|Marie Antoinette with her Children,|
1787, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun
We are indebted to the women's movement of late for the fact that I could even find works by any of these women in my art history texts and reference works. Only one of the paintings had I ever seen before, that being the Vigee-Lebrun Portrait of Marie Antoinette with Her Children painted in 1787. The painting depicts an attractively attired but very un-queenly mother of three young children, arrayed around her in a largely successful attempt to propagandize her role as the "mother of all mothers," so to speak. In a poignant touch, the dauphin, her eldest son, points to an empty cradle of a recently deceased infant. The painting is one of about 20 such portraits Vigee-Lebrun painted of the queen.
All the ladies I mentioned above were portrait artist and most were royal favorites. They were the four token female members of the Royal Academy, a limitation one of them, Adelaide Labille-Guiard, successfully petitioned to change. Their careers and backgrounds were all remarkably similar. Each came from family with backgrounds in the arts, each were from the upper classes, and each represented a rare breed of activist women emerging at the time from a traditional place upon the pedestal of feminine limitations. It was a turbulent era and a turbulent career choice, and at least two of these ladies found themselves outcasts from French society at various times, forced to live and work in other countries for extended periods. But the common thread of their existence, their sex, their competence, and their independence as women, elevates them to more than mere historical curiosity. They were very much under-rated artists.