Perceptions of Feminine Virtue

Perceptions of Feminine Virtue by Patricia Smith 2013. Keywords: Rococo, Romanticism, feminine virtue, Liberty, reason. It can be argued that Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Francisco De Goya were artists of opposing propaganda. In a close examination of their art and influences we find that they worked to change society perception of feminine virtue. We see that Vigée Le Brun was plagued by what seems to be sexual discrimination, and tried to protect feminine virtue, while Goya implies female deceit with his images from his Caprichos series. Vigée Le Brun was labelled as a Rococo painter when we analyse the Rococo, and discoveries are made of negative implications for being a court painter for Marie Antoinette, and the effects of moralistic bourgeois ideals, and the one sidedness of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. Bourgeois writers reasoned against women’s education, and Vigée Le Brun tried to portray women as equals in morality and nobility, in her paintings of Marie Antoinette and Lady Hamilton. The male intellectual culture became preoccupied with feminine deception as many of Goya’s Caprichos series portray. Goya and other artists are discovered to be Liberal and make it their duty to demonize women, but Goya later changes his attitude when he becomes disillusioned by reason. Le Brun Figure 1. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun Self Portrait in a Straw Hat(In the guise of Rubens wife). After 1782. Oil on canvas, 98x70cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun was born in 1755 and became a prominent portrait painter to the French aristocracy. She painted her subjects in elegant and flattering style (Mercè, 2013), and so it was because of this, she was resentfully identified as an artist of the Rococo. Some had reasoned that, the Rococo style had stemmed from women’s vanity and frivolous nature (Kimball, 1943). There is some confusion to the origins of the Rococo, but Fiske Kimball (1943) suggests that it was most recognised in France during the reign of Louis XV, and that it was born from the Baroque. The Rococo style in general terms is described as ‘decadent, frivolous and vapid’ (Craske, 1997), and at this time bourgeois men were feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the participation of women in politics and so labelled their contributions as frivolous (Landes, 2001), so educated aristocratic women were the first to be blamed for the economic inequality in the lead up to revolution. Marie Antoinette suffered enormous spectacle and interrogation in the days before her execution. Where King Louis XVI was spared such ridicule, but was accused of being one pathetic authority, which allowed his wife to manipulate economic spending to her favour (Ehrenpreis, 2010). Vigée Le Brun was implicated in such spending as Marie Antoinette’s court painter, so on the outbreak of the revolution she fled to Germany (May, 2005).   Vigée Le Brun was deeply influenced by Van Dyke and Rubens when traveling to Flanders and Holland in 1781, and on her return she was elected into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1783. It was due to her ‘self-portrait with straw hat’ fig.1 inspired by Rubens portrait of his sister in-law, which was often referenced in masquerade (Craske, 1997).  Vigée Le Brun was finally accepted after many attempts, as a portrait painter, though her goal was to become a history painter. In 1789 she had gained full membership with the right to exhibit in the Salon at the Louvre, but it is said that she was only admitted because of the intervention by Marie Antoinette, and she had ‘manipulated royal patronage by paying strict adherence to moral propriety’ while at the same time being accused of having a lesbian relationship with the queen. She was also accused of impropriety with finance minister Count Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, whom was dismissed for misusing public money. Another rumour was that she had not painted her portraits by herself, but was assisted by a male artist named Francois-Guillaume Ménageot, a crime which Adélaide Labille-Guiard was also accused. Though despite the accusations Vigée Le Brun’s mentor Joseph Vernet was a strong advocate for her distinction, which had never before been awarded to a women, so one could assume critics were working to discredit her (May, 2005). With growing political unrest, moral propriety had become a strong focus for revolutionary advocates, so the monarchy was trying to portray the political message that an absolute monarch was the answer to