Musée d'Orsay: Women, Art and Power

Women, Art and Power

From 18 June 2019 in the Musée d'Orsay

Why a tour about women as creators in the museum collections?

Laurence des Cars, President of the Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie

Félix VallottonMisia at Her Dressing Table© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The history of women artists has long been a silent history because the circumstances in which their works were created and disseminated often had an impact on their visibility and recognition by their peers.
In tandem with the exhibition devoted to Berthe Morisot, the Musée d’Orsay is addressing this subject by organising a special tour in the permanent collections, pursuing the lead set by British and American museums several years ago. This tour explores the role of women in the period spanned by the museum (1848-1914), which was shaped by the rise in urban development and industrialisation that laid the foundations for today’s society.

What role did women play in the wider story of the birth of modernity? How have they contributed to the development of the artistic and creative sphere? Women artists, art critics, collectors, curators, donors, patrons – over thirty women in the creative arts feature on this tour of some one hundred works encompassing all techniques. The museum hopes to make its own contribution to a major shift in perspective in art history in parallel with the work carried out by the Musée national d’art moderne relating to the 20th century, and by the non-profit organisation AWARE (Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions).

Women artists aside, certain women have had a decisive influence on creative activity. What role did they play in building the collections displayed at the Musée d’Orsay?

Sylvie Patry, Chief Curator, Director for Curatorial Affairs and Collections

Edouard VuillardLa comtesse Marie-Blanche de Polignac© Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
The Musée d’Orsay collection is in part the beneficiary of collections acquired by the French state from the mid-19th century onwards. It therefore reflects the attitude of the Fine Arts Administration to artistic output in the late 19th century. From this perspective, the absence of women is striking. The exhibits shown here do not offer a complete panorama of the position of women artists – too many works are absent for that to be the case – but they clearly reflect institutional issues, hence the title of the tour which is taken from a collection of essays by eminent historian Linda Nochlin. The works in this tour nevertheless demonstrate the significance of women as creators, critics and collectors. They also invite us to reflect on criteria for admission to public collections and processes for disseminating and recognising works both in the past and today.

Did women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have the same access to art training and the same career opportunities as men?

Sabine Cazenave, Chief Curator of Paintings, Scarlett Reliquet, Director of Cultural Programming

Evidence exists of the presence of women artists in workshops in the Middle Ages and there are many examples of women throughout the 16th and 17th centuries who worked with their fathers, brothers and husbands in particular.
In the late 18th century, women acquired higher visibility and enjoyed greater freedom.

In the second half of the 19th century, following a period of decline, the number of women artists rose and more women opted to work in the arts. Until this point, their artistic talents had flourished mainly within the home environment. Painting was an amateur pursuit and, like music, it was a charming accomplishment for wellbred young women.

A career path was available to women from modest backgrounds, but was restricted to techniques and subjects in the applied arts. They attended City of Paris drawing schools, for

example, whose main function was to supply painters for artistic industries and factories such as the Gobelins and Sèvres porcelain works, where they painted flowers and decorative motifs.

They could also train with one of the renowned masters who admitted women to their studios. The most famous of these in the 1870s were Chaplin and Carolus-Duran. However, these fee-paying classes were attended by young women from affluent backgrounds. Women were also very well represented as copyists until the end of the Second Empire.

Copies were the cornerstone of an artist’s training, and they were also required to decorate public, civic and religious buildings. In this respect, the

admission of women to the Académie Julian in 1870 was a significant event, which allowed them to embark on professional careers.

AnonymousThe Académie Julian© Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Were the graphic arts and pastels “women’s” art?

Leila Jarbouai, Curator of Graphic Arts

Berthe MorisotPortrait of Madame Rosalie Pillaut© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot
Drawing, watercolour and pastel were techniques which, when used independently rather than in preparatory studies for oil paintings, were very tellingly bundled together in the all-purpose category of graphic arts – along with painting fans, miniatures, and small pictures on ivory – and were for a long time considered to be minor arts for minor artists. They were even ascribed so-called “feminine” qualities: lightness, finesse, softness, delicacy and feeling. This explains why the proportion of women exhibiting works using these techniques at the annual Salon for painting was far higher than those exhibiting oils.
There was a shift in the 1880s, when pastel regained credibility and avant-gardes undermined academic art and the notion of “completion” in their work by emphasising creative processes.

