- Having the Last Word:Rosalba Carriera and the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture
In The Exceptional Woman, Mary Sheriff revealed gaps in the factual account of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun's controversial admission to the French Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in 1783. She moreover boldly imagined a backstory to the confrontation between the male-dominated professional body and yet another woman artist seeking to join their ranks. The role of women had vexed the Académie since the late seventeenth century, as Mary detailed in a brief history, citing one early solution: a resolution in 1706 to never again let any woman in. They would rescind that decision in 1720 to admit the internationally celebrated Italian artist Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757), albeit with the declaration that such an action could not and would not constitute a precedent. Official records being terse, the Academicians' qualms, as well as reasoning, would have to be imagined here, too, but this writer confesses to being too literal-minded to even attempt what Mary could do so artfully.
Fortunately, we can gain some insight into Carriera's awareness of the dilemma she presented by virtue of her sex if we read between the lines of the often-quoted letter she wrote to the director of the Académie, Antoine Coypel, on the subject of her morceau de réception, the artwork required of newly admitted members. Of course the reading/interpretation that follows depends on nuances of translation and a measure of "attitude" on Carriera's behalf, but such license is just what Mary Sheriff emboldened us to take. I will argue that Carriera, sixty years before Vigée Le Brun, understood just how prejudiced or unenlightened the members of the Académie could be, even as they bent their rules in her favor. I propose that the imagery of Carriera's morceau de réception pastel, Nymph in [End Page 173] Apollo's Retinue [Figure 1] and her written interpretation of it provided a clever rejoinder to their misogyny.
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Carriera offered the Academicians an image of a comely young woman with flowers in her loosely arranged blonde hair and with one breast exposed by the silky, lightly draped, classicizing costume. One hand points in the traditional—and enigmatic—gesture (of authority?) while the other displays a crown of laurels in the lower right. By employing allegory, the language of history painting, the artist demonstrates that she is capable of so much more than the genre of portraiture to which her gender essentially assigned her. Vigée Le Brun would also challenge that low ranking with an allegorical subject for her own morceau de réception, Peace Bringing back Abundance, in which a half-length dark-haired woman with billowing drapery set against an open sky tenderly encourages a half-length blonde who holds a cornucopia and a sheath of wheat. It is unlikely that she could have [End Page 174] known about her predecessor's address of the Académie's exclusionary biases, but lovely to think that Vigée Le Brun would have appreciated the gesture.
Carriera's letter provides a rare explication of artistic intent, as well as an insight into the politics of art. The first part of the missive is an exercise in diplomacy and politesse.1 Coypel had lost his beloved wife six months earlier and letters, presumably of condolence, that Carriera had sent to his son Charles had gone unanswered, leading her to fear her correspondence was unwelcome. She now had to intrude on the director's grief to request his professional support for the submission of her morceau de réception nearly a year after her official acceptance: "How could [the pastel] dare present itself without your patronage?" she asked, averring that it was Coypel who had persuaded his fellow academicians to accept her in the first place.2
Perhaps having importuned him enough, she turned to the explanation of the pastel itself:
J'ai tâché de...