moralistic, bourgeois ideals and family values. However the revolutionary writers then began to focus on excessive manners, and believed the more civilized society became the more unnatural it was, so women were supposedly responsible for this unnatural society. Thus in 1789 the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, did not include women. Though, the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women helped bring on the revolution, and in 1791 the women responsible for introducing the Declaration of the Rights for Women was beheaded. Then evolutionary playwright and editor of Babeuf’s Manifesto of Equals Sylvan Maréchal wrote in 1801 the brochure Project for a Law against Teaching Women to Read justified his argument on the basis of nature and reason. Maréchal states that “Reason wants sex to be in its place and stay there,” and “as soon as a woman opens a book, she thinks she’s good enough to produce one.” As examples of ‘the sex’ out of control, Peter Brooks refers to Olympe de Gouges, Mme Roland, and Marie Antoinette and describes them as “Political, debauched and scribbling women” (Landes, 2001.pp128-130). marie Antoinette Figure 2.  Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette with Children, Musée National du Chateau de Versailles, Versailles, France.   Marie Antoinette with her Children fig.2 as a contented mother painted by Vigée Le Brun (May, 2005) was an attempt to enlighten the public as to how Marie Antoinette wished to be viewed, and Vigée Le Brun worked hard to portray this message in neo-classical purity. Women have traditionally, throughout classical history been portrayed as virtuous deities, with symbols of nurturing morality. Vigée Le Brun wanted to show the public Marie Antoinette’s ethical and family values and likened her to Angelica Kauffmann’s (1741-1807) painting Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi 1785 fig.3. In a ‘Roman story of a virtuous mother, Cornelia, was questioned by another knoble woman to see her jewels’, Cornelia answered by presenting the women with her children. So Cornelia is seen as virtuous and natural, a women seen in her rightful place. In showing Cornelia standing beside her sewing basket, illustrates the sacrifice of feminine luxury. Cornelia Figure 3. Angelica Kauffman, Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, Pointing to her Children as her Treasures. 1785. Vigée Le Brun proposed to present Marie Antoinette in the same virtuous personification as Cornelia. Marie Antoinette’s empty cradle presents us with sacrifice, the loss of a child, and she too suffers a great loss. The cradle is draped with royal blue, perhaps representing noble sacrifice. The red of her gown often associated in Roman classicism gives an overall effect of authority. The vertical columns and glimpse of the Gallery represent classic nobility, indicating that Vigée Le Brun was using symbolic neo-classic repertoire to convey her message. As did Kauffman, with the blue drape on the sewing basket, the red robes, roman columns and a glimpse of the mountains are also representative of nobility. Marie Antoinette with her Children was hung in the Salon, but in the lead up to the revolution the painting was nicknamed “Mme. Deficit”, which was ultimately reflective on Vigée Le Bruns reputation as a serious historical painter (Craske, 1997). Sibyl Figure 4. Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun, Lady Hamilton as the Persian Sibyl, 1792. Oil on canvas, (54-5/8″ x 39-3/4″) While living in Italy as an expatriate Vigée Le Brun painted Lady Emma Hamilton as the Persian Sibyl fig.4. Lady Hamilton was considered notorious by her male counterparts, because of her political involvement with the British Government and many lovers including Lord Nelson, William Hamilton, and artist Charles Greville (Mercè, 2013). Although many artists drew inspiration and symbolic meaning from the art of antiquity, Vigées Le Brun was vindicated in plagiarism in more recent years, for her painting Sibyl, with a review in 1965 by Benedict Nicholson saying “a preposterous neo-classic rehash of Domenichino and the late Guercino” (Hottle, 2010.pp120,1). Lady Hamilton’s reputation overshadowed Vigée Le Brun’s Sibyl because the critics could not see past the model, and view Sibyl as the virtuous prophet that she was, or could it be  that the male critics did not want to acknowledge women as prophets and chose to focus their criticism on Lady Hamilton (Hottle, 2010). goya plate 55 Figure 5. Francisco De Goya y Lecientes, Caprichos, Plate 55, Hasta la Muerte, “Until Death”. Burnished aquatint etching with dry point. First