women artists in 19th century france

Forbidden Fruit (Le Fruit Défendu) by Auguste Toulmouche, 1865, illustrating how young women have always rebelled against having their access to knowledge policed.

Nineteenth-century French and British families kept a close eye on the literature allowed to pass into the hands of unmarried girls (married women were not automatically exempt, either). While Toulmouche’s painting garnered great acclaim for its aesthetic charms when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1865, a contemporary male art critic’s sour aside summed up the prevailing attitude to independent female minds:

“I do not approve of these silly girls; instead of searching forbidden pages for the knowledge that they lack, they would do better to leave tomorrow’s lover the pleasure of instructing them in the matters of which they are ignorant.” Paul Mantz quoted in Women Readers in French Painting 1870-1890 by Kathryn J. Brown.

No comment.

Louise Catherine Breslau (1856-1927)
“La Toilette” (1898)
Oil on canvas
Currently in a private collection

Breslau would become the third woman artist, and the first foreign woman artist to be bestowed France’s Legion of Honor award. Breslau would go on to become a well-regarded colleague to some of the day’s most popular artists and writers including Edgar Degas and Anatole France. One person who was very special in Breslau’s life was Madeleine Zillhardt, with whom she spent over forty years. Zillhardt, a fellow student at the Académie Julian, became Breslau’s muse, model, confidant, and supporter.

#NotOnView | Alphonse Mucha: Lady with Daisy

Alphonse Mucha was a leading artist and designer of the Art Nouveau style in late 19th-century Paris. He is best known for his poster depicting sensual, languid women with flowing hair. His subjects included the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt with whom he worked in the mid-1890s. Mucha’s skill as a draftsman and decorative designer brought him commissions for a wide range of graphic projects, from large-scale advertisements for cigarette paper, champagne, and railroads to magazine and book illustrations. Here, he utilizes his skill in textile design.

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En route pour la pêche = Setting Out to Fish
John Singer Sargent (American; 1856–1925)
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The closer I looked at this painting, the more questions the dynamic in it raised, and the less satisfied I became with the blandness of its current title(s). Always happy to dive into archives, what I found was an article referencing “satire of the ungentle sex” by “perverted” foreign artists.

Reviewing the 1869 Winter Exbibition at the French Gallery in Pall Mall, London, an art critic asserted that unlike their British counterparts who favoured “sentiment, pathos, and fun”, foreign artists “not infrequently“ represented gender relations through the medium of satire. Two companion paintings by Charles Édouard Boutibonne of the type then contemptuously termed “boudoir art” furnished an example:

“In the first, we simply see two ladies - the one dark but apparently frank, the other fair but possibly not candid - setting the seal to confidential consultation or intrigue: they are, according to the title, Friends for Life [Amies pour La Vie].”

The critic then goes on to the pendant, which very much sounds like the Boutibonne picture I’ve posted above:

“In the second we also see two ladies with a close family, or at least generic, resemblance to the former. They, too, have held more or less sweet converse together, but to a different result. The dark one, forgetting all diplomatic reserve, has started to her feet in a paroxysm of only half-smothered rage; her fair friend, on the contrary, perfectly retaining her self-possession, anticipates her congé [dismissal] with a low curtsey and a bland smile, that, while intended to stab to the heart’s core, is mockingly expressive of complimentary felicitation and infinite gratitude; they are now Enemies Until Death [Ennemies à Mort].”

In sum, while conceding that the French school still held on to superiority in technical mastery, the British critic patriotically concluded, “In the leading Continental school the aims of art have undoubtedly in general been lowered, perverted, or corrupted under [Napoleon III’s] regime; whilst there is an appreciable improvement in choice of themes, and increasing originality among our own artists.” The Illustrated London News, 6 November 1869.

Image source: Oil on panel by Charles Édouard Boutibonne, 1868, offered for auction on 15 December 2016 under the title The Letter by Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. Some art sites have instead labelled the painting Interior With Figures.