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Recently the topic of female painters down through history has been pretty hot. And frankly, I must confess, some of the names dropped in my lap have sent me digging through my reference works in order to match the names with faces (faces in paintings that is). But in all fairness, names like Adelaide Labille-Guiard, Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Anna Vallayer-Coster, or Marie Therese Reboul are not exactly household words. However there was a time and there was a household in which these talented ladies were household words. I'm referring to the late 1700s and the household of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, the then king and queen of France.

We are indebted to the women's movement of late for the fact that I could even find works by any of these women in my art history texts and reference works. Only one of their paintings had I ever seen before, that being the Vigée-Lebrun Portrait of Marie Antoinette with Her Children painted in 1787. This painting depicts an attractively attired but very un-queenly mother of three young children, arrayed around her in a largely successful attempt to propagandise her role as the "mother of all mothers" so to speak. In a poignant touch, the dauphin, her eldest son, points to an empty cradle of a recently deceased infant. The painting is one of about 20 such portraits Vigée-Lebrun painted of the queen.

All the ladies I mentioned above were portrait artists and most were royal favourites. They were the four token female members of the Royal Academy, a limitation one of them, Adelaide Labille-Guiard, successfully petitioned to change. Their careers and backgrounds were all remarkably similar. Each came from families with backgrounds in the arts, each were from the upper classes, and each represented a rare breed of activist women just starting to emerge at that time from a traditional place upon the pedestal of feminine limitations. It was a turbulent era and a turbulent career choice, and at least two of these ladies found themselves outcasts from French society at various times, forced live and work in other countries for extended periods. But the common thread of their existence, their sex, their competence, and their independence as women, elevates them to more than mere historic curiosity. They were very much, albeit underrated, artists.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
3 May 1998


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