edition published 1799. Plate dimensions 215 x 150 mm Male intellectual culture became preoccupied with female deception and women were permitted to be seen, but not to participate in political or any other role other than mother and wife. Women began to be portrayed as grotesque, or as monsters (Landes, 2001). Maximilian Novak (Craske, 1997. pp146, 4) argued that modern man had created an “unreal” or “un-natural” civilization, described as the “Age of Disguise”, and artists such as Goya,  had a strong humanist agenda, and felt it their duty to ‘restore the public’s clarity of vision’, and install moral reform (Craske, 1997). The Romantic Movement began as a ‘revolt against ethical and aesthetic standards’ which meant they had a ‘proneness to emotion, an emotion of sympathy’ (Russell, 1961), but for women was the revolt an ethical one in the pursuit of equality and was there any sympathy? Goya was a Romantic with strong Liberal views and aspirations for the sufferings of the oppressed. He had worked his way up the ranks to court painter for King Charles IV, though he was classed as a man of the people, perhaps because of his modest beginnings, and he critiqued the established power and French imperialism, and ‘predicted the class struggle through the eyes of the workers’ (Hughes, 1987). Hughes (1987. pp 57, 1) points out that Goya was deeply influenced by Bosch’s ‘reputation as a moral allegorist.’ Ironically Bosch was charged with frivolity, and heresy. An early seventeenth century monk is quoted as saying: that “his art was great books of wisdom, and if they appear to be foolish then they are our follies, not his.” Could the same be said for Goyas Caprichos series? The follies of men appear to be caused by women.  Freedom and equality was repeatedly echoed in republican discourse and imagery, but women as ‘Liberty’ caused a flurry of male anxiety. So it seems that Goya was driven to counter images of women as liberty, so instead focused on the Grotesque and female deception. “The female grotesque served as a warning to women for the urgency in safeguarding their political/moral identities as virtuous, republican mothers” (Landes, 2001. p 120, 2). goya women with sythe Figure  6.  Francisco De Goya y Lecientes,  Woman with Scythe and Serpent Reflected in a Mirror La mujer vibora. Etching 20 x 15cm ,Banco de Espana, Madri. In Goya’s Caprichos, Hasta la Muerte fig.5 shows a self-delusional and blind woman, two men behind the mirror smirk in mock admiration reflecting a certain attitude toward the feminine guise (Author unknown, 2006). Goya’s Woman with Scythe and serpent Reflection in a Mirror fig.6 gives us an insight into what Goya believed to be the causation of immorality. Note: the turned out feet of the woman indicating she is a whore (Craske, 1997). The serpent shows obvious connotations linking Eve and the serpent, the causation to the human immoral condition. Though it could be claimed that Goya either believed this to be true or he was pointing out the male attitude towards women. Enlightenment thinkers throughout Europe sort to transform society through reason. They believed it necessary to enlighten the people in poverty and oppression, out of ignorance and superstition, they question the cultivated civilisation, and that the more civilised the achievements of reason had become, the more they thought they were losing something precious (Williams, WileyBlackwell, 2009). “The whole Parisian society had begun to revolve around women”, Rousseau complained, and high society women were the source of all social corruption (Craske, 1997. pp 166, 2). Goya’s Caprichos etchings, question women’s excessive vanity, and ‘was able to make women appear the focus of man’s naive illusions and created the female personification of deceitfulness’ (Craske, 1997.pp152, 2). Goya believed that he held ‘up a vision of truth that was as enlightening as it was disagreeable’ (1997, pp152, 4). Goya directed his work to those, he says, were of ‘penetrative intelligence’ with the intent to draw philosophical insight. Gregorio Gonzalez explained; “it is the most suitable work to sharpen the minds of the young….and judge the percipience and intellectual agility of all people” (Craske, 1997. pp 151, 1). In other words Goya sort to influence perceptive minds. knowbody knows himself Figure 7. Francisco De Goya y Lecientes, Nobody knows himself.  Caprichos series. Etching Distinction between respectable ladies and prostitutes had become an unprecedented subject of preoccupation in European society, and women had become Demons of deceit.  