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Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.1 (2006) 144-148
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Women, Art, and Culture in Eighteenth-Century France
The diversity of contemporary feminist approaches to the study of eighteenth-century art is well represented by the three books under consideration here. Their different concerns are signalled by their contrasting formats; they are, respectively, an essay collection, a biography, and a thematic monograph. Whereas the biography recounts the life of an individual woman artist, the essay collection offers a series of detailed investigations into women's engagement with the visual arts, addressing the activities of female patrons as well as artists. The thematic monograph, by contrast, is primarily concerned not with art produced or commissioned by women but with the gendering of the discourses surrounding the production and viewing of art. However, they share a common focus on French art (the subject of the majority of the essays in the edited volume). It is a focus that has particular resonance for feminist art history, given that women in eighteenth-century France (or rather Parisian polite society of the period) were said to enjoy a status and influence unrivalled by their counterparts elsewhere.
Gita May's biography looks back to an earlier stage of feminist art history, when the life and work of neglected women artists were rediscovered by pioneering scholars. In typical fashion, the introduction characterizes Vigée Le Brun as a "great artist" (2, 6), whose achievements were made in face of the obstacles presented by her gender and whose work has until recently been unfairly disdained by art historians and critics. In fact, on the face of it, Vigée Le Brun is today anything but a neglected artist, having been the subject of two other books in English in less than a decade: Mary Sheriff's The Exceptional Woman (1996), a theoretically-informed study that focuses on a number of key works, and Angelica Goodden's The Sweetness of Life (1997), a biography by a literary scholar rather than a work of art [End Page 144] history. This latest biography, also by a literary scholar, is somewhat more scholarly in tone than Goodden's (which refers to its subject as "Louise" throughout), but far less substantial. May presents Vigée Le Brun in a light calculated to make her sympathetic to the general reader, characterizing her as generous, loyal, fearless, resourceful, etc., whilst also regretfully acknowledging less attractive qualities, such as a lack of concern for the poor. Inevitably, discussions of the artist's work are mostly brief and rather bland; her remarkable Bacchante is merely referred to as "eclectic" (55).
Like previous accounts of Vigée Le Brun's life, May's relies heavily on the artist's memoirs, first published as Souvenirs in 1835–7. However, the ready availability of this source presents something of a trap for biographers, given that it dates from long after most of the events that it describes. Moreover, there is some doubt as to how far Vigée Le Brun actually wrote the Souvenirs herself (at least according to Pierre de Nolhac's 1912 biography). Although aware that the text cannot be taken on trust as a transparent record of the life, May underestimates the artifice involved. She quotes without comment, for example, Vigée Le Brun's account of how Marie-Antoinette picked up some brushes that the heavily pregnant artist had dropped (38), a story clearly derived from the famous anecdote about the Emperor Charles V picking up Titian's brush for him, modified to draw attention to the shared womanhood of queen and artist. Relying on the Souvenirs also...