Women through the Lenses of French Men
Art in the Neoclassic era, especially in France, was greatly influenced by a historical event that took place at that same time period: The French Revolution, which extended from 1789 to 1799. Since men were mainly the only ones fashioning paintings at this time, the way women were depicted in art was a direct reflection of men’s lenses and what they deemed worthy or unworthy in women’s behaviors in light of the French Revolution.
At that time, revolutionaries abated women involved in politics, but praised ladies that would diligently take care of their houses and children. The theme of motherhood is presented iconographically as a symbol of reformed manners and family life in the new political order. Many instances of mothers are found in revolutionary prints, typically nursing babies and minding children.
Painters also used the female body as an allegory, which could be used as a symbol for either positively, as an idea of liberty or negatively, as a symbol of the enemy. In revolutionary iconography, classical female bodies were used to represent Liberty, Republic, Victory, Philosophy, Reason, Nature and Truth. They functioned to instruct all of the public on the cardinal virtues of Republican France: unity, fraternity, equality and brotherly love. But on the other hand, women’s bodies could also be used as female grotesques in the attempt of representing all evil- including discord, enmity, license, vengeance and anarchy- in the figure of a hideous female body. The visual presence of women in these grotesque images also warned men about the dangers of women’s involvement in public political life.
Portrait of Louise Pastoret, Jacques-Louis David, Oil on Canvas, 1791-1792, The Art Institute of Chicago
During the French Revolution, even women whose portraits hinted at their engagement with national affairs were almost always defined by their roles as wives and mothers. Jacques-Louis David’s 1791-1792 portrait of Louise Pastoret, a member of the liberal nobility and well-known supporter of the Revolution, makes no explicit reference to the sitter’s political involvement. Instead, the portrait points to Pastoret’s republican motherly attribute. Seated by her son’s cradle, she labors at a piece of needlework, and her maternal breast is exposed, testifying to her role as a nurturer of citizens.
Madame Philippe Panon Desbassayns de Richemont and Her Son, Eugene, Marie Guillelmine Benoist, Oil on Canvas, 1802, 53.61.4
In the immediate years following the French Revolution, women involved with domestic affairs continued to be praised. In this painting, the mother, Madame Philippe Panon, holds her son, Eugene, very closely and with love. This portrait is meant to encourage other mothers to do the same in loving and caring for their homes. This idea that women should stay at home is furthered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believes that women are incapable of invention and should not be involved in public spheres, which, he was confident, were reserved for men only.
Liberty—She Has Overthrown the Hydra of Tyranny and Broken the Yoke of Despotism, Pierre Paul Prud’hon and Jacques-Louis Copia, Engraving, 1793, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
In this engraving, the illustrator Paul Prud’hon and engraver Jacques-Louis Copia contribute in devising this image. The female body is used as an allegory for Liberty, a common practice in the Neoclassic period. An insight as to why women were chosen by didactic artist to represent the ideals of Enlightenment is correlated with the levels of participation women were allowed in political circles. Revolutionaries who really clinged to traditionalist gender roles were able to publically utilize female bodies as an excuse for excluding them from the public affairs. Unlike the representation of men in artwork, which was tied to Greco-Roman ideals of beauty, women were essentially blank slates of the average civilian. The void female body made it propitious for male culture to use the female figure as a representation for basically anything.
Republican France offering Her Breasts to All Frenchmen, Boizot-Clement and Louis-Simons, Oil on Canvas, 1793, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
This image sets a link between the use of the female figure as an allegory for Enlightenment Ideals, in this case, the Republic, and the idealization of women as republican mothers. When the women in the picture is “offering her breasts to all Frenchmen,” that alludes to the idea of nursing and nurturing, which is characteristic of a faithful mother. Another aspect present with the offering to “all Frenchmen” is tied to the idea of equality and how all men deserve, to the same extent, to be involved in the republic and the political French environment.
Aristocratic Lady Cursing the Revolution, Unknown, Engraving, 1789, Musee Carnavalet
During Revolutionary France, artists made use of female grotesques to represent evil. An example of such is this engraving. It establishes a link between political and sexual liberty:it depicts women involved in political circles as foolish women who have an excess of unpleasant sexuality as shown by her shaggy breasts and less than charming face. Many artists would depict their grotesques based on Marie Antoinette, who was very vocal about her political views, even more than her husband, the king. Her rambunctious nature made the king look publically weak and was mocked by the men who thought women should have nothing to do with politics.
Unknown, Charlotte du Val d’Ognes, Oil on Canvas, 1801, 17.120.204While this painting may look intriguing to us by the way she stares at the viewers, it was probably confusing for the audience of its time. Comparing this painting to the previous ones presented here, it is easy to see it does not fit within the normal standards of its time frame: there is no idea of motherhood involved, and it does not seem to depict a “republican symbol,” neither positive liberty nor negative animosity. The work the young girl is doing subverts the expectations set for women at the time and opportunities available for the ladies at all.