Fend, Mechthild, Melissa Hyde, and Anne Lafont, eds. Plumes et pinceaux. Discours des femmes sur l'art en Europe (1750-1850).
Lafont, Anne, ed. Plumes et pinceaux. Discours des femmes sur l'art en Europe (1750-1850)--Anthologie. Dijon: Les Presses du reel, 2012. Pp. 551. ISBN: 978-2-84066-458-1
Guentner, Wendelin, ed. Women Art Critics in Nineteenth-Century France. Vanishing Acts. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2013. Pp. 366. ISBN: 978-161149-446-4
Within the historiography of nineteenth-century art history and criticism, women have habitually been confined to the margins (when their activity has been recognized at all). The editors of these collections set out to rectify this situation in slightly different though overlapping ways, either by highlighting the activity of female commentators on contemporary art exhibited at the Paris Salon, or by reassessing the part played by women across Europe in a variety of discursive forms relating to the visual arts. Plumes et pinceaux (together with its excellent accompanying volume of primary texts) examines writers predominantly from France, but also from England and Germany, whose reflections on ancient and modern art took on a variety of forms, from novels and letters to memoirs and travel accounts, as well as more conventional journalistic criticism. Guentner's volume, by contrast, focuses more firmly on female observers of the French art scene, most of whom published in the periodical press, and above all in journals catering expressly to women, a sector that expanded significantly after 1830.
Both collections are dominated by monographic studies of specific writers. Plumes et pinceaux originated as a conference on "Historiennes et critiques d'art a l'epoque de Juliette Recamier," held in conjunction with an exhibition on Recamier in Lyons in 2009; Vanishing Acts is a collaborative effort between literary historian Guentner and art historians Heather Belnap Jensen and Veronique Chagnon-Burke, who each present essays on two or three critics active between the 1790s and the 1870s. As is inevitable with such collections, overall quality is rather uneven, varying with the insight of individual contributors and the intrinsic interest of the figures they discuss. Nonetheless, both collections offer broad, often challenging, themes that transcend the occasionally pedestrian quality of particular chapters, and encourage the reader to rethink the role played by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women not only in art criticism but in the cultural sphere more generally.
In this respect, Chagnon-Burke is the most probing contributor to Vanishing Acts. Her chapters on female critics and painters in mid-nineteenth-century France question idees recues regarding women's access to public culture, stressing the prominence of female exhibitors in the Salon (though her figures are inconsistent: "at least one third of the artists at the Salon were women" during the July Monarchy , a figure that "kept growing throughout the nineteenth century until, at its end, women represented about 22% of the total" ). Chagnon-Burke blames modernism, with its hostility to minor genres of narrative painting frequently practiced by women, for the obscurity to which this important aspect of nineteenth-century pictorial production has been relegated. She notes, too, that women also played a small, though significant, role as critics, and were more widely represented within mid-century journalism as a whole than is often recognized.
Chapters by Guentner on critics Claude Vignon and Marc de Montifaud illustrate the point, though as both women's recourse to masculine pseudonyms attests, acceptance into the male-dominated world of the press imposed a range of practical and discursive constraints on aspiring "femmes de lettres." In her concluding remarks on female art critics and the ideology of separate spheres, Guentner qualifies Chagnon-Burke's revisionist stance by emphasizing that "Strict conceptions of gender roles [...] highlight the force of character needed for nineteenth-century women art critics to pursue their ambitions, especially outside of the supportive environment provided by the feminine press" (264).
The editors' introduction to Plumes et pinceaux echoes this caution. The French Revolution, they argue, did indeed largely exclude women from its emancipatory sweep. At the same time, however, this very act of suppression fostered a reaction that subsequently informed women's activities as artists, writers, and intellectuals. Contributors such as Mary Sheriff, writing on the Memoires of Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, or Susan Siegfried, in her stimulating discussion of critics in the post-revolutionary women's press, further nuance this point in exploring overlaps and opportunities that challenged the suffocating ideology of separate spheres. The Memoires, published towards the end of the artist's life in 1835-1837, present women as active not only as models and patrons, but as playing decisive roles in social and political life. Moreover, Vigee-Lebrun evokes a world at odds with what Sheriff describes as the "modele unisexe qui fut volontiers adopte par les histoires generales de l'art" and recalls instead "un monde de l'art mixte incluant hommes et femmes." Siegfried endorses the point, underlining the prominence of women in post-Thermidorian society and demonstrating ways in which women's magazines (often written by men) display a fascination with female cultural producers. Yet, Siegfried notes, this relative openness proved short-lived: under the Consulate and Empire, as women's legal status was further restricted by the Code civil, the promotion of women artists in publications such as the Journal des dames et des modes was eclipsed by increasing emphasis on the joys of domesticity.
As other contributions to the collection suggest, opportunities for women as cultural commentators often went hand in hand with social privilege. Anne Schroder's discussion of Felicite de Genlis, Sara Betzer's article on Marie d'Agoult, or Satish Padiyar, evoking the more ambivalent case of Juliette Recamier, all present women whose voice was deeply inflected by their elite status. Others, such as the British travelers analyzed by Isabelle Baudino, or the German commentators Helmina von Chezy or Johanna von Haza, were able to use their distance from French society as a platform from which to communicate with their compatriots. In each of these, and other instances, no programmatic, essentialized "feminine" voice emerges, though historically assigned gender roles, either interiorized or resisted, inevitably inform these women's perceptions both of the world of art and of the world in general. The anthology that completes Plumes et pinceaux allows us direct access to these perceptions in a generous selection of writings, supplemented by biographical introductions, iconography, and a detailed bibliography. These texts, many of which are hard to find and some of which are previously unpublished, have also been made available to readers on the website of France's Institut national d'histoire de Tart (http://inha .revues.org/2907), together with an excellent selection of illustrations.
Neil McWilliam, Duke University
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|Title Annotation:||Plumes et pinceaux: Discours des femmes sur l'art en Europe (1750-1850) - Anthologie, Women Art Critics in Nineteenth-Century France|
|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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