French Social Movements in the Form of Women’s Bodies

Over the weekend I traveled to New York City in order to do some research on a art history/women’s studies project. I wanted to look at the way different artists used the female form as an illustration of different movements, basically using images of these women to promote controversial political or academic ends. When I was in the Metropolitan Museum of art on Saturday, I came across two paintings which did this so well they were actually censored (i.e. kicked out) of the Salon in Paris, although the two movements they represent couldn’t be more different.

Vigee Le Brun, “Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress,” 1783, Oil on Canvas

This first painting was done in 1783 by Vigee Le Brun, the most sought-after female portraitist in France of her time. Madame Le Brun was often commissioned to paint the women of the French royal family, and one of her goals was to portray them in such a way that appeared humble and relatable. I know this certainly seems odd in France, which had been obsessed over class for hundreds of years, but remember this is just a couple years before the French Revolution, and the royals were willing to go to great lengths to prove they were not as evil as the people seemed to believe they were. The portrait I studied was of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, but she’s certainly not portrayed in the way we usually think of her. Rather than sporting a gigantic dress decked out with jewels and hair piled nearly a foot off the top of her head, she is shown here in a chemise dress, with a straw hat (straw–the stuff of peasants!). Her hair is mostly down, and in the background the flowers next to her seem to be falling apart, which wouldn’t have been allowed to happen in a royal court. Perhaps the most shocking thing about this portrait is that Marie Antoinette is not wearing a corset. Instead is shown in a soft flowing dress her ladies would wear on a casual day when they had nowhere to be. This was unheard of in a painting of a monarch, especially in 18th century France.

Vigee Le Brun’s goal was to make her Queen look approachable, relatable, and humble, and I believe she met this goal. Many people in France enjoyed this portrayal of her. However, she may have done too good of a job, considering the Salon would eventually remove her painting because of its “inappropriate” depiction of a French royal. About a month later Le Brun would repaint this work, replacing the chemise dress with an elegant lace-trimmed one that is the epitome of decorum, although Marie’s signature Cabbage Rose would remain. This version of the painting was later accepted into the Salon, but is in my opinion much less interesting than the one preceding it.

Gustave Courbet, “Woman with a Parrot,” 1866, Oil on Canvas

The next painting was done about a hundred years later by Gustave Courbet, who many claim is the founder of the Realism movement. Courbet hated the academic style of painting that was taught by the French Royal Academy of Art. He thought it was too idealistic, frivolous and removed from society. As a result he created several images of people of the lower class, without ever censoring the menial and seemingly pointless drudgery of their existence. Courbet seemed to grow bolder with age, as his art became increasingly risque. The piece I analyzed is of a nude woman, although she’s certainly not the type of women French up-and-ups were used to seeing. Instead of the ethereal, near-perfect women of decades prior, this woman is startlingly real, and definitely from the lower class (i.e. a prostitute). More to the point: there’s a certain dirtiness to this painting which makes it both compelling and scandalous. While her hair appears soft and rich, it is scruffy at the base, implying it hasn’t been washed in a while. Her eyebrows don’t appear to have ever been groomed at all. Her hands are darkened and uncleaned–just compare them to the hands in the portrait of Marie Antoinette. Certain areas of her body have been darkened as well, implying the presence of hair, which would have definitely been rude to paint at the time. The woman’s mouth is open and you can see her teeth–a rather impolite expression. In addition her legs are partly spread and she’s lying on a bed, which clearly sexualizes her. Nothing is implied here: Courbet basically gives all his viewers what he knows they want to see, rather than beating around the bush trying to create some perfect, innocent woman who for some reason is naked in a painting.

What I think is one of the most impactful things about this painting is its sheer size. At the Met it took up an entire wall. People wouldn’t have painted anything that big of a single person unless they were royalty or some other major government big shot. But Courbet did it with a freaking prostitute! Honestly I find it so hilarious.

This painting was of course removed from the Salon, like most of Courbet’s work. But it certainly caught people’s attention and inspired the young, emerging generation to move away from the academic style it so protested and toward new movements like Realism and later Impressionism.

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