Antoine Vestier’s “Allegory of the Arts,” which opens “Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment: French Art from The Horvitz Collection” on exhibit at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum through April 8, is a portrait of his daughter, Marie-Nicole.
Marie-Nicole, while a gifted artist, was denied admission to the Académie de peinture et de sculpture (Academy of Painting and Sculpture) and the attendant privilege of exhibiting at the prestigious Salon de Paris (Salon) because the school had its quota of women (four). Here it is: the theme of the show. Women were denied instruction in any discipline not directly related to their role as wife, mother, sister, daughter. Although Marie-Nicole was talented, she could only get lessons from her father.
The exhibition and the catalogue at the Ackland, 101 S. Columbia St., are the work of art history professors Melissa Hyde of the University of Florida and the late Mary Sheriff of UNC-Chapel Hill. Sheriff’s untimely death kept her from seeing the finished project—the catalogue is dedicated to Sheriff. Hyde saw it through to completion. Their project will add significantly to the study of 18th century art.
Hovering over the show, which includes 130 paintings, drawings and sculpture from the Horvitz Collection, are two questions. Is this a selection of historical art which is alien to a contemporary audience or do the stories resonate with 21st century women because although things have changed, much has remained the same?
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18th century French art is easy to recognize; pastel colors dominate, elegant women wear extravagant hair-dos and revealing décolletage, and children are all cherub-like. The period is long (circa 1675-1825) and encompasses the excesses of Louis XIV, Louis XV’s powerful mistress, Madame De Pompadour, the French Revolution and Napoleon. It is called the Age of Enlightenment where individual liberty and religious tolerance were advanced. Family unity was lauded and, according to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, women’s education was most important as it related to men: how to be useful to them, to be loved by them, to educate them when they are young. Science advanced and woman — as a species — was studied and diagnosed.
Experts determined women were all very much alike and were incapable of intellectual work because their child-bearing abilities made them too emotional and irrational and therefore unfit for leadership roles. The stress would certainly damage their reproductive capacities.
French art, therefore, is much more than idyllic scenes of young people having fun and loving families enjoying the warmth of their households. Beneath these images are the strict rules that laid the ground work of social mores that extend to this day. While these ideas and the works of art that embrace them were about the upper class, the lower classes aspired to the same role models. Women might have to work, but they were still subject to their husbands’ authority.
“Woman in an Interior” by Charles-Francois Hutin (1715-1776) shows us a country girl all cleaned up (only the upper classes bought these pictures) posing for a possible suitor. It does not begin to speak of the drudgery and hard work the poor endured in order to eat.
Part of the joy of this exhibition for the visitor will be to study the individual images and ferret out the underlying messages. Two examples are the small portraits of two beautiful toddlers by Meon (c.1750-1795). Both sit behind a wood desk or ledge. He looks up; his arm lies across its surface. The girl looks down; her hands are carefully hidden, the ledge has become a barrier.
An example of the happy woman who stays at home is Francois-Andre’ Vincent’s (1746-1816) “Family Life.” Here the mother nurses the baby while the husband and son look on. Behind them is an open door which hints at a world beyond, available to the men in the family but not to the women. And as for our Marie-Nicole, whose portrait opens the exhibition, if she had entered the Academy, she would have been barred from drawing the nude model, because it would have been unseemly. Not understanding the musculature of the human body would have kept her from creating history paintings which were the compositions that made artists famous.
The main catalogue essay has been written as if the writer is a female art critic of the time, but with the addition of a 300-year view. She walks through the exhibit and comments on the techniques and the hidden meanings. Her take on a small group of licentious illustrations by Claude-Louis Desrais (1746-1816) in the show is they are “subversive and saucily scornful of the new ideals” and what the authorities deem reprehensible “can offer a form of emancipation.”
These social standards, set into practice in the 18th century, prevailed in this country until WW II and continue to linger. What is sexual harassment about if not men’s power and women’s submission? And the glass ceiling comes out of the same thinking; women are too emotional to be practical and clear headed.
And in Durham ...
At the Durham Art Guild, sculptor Joe Coates, painter Anna Podris and photographer David McRary have joined forces in a show of topsy-turvy buildings, sculpture that defies gravity and city scenes that keep changing as we blink our eyes.
“Joe Coates, David McRary, Anna Podris” is on the second floor gallery of the Durham Arts Council building, 120 Morris St., through March 10.
Coates uses his skills of forging and hammering to create such objects as a huge cube that balances perilously on a delicate male arm, a heavy knotted rope that stands miraculously without any visible support and a myriad of other gravity defying sculptures. Surrealism hovers over his work.
Podris uses encaustic and oil to paint claustrophobic cityscapes with happy people and see-through birds. Her buildings nestle lovingly into each other. McRary’s photographs are of the real world seen through layers of other scenes; like looking through a window pane on a rainy day. His technique incorporates natural ambient light and color film saturation. On a day when the news was scary and depressing, this art lifted my spirits and made me smile.