Chardin, Rowlanson, and Lépicie had also expressed concerns as to the moral threat to society, branding women as the demon cause (Craske, 1997). Goya’s Nobody knows himself fig7 is a critique of the social rituals in masquerade. It captures moral anxiety by featuring dark leering figures of desire and the duplicity of the masked young woman. Goya: “The world is a masquerade; face, dress, voice, everything is feigned. Everybody wants to appear as what he is not; everybody deceives and nobody knows anybody” (Craske, 1997. pp155, 2).  As the leering figures suggest that they are trying to make out whether the woman is a whore or lady. The woman is smiling which may suggest she is encouraging. Her pointed shoes are symbolically suggestive in many of Goya’s etchings and her hands in the pockets represent a possible threat. In an etching by Daniel Chodowiecki (1775), presents a masquerade that is to the opposite effect, where a presumably innocent young maiden is sexually molested by a group of masked revellers. Here Chodowiecki is sympathetic towards the female victim, where in Goya’s etching of Poor Little Girls! fig8. The women appear to be accused and mocked, perhaps even suggesting that they deserve what they get. Rousseau: “women’s shame and modesty-not their reason, guaranteed their chastity” (Landes, 2001. pp 132, 1). So it was believed that women should be shamed and chastised. Villeneuve implies in his etching in 1789 of The Female Aristocrat: Cursed Revolution. The Female Democrat, that a woman should be recognisable in her category. A man’s relationship to woman is first guided by “reading her womanly body signs” (Landes, 2001, pp133-134, 2).  poor little girls Figure 8. Francisco De Goya y Lecientes, Poor Little Girls!. Caprichos series. Etching   Goya’s Caprichos etchings are meant as Hughes (1987. pp 62,2) states to be “social speech-satires on reaction, privilege, stupidity, exploitation and social vulgarity, a manifesto of liberal dislikes,” and one of those dislikes is seemingly women. Though in the last third of his career he became disillusioned in the belief of the power of reason, and concluded that “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains”, from “corrupt laws and bad customs”, “they are what we are,” (Hughes, 1987. pp 64, 2) corruptible and human. So had Vigée Le Brun been perceived as deceitful, as had Marie Antoinette? If one was to reference only male artists and writers of her time we might think that Vigée Le Brun was a mere Rococo portrait painter, which was classed as a lesser genre to that of a History painter or Romantic, but her painting of Sibyl proves her ability to narrate, and fortunately Goya finally relented on the feminine guise on his movement into post-modern Realism. So it can be concluded that Vigée Le Brun and Goya were both artist of propaganda. They both worked to change society perception in opposing virtue and genre. Vigée Le Brunt worked to change the perception of feminine virtue in a positive righteousness, while Goya’s perception was derogatory. Vigée Le Brun was a historical painter as we have discovered in her paintings of Marie Antoinette and Lady Hamilton, which ultimately effected the treatment of her abilities. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was proved to exclude women, and male writers argued against their education. Vigée Le Brun tried to portray women as equals, but the male intellectual culture worked hard to portray women as Demons of deceit. All in all with all things considered Liberal equality was not intended for women as we have discovered by exploring works in opposing propaganda and genre. Reference: Alabern, Mercè, A Biography of LadyHamilton Retrieved 27th of October 2013. Author unknown, (2006).  ERIK E. WEEMS . Bertram, Christopher, “Jean Jacques Rousseau”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = . Craske, M. (1997). “And ‘tis in Vain to Find Faults in the Art of Deceiving…”. In Art in Europe 1700-1830: A History of the Visual Arts in an Era of Unprecedented Urban Economic Growth, M. Craske, 145-217. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Craske Matthew, (1997) Art in Europe, 1700-1830 : a history of the visual arts in an era of unprecedented urban economic growth.Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press . Ehrenpreis,D. (2010), Adelaidelabille-Guiard: Artist in the Age of Revolution by Laura Auricchio. The Art Book, 17: 57-58. Doi: 10.1111/j.1467.2010.01079_21.x. Author unknown. “Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun,” The Biography Channel website,ée-le-brun-37280 (accessed Oct 23, 2013). Hottle, Andrew D. (2010), More than “a preposterous neo-classic rehash:” Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun’s Sibyl and its Virgilian connotations.