Berthe MorisotEdma and Blanche Pontillon© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Tony Querrec
Several women, including Madeleine Lemaire, Louise Breslau and Mary Cassatt established their credentials as professional artists and made a name for themselves in these previously undervalued graphic techniques. Berthe Morisot showed both watercolours and oils on canvas at the Impressionist exhibitions and Marie Bracquemond produced ambitious drawings and watercolours featuring an original approach to framing.

The Impressionists certainly contributed indirectly to the re-evaluation of gender-based assumptions. A man such as Edgar Degas played on the resemblance between pastel dust and dancers’ make-up and practised the art of painting on silk fans, while Mary Cassatt developed a rigourously constructed and energetically realised style which was considered to be “virile” and painted numerous women with fans in oils. These artists therefore challenged the ideologically gendered view of techniques and blazed new trails.

To what extent does the status of women decorative artists occupy an ambiguous space between emancipation and respect for convention?

Elise Dubreuil, Curator of Decorative Arts

Eugénie O'KinTea Caddy© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowsk
In the late 19th century, there was intense social and aesthetic debate around women and artistic work and how to promote a “respectable” form of work for women. Should women be encouraged to move beyond the traditional role of mothers and homemakers? Could women compete on an equal footing with men, or did their femininity predispose them to an inferior role?

Reforms in the teaching of the decorative arts during this period meant that women could finally access training institutions, and the women’s committee of the Union centrale des arts décoratifs (UCAD) was established in 1895. This training helped entire families by offering young women a skilled trade and economic prospects.

However, this social progress for women made no overt claims to feminism. In the decorative arts field, women artists could adopt a strategy of bowing to convention and contributing to the domestic economy while steering clear of the full power of the Fine Arts, which were though to be too “virile” for them. Women decorative artists were accepted as long as their skills came under the heading of “women’s handicrafts”. However, the prominent debate around the revival of the decorative arts and creating modern interiors in the early 20th century had a radical impact on this gender-based allocation of roles. Critics believed that this thorny issue might perhaps be too difficult for women to grasp.

How was women’s art received by critics, and what was women critics’ perspective on art?

Sabine Cazenave, Chief Curator of Paintings

The expansion of newspapers in the 1830s gathered pace under the Third Republic with the law of 1881 relating to the freedom of the press. Art criticism in newspaper columns became a genre in its own right. It was initially the preserve of men and was particularly focused on the annual painting and sculpture Salon.

It was the province of writers and poets, and included some milestone texts such as Baudelaire’s writing on Delacroix, and Zola on Manet. The illustrated press also regularly featured caricatures, some of which still ridiculed the inclusion of women artists in the Salon and exhibitions. In turn, women began to add their voices to “approved” opinions, sharing their views on works by male and female artists alike, perhaps with greater impartiality and less condescension. They delivered their assessments in precise analyses and expressed fewer prejudices associated with artists’ gender. The most famous among them were Claire Christine de Charnacé (1830-1912), who wrote under the pseudonym C. de Sault in Le Temps from 1863, and Marie Amélie de Montifaud (1849-1912) in L'Artiste, under the pseudonym Marc, a male name designed to confer gravitas and respectable discretion.

Some women, who were themselves artists, also became biographers. They include Lucie Cousturier (1876-1925), who published books about Signac and the Neo-Impressionists, with whom her work is associated.

“The Depraving State”, L’Assiette au beurre© cliché musée d’Orsay

In sculpture, the first woman who comes to mind is Camille Claudel, but what was the situation like for women sculptors more generally in the late 19th and early 20th century?

Ophélie Ferlier-Bouat, Curator of Sculpture

Antoine BourdelleSculptress at Work© RMN-Grand Palais / Agence Bulloz
Sculpture is traditionally viewed as a quintessentially physical and masculine discipline. Under the Restoration, only a handful of aristocrats such as Marie d’Orléans (daughter of King Louis-Philippe and Queen Marie-Amélie de Bourbon) were able to break free from the constraints imposed by society and devote themselves to it.

