are today.
Preceding and then propelled by the political and cultural turmoil of the revolutionary wars, there was an extraordinary surge in female artistic activity and its public reception in Britain and France—part of a cultural metamorphosis in which women entered the public, commercial sphere as professional artists in significant numbers for the first time. These women worked hard to become exhibiting painters, sculptors, and engravers, each of their pieces being accepted by juries composed entirely of men. In the process, they fashioned novel, often influential, identities as established artists and forged commercially profitable careers.
How did this happen, and why have these once-prominent artists remained absent from our twentieth- and twenty-first century narratives?
In the second half of the eighteenth century, before the storming of the Bastille, Vigée Le Brun and a handful of other women artists had indeed achieved unprecedented levels of acclaim for their work. In 1770, the painters Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818, predominantly a still life painter) and Marie-Suzanne Giroust Roslin (1734-1772, predominantly a portraitist) secured election to Paris’s revered Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Thirteen years later, Vigée Le Brun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803), both esteemed society portraitists, followed suit; famously, to combat gendered objections to her admission, Vigée Le Brun received instrumental support from Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVIII. Across the Channel in 1768, two female painters, Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) and Mary Moser, later Lloyd (1744-1819), had even numbered among the thirty-six founding members of London’s Royal Academy of Arts. These decades also witnessed new forms of female patronage of women artists—most visibly by each nation’s queen—and the growing fame of those few who achieved public recognition.
Yet these moments of unparalleled prestige ultimately highlighted much larger practices of exclusion. During the debates leading up to Vigée Le Brun and Labille-Guiard’s double-election, the French Académie decided to enforce a previously proposed quota of four female members, essentially barring any more women from admission. Additionally, when Vigée Le Brun provided a classical history painting, Peace Bringing Back Abundance, as her Academic reception piece—attempting to secure her acceptance as a painter of historical works, the most prestigious painterly genre—the Academy chose to acknowledge this act with opacity and silence in its official record. It stated solely: “in opening the meeting Madame Lebrun, received as an academician at the last assembly and who has brought her works with which the Company was satisfied took her place in this capacity.” Even this vague reference to the allegorical canvas was not allowed to last; at an unknown moment in the following century, someone crossed out “and who has brought her works with which the Company was satisfied.”
In London, Johan Zoffany’s canonical The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771–72) similarly underscored the problematic nature of Kauffman’s and Moser’s Academic involvement. In his group portrait of the Academy’s founding members in an artist’s studio, Kauffman and Moser appear only as portraits hung on the far wall—as women, they were not officially allowed to participate physically in life (nude) drawing classes. (Both women, however, did study from human models.) Soon, wider patterns of social and cultural change would reflect these restrictions on female artistic activity. In the coming decades of political upheaval and warfare, at precisely the moment when concepts of republicanism, natural rights, and the expansion of suffrage for men were reshaping the British and French political worlds, women were, for the first time, explicitly denied political rights.
Vigée Le Brun’s piercing portrayal of the Revolution—that it “dethroned” women in the realms of political privileges and social practices—broadly captured this complex convergence of events. Her account has also long adumbrated a still-potent academic narrative on gender in Europe during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, a narrative that has extended, almost by default, to the art world: a largely unchallenged view that maintains women artists were essentially excluded from the field of Revolutionary art and, moreover, from the public art worlds in Britain and France until at least the mid-nineteenth century.
However, the opening of public exhibitions in each nation enhanced and soon transformed the professional opportunities available to women at least a century earlier. London’s first public show took place in 1760; by 1768, artists had formed the Royal Academy, which would remain the city’s leading exhibition venue throughout the period, even with the addition of several smaller exhibiting societies in the early nineteenth century. While the institution limited the number of officially appointed Academicians—and, following its two female founders, did not admit another woman as a full member until 1936—the Academy acted as an open venue in which artists could annually submit works to a jury regardless of their gender or status (social, political, Academic, or otherwise). Women exhibited their art, in growing numbers, in every show; from 1768 to 1830, 606 named women exhibited 3,612 works of art, or 6.9 percent of all entries. Paris’s Académie Royale de Sculpture et de Peinture had deeper roots, its formation dating to 1648 and its first Louvre Salon exhibition to 1737. However, only Academicians were allowed to exhibit, and the number of female Academicians was severely restricted; women thus showed art in growing numbers in a few small Parisian venues in the 1760s, 1770s, and 1780s. But in 1791, following the outbreak of the French Revolution, France’s new National Assembly declared the Salon open to all artists, newly regardless of sex or Academic status. Women’s exhibition activity skyrocketed. From 1791 to 1830, 344 women exhibited 2,290 works of art at the Salon, averaging 11.5 percent of all entries.
Markedly, at both the Academy and Salon, women’s exhibiting presence expanded from the mid-1790s, soared from 1798 to 1801, and then maintained these new heights well into the nineteenth century. At the 1802 Salon, 49 women exhibited 91 works, totaling 16 percent of all entries; that year at the Royal Academy, 57 to 59 women exhibited 100 works—9 percent of all pieces on display. As these women’s surviving journals, letters, and publications reveal, many of them began practicing art to support themselves and their families through the years of warfare; afterwards, they continued to pursue these careers, joined by more and more women who were newly motivated to submit art for public display. Most explicitly, around 1806, Ellen Wallace Sharples (1769-1849) reflected in her diary that she first had decided to pursue a professional career, and then encouraged her daughter Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838) to do so, upon witnessing the unpredictable havoc wreaked by the French Revolutionary Wars. This made her resolve “…to make my drawing, which had been learnt & practised [sic] as an ornamental art for amusement, available to a useful purpose.” Seven years later, she wrote with joy, “It is very delightful to me to see [Rolinda] always cheerful and happy, ardently engaged in various intellectual pursuits, particularly that of painting…Exercising it as a profession she views as attended with every kind of advantage.”
