National Museum of Women in the Arts Salon Style: French Portraits from the Collection Reviewed

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on March 8, 2016
Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, Portrait of Princess Belozersky (detail), 1798; Oil on canvas, 31 in x 26 1/4 in. Photo Credit: Brent Brolin. Courtesy of the NMWA.
Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, Portrait of Princess Belozersky (detail), 1798; Oil on canvas, 31 in x 26 1/4 in. Photo Credit: Brent Brolin. Courtesy of the NMWA.

Presented in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery, a smallish room on the ground floor, right across from the entrance to the museum, Salon Style: French Portraits from the Collection promised more than it delivered. With a beautiful full color brochure, and the title suggesting paintings crowding the wall from eye level to the ceiling, I was rather disappointed to find that there were many more empty “frames”—plaster moldings painted the same gray as the walls—than there were actual works. Nevertheless, there are a few treats in store for the viewer, and the exhibit’s premise is conceptually and historically significant.

Although the question about why there are so few women artists in the art historical canon of western art may seem superfluous, it is remarkable that the answer still remains widely unknown among the general public, or misunderstood. Women generally were not encouraged in any way to pursue careers as artists, and those who by class might have had both the time and support to study or make art were strongly discouraged from it. Indeed, the few women whose names are found in the art history textbooks these days who lived before 1700 were fairly all daughters of practicing male artists who trained them. A good example of such an artist would be Artemisia Gentileschi whose training in drawing and painting in her father Orazio’s studio allowed her to pursue a career in Florence where she was the first woman accepted in to the Florentine Accademia del Disegno. Indeed, women were barred from the very kind of training that would equip them to paint the large figural compositions that would have put them in competition with male artists. The emphasis on figure drawing that existed in the 16th and 17th centuries required a foundation in that art to which women were not granted access. Thus, many women artists, well into the 19th century, settled for the ‘lesser’ genres of still life and portraiture.

Yet it was only in the 18th century that we begin to see the success of women artists as painters of portraits. The Rococo style which became dominant in France from about 1720 favored a light touch, without too much drawing. And in this environment, pastel moved to the forefront because of the way in which it could render softened and blended tones of skin and fabric. Pastel was also ideal for copyists—who were legion in France—because of the rapidity of the technique which didn’t require long drying time.

Hence, we have numerous pastel portraits executed by women, a few of which are in this exhibit. The earliest is a work by Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757), Venetian by birth, but who travelled to France in 1720 where she was actually admitted to the French Academy.   It was she who introduced pastel as a prime medium for portraits, and for the occasional allegorical bust length figure, much like a portrait. Yet, as in this exhibit, the allegory of America is portrayed by a softly rendered young woman decorated with delicate pink feathers, a quiver of arrows and a jeweled headband. She looks like a French princess in dress-up as an American Indian, but in c. 1730 that was exactly what Carriera’s patrons wanted to see.

Probably the most widely recognized artist in the exhibit is Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun (1755-1842) whose extraordinarily long career spanned the French Revolution, the Restoration, and the July Monarchy. She was the preferred portraitist of the much maligned Queen Marie-Antoinette. Her 1783 portrait of the Queen holding a rose showed her as a person of sensibilité: the quality of delicate sensitivities that was then still the fashion. A half-length pastel copy of this portrait by an unknown artist (probably a woman) is in this exhibit attesting to its popularity. It is in sharp contrast to the later 1789 portrait of the Queen in a Neo-Classical setting seated with her children surrounding her. And it is also in sharp contrast to the portraits of two unknown sitters, one by Adélaide Labille-Guiard and the other by Marie-Victoire Lemoine—both c. 1790—whose costume and confident expressions connote the changed atmosphere of Revolutionary France. Because of her close relationship to the royal family Vigée-LeBrun managed to leave France in 1789 before the situation became too dangerous. She first went to Italy where she painted a self-portrait for the painter’s guild, the Academy of Saint Luke, into which she was admitted. Many copies, some dating much later, of this painting exist. One of them, in oil on canvas by Charles Bianchini from c. 1885, is in this exhibit.

Vigée-LeBrun spent about half of her thirteen year exile from France in Russia at the court of Catherine the Great. It was there that she painted the most compelling work in the show: a portrait of Princess Belozersky (1798). The twenty-one year old princess, wearing a loose turban and amber jewelry, looks out at the viewer with calm intensity. The dramatic lighting with deep chiaroscuro shading makes her seem to emerge from the dark background, her lively character and warm smile attracting the viewer’s attention.