(Critical essay) Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art, Annual, Vol.11, p.120(27) [Peer Reviewed Journal]. Hughes, R. (1990). ‘Goya’. In Nothing if Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists, R. Hughes, 50-64. London: The Harvill Press. Kimball, Fiske, (1943). 1888-1955 ‘The Creation of the Rococo’: Introduction. Director Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Soutworth-Anthoensen Press, Portland, Maine. Laura Auricchio (Mar, 2007). Self-Promotion in Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s 1785 “Self-Portrait with Two Students” The Art Bulletin , Vol. 89, No. 1 pp. 45-62. 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Figure 1. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette with Children, Musée National du Chateau de Versailles, Versailles, France. Figure 2. Francisco De Goya y Lecientes, Caprichos Plate 55,Hasta la Muerte “Until Death”. Burnished aquatint etching with dry point. First edition published 1799. Plate dimensions 215 x 150 mm Figure 3. Angelica Kauffman, Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, Pointing to her Children as her Treasures. 1785. Figure 4. Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun, Lady Hamilton as the Persian Sibyl, 1792. Oil on canvas, (54-5/8″ x 39-3/4″) Figure 5. Francisco De Goya y Lecientes, Caprichos Plate 55,Hasta la Muerte “Until Death”. Burnished aquatint etching with dry point. First edition published 1799. Plate dimensions 215 x 150 mm Author unknown, (2006).  ERIK E. WEEMS . Figure 6. Francisco De Goya y Lecientes, Woman with Scythe and Serpent Reflected in a Mirror La mujer vibora. Etching 20 x 15cm ,Banco de Espana, Madri. Figure 7. Francisco De Goya y Lecientes, Nobody knows himself, or Los Capricho Figure 8. Francisco De Goya y Lecientes, Poor Little Girls!!.html Bibliography: Gussow, M. (2001, Sep 04). A resolute biographer and a kinder, gentler antoinette. New York Times. Retrieved from Sherman, C. R. 1981. “Precursors and Pioneers (1820-1890)”. In Women as Interpreters of the Visual Arts 1820-1979, C. R. Sherman and A. M. Holcomb, eds., 3-25. Connecticut: Greenwood Press. Gombrich, E. H. 1972. “The Age of Reason”. In The Story of Art, 12th ed., E.H. Gombrich, 360-74. London: Phaidon Press. Williams, R. 2009. “The Enlightenment”. In Art Theory: An Historical Introduction, 2nd ed., R. Williams, 95-121 & 286-290 (sources). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. Siegel, J. 2000. “’Monuments of Pure Antiquity’: The Challenge of the Object in Neoclassical Theory and Pedagogy”. In Desire and Excess: The Nineteenth-Century Culture of Art, J. Siegal, 40-72. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Tomory, P. A. 1969. “Neoclassicism and Romanticism c. 1770-1850”. In Foundations of European Art, 207-229. New York: Harry N. Abrams. Halliday, T. 2010. “The Citizen Body: The Trouble With Tatius: David’s Sabines and the End of Public Art”. In The Temperamental Nude: Class, medicine and Representation in Eighteenth-Century France, T. Halliday, 221 – 236. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation. Honour, H. 1968. “Art and Revolution”. In Neoclassicism, H. Honour, 69-99. London: Pelican Books. Johnson, P. 1991. The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830, 67-71. London: Orion Books. Goethe, J. 1772. “Of German Architecture”. In Art History and its Methods: A Critical Anthology,ed. E. Fernie 1995, 77-84. London: Phaidon Press. Hargraves, M. 2010. “The Inner Vision”. In Varieties of Romantic Experience: British, Danish, Dutch, French, and German Drawings from the Collection of Charles Ryskamp, M. Hargraves,215-245 & 263-266 (notes). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale Center for British Art. Johnson, P. 1991. The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830, 141-164. London: Phoenix. Russel, B. 1961. The Romantic Movement”. In History of Western Philosophy, B. Russell, 2nd ed, 651-659. London: Routledge. Hughes, R. 1990. German Romanticism”. In Nothing if not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists, R. Hughes, 89-92. London: The Harvill Press. Nunn, P.G. 1987. Victorian Women Artists. London: The Women’s Press. Nunn, P.G. 1987. “Introduction”. In Victorian Artists. 1-14. London: The Women’s Press. Johnson, Paul. (1991) Honorable gentlemen and weaker vessels The birth of the modern: World Society 1815-1830. pp 473-496.London: Orion Books.


2 responses to “Perceptions of Feminine Virtue

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