WASHINGTON—The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) presents Salon Style: French Portraits from the Collection, on view Jan. 29–May 22, 2016. Drawn from NMWA’s collection, this spotlight exhibition presents portraiture by 18th-century French women artists, who struggled past barriers, including a lack of training opportunities, negative public opinion and political turmoil, to attain professional success. The exhibition features artists Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Marie-Victoire Lemoine, Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, Marie-Geneviève Navarre and Rosalba Carriera.
The preeminent exhibition venue for artists in 18th-century France was the biennial Paris exhibition of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. The Academy was modeled after earlier Italian academies that sought to separate and elevate painters and sculptors above crafters such as masons, wood carvers and textile workers. Membership marked artists as professionals and bestowed a royal stamp of approval.
From 1725 onward, the exhibition was held in a room in the Louvre known as the Salon Carré, or Square Room. Known simply as the Salon, it became an increasingly important milestone for the success of any artist. At the Salon, paintings were hung in the large room from eye level all the way up to the ceiling, allowing for a maximum number of works to be displayed. Smaller images such as portraits and still lifes were displayed near the bottom, and large history paintings at the top. Salon Style will be arranged similarly to give viewers the impression of how the works would have been displayed at the Salon in 18th-century France.
In order to exhibit their work at the Salon, artists had to be members of the Academy. Artists were voted into the group by other members after being presented formally by a current academician. For women, this was doubly challenging: their work had to be found as worthy as that of their male peers despite their not having equal access to artistic training, and the total number of female members allowed at any one time was limited to four.
The Academy reached its quota for women artists on May 31, 1783, when both Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard were admitted into the Academy on the same day, joining the portrait and still-life painter Anne Vallayer-Coster and the miniaturist Marie-Thérèse Reboul Vien. Even when admitted, women did not enjoy the same benefits as their male peers. They were not allowed to vote on new members, lodge within the Louvre or participate in Academy art classes.
The French Revolution (1789–99) caused upheaval throughout the country, including in the art community. Many artists had depended on royal patronage and afterward were forced to find new clientele either at home or abroad. Women were temporarily granted a reprieve from one obstacle in 1791, when the National Assembly decreed that the Salon would be open to all artists, not only academicians. For a time, many more women were able to exhibit their work there, but political opinion soon shifted again, discouraging women from the public sphere.
Like most women artists during this period, who generally received less extensive training than their male peers, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803) made her living as a portraitist. For her Salon debut, she exhibited six pastel portraits of fellow academicians, publicizing her well-placed connections. Although her clients had included members of the royal family, after the revolution Labille-Guiard painted portraits of those wishing to demonstrate their allegiance to the nascent republic. Portrait of an Unknown Sitter (ca. 1789–90) features a woman wearing the simple clothing preferred by citizens of the new republic. Labille-Guiard took on women pupils and spoke out in favor of equal acceptance of women into the Academy, contradicting the idea that women in the Academy saw themselves as rivals instead of allies.
Like Labille-Guiard, Marie-Victoire Lemoine (1754–1820), remained in France during and after the revolution. She first exhibited at the Salon in 1796, taking advantage of the open admission policy adopted by the new government in 1791. Lemoine’s oval portrait of a young woman featured in Salon Style was most likely created after the revolution. This sitter in Portrait of a Young Lady, Half Length, wearing a Blue Dress and a Red Headband (ca. 1790) wears a simple blue dress, which, along with her red sash and white lace collar, represents the three colors associated with the revolution.
Renowned during her own life time, Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun (1755–1842) was the preferred portraitist of Queen Marie Antoinette. She joined the Academy in 1783, via a special edict from King Louis XVI. Due to her close associations with the royal family, Vigée-LeBrun left France in 1789, but her career did not stop after the revolution. Despite her physical absence from Paris, her paintings were still shown at the Salons of 1791 and 1798. During her self-imposed 13-year exile, she spent time in Italy and Russia, where she continued to paint portraits of royalty and aristocracy, her great reputation having preceded her. In 1798, she painted a portrait of the Princess Belozersky, daughter of the secretary of state of Catherine the Great.
Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757) was responsible for elevating the status of pastel from its use for preliminary sketches to a respected medium in its own right. The native Venetian enjoyed immense popularity throughout Europe as a portraitist. She traveled to Paris in 1720, where she was admitted into the Royal Academy, although she did not exhibit at the Salon. Although Carriera was primarily a portraitist, she also portrayed allegorical figures, such as a personification of America.
Marie-Geneviève Navarre (1737–1795) was employed as a copyist to reproduce royal portraits by her instructor, the famed pastellist Maurice Quentin de La Tour, whose work was strongly influenced by that of Carriera. Navarre also created her own compositions and exhibited at the Academy of Saint Luke from 1762 to 1776. The only signed example of her work, Portrait of a Young Woman (1774) in NMWA’s collection, is evidence of Navarre’s skill. Her virtuoso blending and shading breathe life into this unknown sitter of modest means, a woman depicted in half-length against a plain, dark background.
The admission of women into the Academy was often severely contested. Over the span of its existence, the Academy, which had approximately 450 members in total, only admitted 15 women. Perhaps unsurprisingly, works by women who exhibited in the Salon were compared and judged against one another, as were their characters. By putting themselves in the public sphere, women artists risked upsetting societal expectations, which held that virtuous women belonged solely to the private, domestic sphere. Despite this risk, these artists persisted in exhibiting in the Salon throughout the rest of the 18th century. This focus exhibition examines these women and their art as well as their artistic legacies.
Salon Style: French Portraits from the Collection, presented in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, is organized by the museum and generously supported by its members.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) is the world’s only major museum solely dedicated to celebrating the creative contributions of women. The museum champions women through the arts by collecting, exhibiting, researching and creating programs that advocate for equity and shine a light on excellence. NMWA highlights remarkable women artists of the past while also promoting the best women artists working today. The museum’s collection includes over 4,700 works by more than 1,000 women artists from the 16th century to the present, including Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, Alma Thomas, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Chakaia Booker and Nan Goldin.
NMWA is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., in a landmark building near the White House. It is open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sunday, noon–5 p.m. For information, call 202-783-5000 or visit nmwa.org. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for visitors 65 and over and students, and free for NMWA members and youths 18 and under. Free Community Days take place on the first Sunday of each month. For more information about NMWA, visit nmwa.org, Broad Strokes Blog, Facebook or Twitter.