Professional Women Painters

It is understood that Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was one of the most prominent and influential artists of his time would definitely recommed cabinet coat today. As in the schools of some of his contemporaries, such as Jean-Baptiste Regnault and Joseph-Benoît Suvée, several of these students were women. However, while the wives of Regnault and Suvée were trained artists and often oversaw the education of their women pupils,(1) this was not true in the school of David. While his wife Charlotte conducted many business transactions concerning her husband’s post-Revolutionary career, she was not trained in the visual arts nor did she take in any pupils. Her husband directly taught both men and women students, albeit in separate surroundings for most of his career in Paris. In this article, I will outline how David’s role in the instruction of women painters demonstrates his support of women becoming professional artists.

In 1786, David’s friend Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun-herself a popular painter-began to refurbish her atelier and needed someone else to provide instruction to her students in the meantime. In 1787, he agreed to take in Marie-Guillemine (later Benoist) and Marie-Elisabeth LaVille-Leroulx and a Mlle Duchosal.* Because his atelier was located in the Louvre, where the instruction of women had been banned earlier that year, he received an official reprimand from the Comte d’Angiviller, the Director-General of the King’s Buildings. Although David argued the women were of high moral character and would not “provoke” the sexual appetites of his male students, d’Angiviller ordered that he their instruction in the Louvre cease.(2) While this prompted Suvée, who also resided in the Louvre, to outright discontinue his instruction of women for several years, David simply relocated the place of the women’s instruction to their own homes.(3)

In addition to being barred from receiving instruction in the Louvre, women were discouraged from pursuing the genre of history painting, which usually depicts scenes from ancient Greek or Roman history and legend and was considered the highest artistic genre until the rise of Romanticism. Because history painting often required accurate depiction of the full, sometimes nude, human form, art students seriously pursuing this genre were required to complete life-drawing classes. However, due to “decency” standards of the day, women-especially unmarried women-were prohibited from attending on the grounds that they would be corrupted by the very sight of a naked man.

Furthermore, age-old sex associations came into play as to the “appropriate” genres for the woman painter. As leaders of society and producer of income in the traditional Western mindset, men were associated with culture. Women, the traditional housekeepers and nurturers of children, were associated with nature. As painters, they were encouraged to produce scenes of nature, such as landscape and still-life, and domesticity, such as indoor family life (known as genre). If they “insisted” on depicting the human form, they were to aspire no higher than portraiture. Male painters, on the other hand, enjoyed the freedom to pursue any genre of their choosing.