- Tracing Marie-Éléonore Godefroid: Women’s Artistic Networks in Early Nineteenth-Century Paris
Marie-Éléonore Godefroid’s life and work is caught in the paradox that faces historians of women’s lives. Well known and respected in artistic and elite circles during her lifetime, she was quickly forgotten after her death. While there is plentiful evidence of an active career in the records of the Salons, few of her works have survived or, at least, remain attributed to her. Her biography exists in a few scattered secondary sources written long after her death, based on a now-lost autobiographical text. If anonymous was a woman, her sister has a name but no oeuvre to give her life a context. How do we begin to trace the life and career of a woman artist whose work is largely lost and whose career path was forged outside the traditional focus of the discipline of art history? These are two different, but not unrelated problems, as I will demonstrate. In this essay, I propose to give texture to Godefroid’s life and surviving work by pursuing her interpersonal relations, particularly with women. I argue that Godefroid’s connections to elite women in Napoleonic France can enrich our understanding of the ways that women in general and this woman in particular utilized homosocial relationships to survive and, at least in some sense, prosper. These networks also provide an avenue of historical access to the life and work of women in the art world, albeit in a fragmentary and provisional state. [End Page 55]
Perhaps ironically, given my argument, the visual focus of my essay will be an image of young boys, not women, and thus one that has been read by others as a statement about relations between men. Godefroid’s The Sons of Marshal Ney (Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, 1810) (fig. 1) has become a minor icon of art produced by a woman. Godefroid’s painting, shown in the Paris Salon of 1810 and called the “Portrait en pied des enfans de M.gr le maréchal duc d’Elchingen” in the livret, presents Joseph Napoléon, Michel Louis, and Eugène Ney in fancy dress as if arrayed on stage.1 Joseph, the eldest child, aged eight, is in the center framed by the curtain, his feet inscribed within a circular red paving stone. His hat is festooned with white feathers, wearing a white silk-fringed tunic with a blue sash over white silk stockings tucked into black boots, an outfit echoed by Michel, the second son. Joseph displays the sword hung from a belt slung across his chest. Eugène, aged two, signals its importance by pointing at it. His gesture is underlined by the contrast of his red sleeve against the bright yellow fabric of the curtain. Eugène and Michel straddle a rifle, which appears to have been discarded while the boys stop to admire the sword. Michel’s gaze, whose body interlinks with Eugène’s—arm around shoulder and crossed feet between his younger brother’s legs—leads to the older brother and the oversized sword. Joseph stands isolated against a balustrade with a large flat plain and a river behind him.
Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris included this work in their groundbreaking 1976–1977 exhibition, Women Artists, 1550–1950, and it was also reproduced by Apollo Magazine in its review of the show (though not discussed).2 Harris and Nochlin, Nancy Heller, Margaret Barlow, and Jordi Vigue include reproductions of this painting in their surveys of women artists, while numerous other scholars include Godefroid more generally as one of several female artists and instructors.3 But Harris and Nochlin’s catalog essay remains so far the most extensive published analysis of this painting, which they interpret with a primary emphasis on the masculine, paternal, and martial elements. The rifle and sword are read as symbolic of Marshal Ney’s progression from hussar to marshal. This sword may have been a gift to Ney from Napoleon at the time of his wedding to Aglaé Auguié, the boys’ mother, and has been read as a reference to martial duty, portending future responsibilities...