Félicie de Fauveau and Marcello (the pseudonym adopted by Adèle d’Affry) were proud to support themselves with their art. Their path was often littered with obstacles, as was indicated by Marie Bashkirtseff in 1880: “It would come as no surprise to anyone if

I were to say that women are excluded from the École des Beaux-Arts, as they are from almost everywhere. […] what we need is to be able to work like men and not have to perform all manner of feats to achieve what men simply enjoy.”

In the absence of official tuition, young women from affluent families trained with private tutors. Women from more modest backgrounds attended the Académie Julian or the Académie Colarossi, like Camille Claudel prior to joining Auguste Rodin’s studio. Women’s lessons cost twice as much as men’s. Hélène Bertaux founded the Union des femmes peintres et sculpteurs (UFPS) and fought for the admission of women to the École des Beaux-Arts. Women were not allowed to sit the entrance examination until 1897; women’s studios were not established until 1900; and it was 1903 before they were eligible for the Prix de Rome, the cornerstone of training there. The first woman to win a Prix de Rome was in fact a sculptress, Lucienne Heuvelmans, in 1911.

Temporary Displays

18 June - 22 September 2019

Winnaretta Singer’s female spaces - Back of the nave

Isabelle Morin Loutrel, Chief Curator of Architecture
Eugène GrassetMonumental door© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
By surrounding herself with men, the painter, musician and patron Winnaretta Singer was able to champion women artists and her own passion for music. She commissioned a fantastical door for her studio and demonstrated an insatiable curiosity about contemporary art. At this time, women were trying to study architecture outside the École des Beaux-Arts, which did not admit its first female student until 1898. A sketchbook belonging to Anne Cathalifaud, a student of Hector Guimard at the École des arts décoratifs, provides proof of this attempt at integration.

Women photographers/Impressionism Dialogue with Berthe Morisot - Room 21

Clementina (Lady) HawardenStudy from life© Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Thomas Galifot, Chief Curator of Photography
Since 2015, and the exhibition entitled Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839-1919 at the Musée de l’Orangerie, the Musée d’Orsay has been the only institution in the world to pursue a dedicated policy of acquiring work by women photographers of the 19th and early 20th centuries and raising their profile. In tandem with the Berthe Morisot exhibition, the group of French, British and American photographers presented here this summer has been selected to highlight parallels between the museum’s collection and the work of this Impressionist painter.

Screening: Alice Guy, The Consequences of Feminism, 1906 - Level -1

Marie Robert, Chief Curator of Photography

An employee in a hat shop is wooed by a forward woman who lures him away from his family home and takes his virginity in a hotel room. However, when he becomes the father of a large family, he leads a rebellion against female power and restores the traditional social order. In this fictional tale directed by the first ever woman film-maker, roles are (briefly) reversed as the genders adopt each other’s traits and inhabit each other’s worlds. Is Alice Guy (1873-1968) expressing the anxiety caused by the rise of suffragette activity? Or is she using ex treme scenarios and humour to denounce the arbitrary nature of the dominance exerted by men?

Silent film, black and white, Société des Etablissements Gaumont production

How to follow the “Women, Art and Power” tour in the Musée d’Orsay collections

Identifying works on the tour

Discover some one hundred works on the tour in the permanent collections. They are signposted by three distinctive exhibit labels with commentary designed by students in the science and technology of design and applied arts classes at the Lycée Édouard Branly in Amiens.


1 Women collectors
2 Women art critics
3 Women collectors

Discovering historical context

Walkway space on the 3rd floor of the museum

Objects and documents from collections provide historical and sociological context relating to women’s access to the institutional art world.

Visiting the exhibition "Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)"

18 June - 22 September 2019
Level 2, rooms 67 to 72

The exhibition traces the exceptional career of a painter who defied the conventions of her time and social background and became a key figure in Parisian avant-garde circles from the late 1860s until her death in 1895.
Further information

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