What did “[e]xercising it as a profession” mean for women in these years, when they generally did not even legally own the proceeds of their work—a privilege predominantly reserved for husbands and fathers—unless widowed? For female exhibitors, like their male peers, to exhibit with professional intent was to list their names and addresses in each exhibition’s catalogue, inviting potential patrons to visit their homes or studios to purchase, commission, or view more works. The majority of women chose to do so. When Rolinda Sharples debuted at the Academy in 1820, thirteen years after her mother, she even listed two addresses, “Clifton” for her year-round residence in Bristol, and “7, Howard street, Strand,” where anyone interested could find her in London during the course of the show. Like Rolinda Sharples, whose mother, father, and brother were all artists, most British female exhibitors for whom biographical data survives grew up in an artistic household—a space with commercial ambitions that regularly extended to its women members. In France, most female exhibitors studied with an extrafamilial male teacher, a cast that extended from Jacques-Louis David to Jean-Baptiste Augustin.
Reflecting their own families’ and teachers’ specialties, women consistently chose to create and exhibit highly marketable pieces with the most traditionally prestigious subject matter: narrative scenes, portraits, and, in London, landscapes. Often, they selected subjects that evoked the concerns of the time—for instance, in 1810, Antoinette Béfort’s (fl. 1810–19) A Young Theban Girl Tending to her Father’s Wounds likely spoke to a generation of French men and women facing the daily repercussions of nearly two decades of warfare. She won a second-class medal from the Napoleonic state for the canvas.
For despite his notorious dislike for women writers and the deeply gendered legislation of the Napoleonic Code, Napoleon himself, his family members, and the Napoleonic state became significant supporters of several female painters, all purchasing paintings displayed at the Salon and commissioning additional works. Henriette Lorimier, a student of Jean-Baptiste Regnault, sold her Jeanne de Navarre, winner of a first-prize medal, to the Empress Josephine for 4,000 francs; in 1808, the Empress purchased Constance Mayer’s The Torch of Venus. Their peer Marie-Guillemine Benoist, a student of Vigée Le Brun and David, painted nearly a dozen official state portraits between 1804 and 1812, two of which she exhibited. One image of Napoleon, painted for the town of Sarthe, earned her 3,000 francs—the same price Jean-Antoine Gros received for portraits of Napoleon he completed for the Lyon, Rouen, and Lille. While women across the Channel relied much more on private patronage networks, they too tended to earn prices commensurate with their male peers, which repeatedly enabled them to sustain long and profitable careers.
The Sharpleses, Béfort, Benoist, Mayer, and the Bonapartes were far from alone—their unexpected stories indicate a vibrant and unanticipated world of creative production, public recognition, and commercial exchange. While the French Revolution may have “dethroned” some women, like Vigée Le Brun, the era also saw the opening of new public prospects for an unprecedented number of female artists. Reevaluating their careers and, often, reattributing their works of art enables a hitherto unrecognized story to emerge, one in which the effects of revolution, the chaos of warfare, and shifts in institutional structures sparked a transformation in women’s professionalization as artists. Transcending national boundaries, these women’s stories can help us to further illuminate the cultural implications of this political era.
Dr. Paris A. Spies-Gans holds an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art and a PhD in History from Princeton University. Her research concentrates on the history of women, gender, and the politics of artistic expression. She is the author of A Revolution on Canvas: The Rise of Women Artists in Britain and France, 1760-1830 (The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in Association with Yale University Press, 2022), and is currently working on her second book, A New Story of Art (Doubleday).
Title Image: Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait of Empress Marie-Louise, ca. 1812, oil on canvas, 238.5 x 176.5 cm, Fontainebleau, Musée national du château, Salon 1812, no. 43.
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 Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Souvenirs de Madame Louise-Élisabeth Vigée LeBrun, 3 vols. (Paris: H. Fournier, 1835–37), translated and abridged by Lionel Strachey, Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1903), 49.
 Maura Reilly, “Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes,” ArtNews (June 2015), online ed.; and Lily Le Brun, “Women Artists Get a Raw Deal in Historical Collections. Will that ever change?” Apollo (March 2015), online ed.
 Mary D. Sheriff, The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 74, 78.
 There were 55 named and four anonymous female exhibitors. One of the anonymous exhibitors was “A Young Lady,” and three were “A Lady”—without knowing if the same “Lady” exhibited those three works (the index does not make this clear), this means there were 2 to 4 anonymous female exhibitors.
 Ibid., 103 (December 1813).
 Marie-Juliette Ballot, Une Élève de David: La Comtesse Benoist, “L’Emilie de Demoustier,” 1768-1826 (Paris: Plon, 1914), 270; Marie-Anne Dupuy, Isabelle Le Masne de Chermont, and Elaine Williamson, eds., Vivant Denon, Directeur des Musées sous le Consulate et l’Empire: Correspondence, 1802-1815, 2 vols. (Paris: RMN, 1999), Vol. 1, 114; and Gary Tinterow and Philip Conisbee, eds., Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999), 46-48.