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  • Ambitions, Modest and Otherwise of Two Parisian Painters:Marie-Anne Loir and Catherine Lusurier
  • Melissa Hyde (bio)

Ambition. The laudable daughter of emulation, who gives birth to the desire to distinguish oneself in a career of talent and genius.

C-N Cochin, "Ambition," Iconologie par figures (1791)

What is the ambition of a woman? To be likeable and to be loved.

J-F Marmontel, "Le Misanthrope corrigé," Contes moraux (1765)

How brave, how energetic, or how ambitious must be the woman who would win the title Artist.

Léonce Bénédite, "Of Women Painters in France" (1905)1

Around 1710, a Lyonais print seller by the name of Balthazar Gentot published a print that humorously depicts a well-dressed man in a domestic interior, brandishing a cudgel and shouting at his wife (see fig. 1). She returns the favor, armed with a distaff. Between them, suspended in a tug-of-war, is the object of their dispute: a pair of the husband's breeches, a metonymical sign of his masculinity and authority. The theme of the battle [End Page 59] over the culottes was nothing new.2 But this particular engraving caught my attention because it bears a title that attributes the quarrel over the breeches to a specific cause: female ambition, as indicated by the inscription on a petticoat-shaped cartouche at the top of the composition, "Ambition of the Wife to Achieve Mastery by Means of the Breeches." Defining female ambition in terms of an unruly wife's struggle for authority at home is a striking conceit, given that the print was made at a time when in actuality, women's ambitions extended to domains—intellectual, artistic, political—that were decidedly beyond the purview of the domestic sphere. The print, though humorous, offers a fair idea of how the ambitious woman was conceived in the popular imaginary of France: she was both unruly and the object of ridicule. This image is also tacitly predicated on the normative view that wives (and women in general) are supposed to be submissive, obedient, and faithful, with no ambition to rule. However, like other treatments of the subject, the print can also be read in another way, against the grain, as articulating and thereby normalizing an alternative vision of the world in which women do not adhere to the notional norms, and spouses are equal in strength and independence.3 As such, it calls to mind the assertion by Janet Burke and Margaret Jacob that "women have been (and remain) able to act independently even when living in societies that wish to imagine them as subordinate or to reaffirm traditional gender relations."4

This essay focuses on two women whose artistic ambitions enabled them to find ways to work successfully within systems that were legally, socially, and institutionally structured not to include them. My central protagonists, Catherine Lusurier (1752–81) and Marie-Anne Loir (1705–83), were both painters who went after their ambitions by quietly breaking the rules, both out of necessity and as a professional strategy. They operated almost exclusively in the domain of the social and in "the Republic of Painting," rather than that of official art institutions or the open art market.5 Their modus operandi contrasts markedly with that of two other women, the marquise Du Châtelet and Madame Du Bocage, whom I will have occasion to discuss because, as it happens, both of these femmes savantes sat to Loir for their portraits. Both pursued their intellectual ambitions as notable figures in Parisian society and as members of the Republic of Letters, but also, in a more highly public way, as published authors. Drawing on these examples, I mean to complicate the notion of ambition as traditionally applied to women and to show that there were many different ways to be an ambitieuse.

Ideas of "female ambition" as they appear in the dominant discourses and visual cultures of the eighteenth century have little to do with "ambition" as it was defined in sources such as the Encyclopédie and the Dictionnaire Trevoux. Without the qualifier, ambition both implicitly and explicitly [End Page 60]

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Figure 1.

Balthazar Gentot, Ambition...