Art can contain all kinds of significant symbols. In many cases these symbols are not immediately obvious. This gallery contains different pieces that were created right before, during, and right after the French Revolution. They demonstrate some of the symbolic ways women are portrayed, as well as the significance clothing can have. These paintings exemplify the neoclassical styles of that time, and reflect the patriotic and nationalistic themes of the day. There is a clear transition in subject matter from serene portraits to narrative scenes. Through this art it is possible to understand a part of what those fighting in the revolution believed in. These pieces can also help viewers to understand the conflicting ideas about women and their various roles in society at that time. Although the main goal of the Revolution was the liberation of the rights of ordinary men, writers such as Rousseau made it very clear that women were considered inferior. Also during this time, however, women were advocating for more equal opportunities in education, and issues such as inheritance of land and the right to sue in a divorce were becoming less and less determined by gender. It is impossible to deny the significant role women played in the Revolution overall. Though many of the works included below are obvious constructions, they reveal the ideals and driving factors behind a movement which has had a lasting impact not only in France, but also the entire western hemisphere.
Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Antoinette with the Rose, 1783
Oil on Canvas, the Palace of Versailles
This piece was clearly made before the beginning of the Revolution. Marie Antoinette is holding a rose and is wearing a light blue silk gown. Interestingly, Vigée-Lebrun painted this to replace a portrait the Salon had rejected. They were horrified when in the other piece, she had portrayed Marie Antoinette in a muslin dress. The blue silk dress she replaced it with shows Marie Antoinette’s rank, as well as her support of silk-weavers. In this painting, clothing serves as a strong show of power and political statement.
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, 1785
Oil on Canvas, 53.225.5
Although at first this may seem to be simply a self-portrait, scholars surmise that Labille-Guiard used this painting to advocate for the role of women in art. At the time, she entered the French Académie Royale, there were in total only four women who qualified. By depicting herself and her students in formal silk gowns, she preserved their dignity as women of high social standing, yet by placing them in such a setting she brought together two worlds which the critics of the day considered irreconcilable.
Nanine Vallain, La Liberte (Allegory of Liberty), c. 1793-1794
Oil on Canvas, Musée de la Révolution française de Vizille
Symbols can be extremely powerful, and many things in this painting are symbolic. The seated woman is dressed in a short Roman tunic, showing she was ready for action. Her Phrygian hat, hoisted on a pikestaff and resembling a flag, was traditionally worn by emancipated slaves in the Roman empire. This symbolized the French citizens’ opportunity for emancipation from the oppressive monarchy. In this kind of representation, she is a warrior, indicating liberty needed to be fought for.
Antoine-Jean Gros, Portrait of Christine Boyer,1800
Oil on Canvas, Musée du Louvre
Christine Boyer was an illiterate daughter of a French innkeeper, essentially a nobody, until she married Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother. This portrait is in keeping with the neoclassical period in several ways. First, the way she is portrayed is very Greek. Her overall pale appearance and her pose conjure up images of marble sculptures. This grants a sense of nobility, accomplishing two possible goals; one, it would help justify such a low marriage on Lucien’s part; two, it destroys the idea of class distinction. This elevates her from her common or low status without turning her into an aristocrat, the ultimate enemy of the people.
Marie Denise Villers, Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d'Ognes (died 1868),1801
Oil on Canvas, 17.120.204
Roles of women were generally clearly defined, but various activities would have been determined by their places in the social strata. In this painting a girl is seated by a window, dressed in a simple light blue dress, and holding a drawing pad. She is clearly not dressed as a wealthy aristocrat, but more of an everyday middle class citizen. Significantly, she is not doing a domestic task, but instead is depicted as an educated woman working for her own pleasure or an artist working for her own gain. Both concepts were relatively new to French society.
Antoine-Jean Gros, Embarkation of Madame D'Angouleme, 1819
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux
The subject in this piece is a woman named Marie-Thérèse, the eldest daughter of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. After the end of the Revolution, she returned to France and tried to reestablish the monarchy. When Napoleon rallied his troops, she believed her cause to be lost. Rather than cause the destruction of Bordeaux, Marie-Thérèse agreed to leave, earning her the respect of Napoleon himself. This painting depicts her leaving Bordeaux. She is clearly dressed as a noblewoman, with a fur-lined gown, in contrast with some of the lower-class people around her. Gros’ treatment of her pose is similar to his portrait of Christine Boyer. She is given a noble look, and the very narrative, dramatic scene is somewhat reminiscent of Hellenistic Greek sculpture. As they did in Greece, Napoleon elevated his own status by elevating that of an enemy.