Time: 2 hours
Number of Women Artists: 7
Number of Artworks: 13
Cost: 15.00 Euros & other general visitor information
Location: Make your way to the SECOND FLOOR. The tour starts in the Richelieu wing and moves to Sully. The pieces are listed according to the room. Nearly every room of the Louvre is well-labeled and you should be able to quickly acclimate to the museum’s organization.
The Musée du Louvre contains more than 380,000 objects and displays 35,000 works of art in the permanent collection. I have only found 15 pieces of art currently on display by eight women. I just want that to sink in a minute. There are 15 pieces of artwork out of over 35,000 pieces. It is worsened by the fact that the pieces by women are almost entirely on the second floor, which simply does not get the same foot traffic. You can literally walk through all of the masterworks and not see a single piece of art by a named woman artist.
The Louvre does nothing to highlight this fact to visitors. While the museum host conferences and talks that focus on women artists, there is no effort to explain or discuss the lack of woman artists on their walls to the general visiting public. I also find it particularly infuriating that the Louvre owns more than 16 pieces of art by women (the Louvre collection includes works by Élisabeth Sophie Chéron, Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot, Angelica Kauffman, Julie Philipault, Marie-Denise Villers, and Nanine Vallain), but I cannot find them on display.
The following represents a tour of 14 of these pieces. I have excluded one piece by Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun (Salle 702) and a piece by Élise Bruyère (Salle 543) because they are out of the way and might cause too much confusion. Click on the artists below to see their bios and additional paintings at other museums in Paris.
Judith Leyster (Room 846 — Richelieu wing*)
La Joyeuse Compagnie (1630)
This painting is in a room with Franz Hals’s paintings. The Louvre acquired Leyster’s painting in 1893 from an English firm, later finding her monogram under a fabricated signature of Hals. The painting had been praised as Hals’s finest work and sold for 4,500 GBP. When it was discovered that it was not Hals’s work — there was a monogram of a conjoined J and L below the violinist’s shoe, the firm was sued in 1892. The suing art dealer won the court case against the seller. However, after a scholarly article on Leyster was published in 1893, seven more paintings assumed to be by Hals were correctly attributed to Leyster.
During the proceedings, Leyster’s work was not once considered an object of value for its own worth, history, or artistic value. As Germaine Greer notes in The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Woman Painters and Their Work, “At no time did anyone throw his cap in the air and rejoice that another painter, capable of equaling Hals at his best, had been discovered.”
Louise Moillon (Room 911 — Sully wing)
Coupe de cerises, prunes et melons
Pêches et prunes
Anne Vallayer-Coster (Room 933)
Instruments de musique
Les attributs de la peinture, de la sculpture et de l’architecture
Panaches de mer, lithophytes et coquilles
Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun (Room 933)
Peace Bringing Back Abundance (La Paix qui ramène l’Abondance) (1780)
This was LeBrun’s reception piece to the Academie. “Plenty” is the woman depicted with blond hair decorated with flowers, lead by “peace.” Lucie Hall was the model for “Abundance,” while her sister, Adele, was the model for “peace.” While the piece does not have the same charm as her portraits, it was an appropriate choice for her Academie reception piece. The allegory was fitting at the end of the American Revolution, symbolizing peace and prosperity.
Portrait de Madame Mole-Reymond (1786)
I am so charmed by this painting. It immediately grabs your attention in Room 933. I observed many people wander through the room without stopping, unless it was to gaze upon this painting and take a photo. The colors are whimsical and Le Brun has managed to capture the model as if she is dashing off. Her outfit is also fabulous.
The painting depicts a French actress Madame Mole-Reymond. Painted in 1786 and exhibited at the Salon in the following year, it is considered one of Le Brun’s most popular paintings. It was bequeathed by the daughter of Mme. Reymond to the Louvre in 1865.
Self-Portrait with Her Daughter Julie(1787)
In 1787, Le Brun caused a minor public scandal when her Self-Portrait with Her Daughter Julie (1787) was exhibited at the Salon of 1787 showing her smiling and open-mouthed. This was in direct contravention of traditional painting conventions going back to antiquity. It was also likely a French faux-pas, as smiling is considered quite flirtatious. The court recordings include the following comment about the piece: “An affectation which artists, art-lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning, and which finds no precedent among the Ancients, is that in smiling, [Madame Vigée LeBrun] shows her teeth.”
This is one of my favorite Le Brun paintings. Le Brun is not dressed in fancy or fashionable clothing and she has not powdered her hair. It is quite simply and effuses tenderness. Le Brun was a working mother, taking as many as three appointments per day at the height of her career. But the love she has for her daughter radiates from her self-portraits.
Portrait of Madame Rousseau, Wife of the Architect Pierre Rousseau, and her Daughter (1789)
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (Room 933)
Marie-Guillemine Benoist (Room 935)
Portrait d’une négresse (1800)
This painting is highly charged and ambiguous. Who is this woman? She is unnamed. The woman in the painting was a slave forced from her home in French colonized Guadeloupe in 1800. Since slavery was outlawed in France, the woman would have been officially a “servant” in name, though a slave in every sense (furthermore, Napolean was working to reinstate slavery in the nation’s colonies).
The woman who modeled for this painting has no agency over what she is wearing or how she is painted. Her enslavement is concealed through aestheticizing and classicizing her condition. Art historian Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby has written that the work is dehumanizing and “exercises a form of mastery or subordination: the sitter is robbed, like a slave, of her person’s property.” Notwithstanding these realities, Grigsby adds we might nevertheless “call her self-possessed,” noting her “strikingly assured and direct with her level gaze.”
It has been argued that the piece was an abolitionist and feminist cry of the artist, Benoist. Doris Y. Kadish, a scholar on French slavery, underlines that some viewers readily see the woman in Benoist’s painting as an allegory for the republic (not the blue, red, and white) or her resolute gaze — she stares directly and daringly at the viewer. Kadish argues “viewers, then and now, are far less likely to focus on the model’s depersonalization and more likely to be riveted by her face and her gaze, which proclaim the dignity and independence of a black woman.” Many viewers have interpreted the piece as a strongly feminist piece — painted by a woman of another woman at a time when feminist ideals were written about and discussed.
I do not have conflicting feelings about this piece, though I find the scholarship around the piece provocative and interesting. Quite simply, I find this painting disturbing given the realities of this model’s life and her agency in sitting for this painting. I’m disturbed by the aesthetic choices. I do not like that she is exposed. In attempting to understand the painting better, I was upset by the lack of information provided by the museum on slavery at the time and the realities of life for black people in France during this era.
On balance, this was the only portrait painting that I have found in the Louvre of a black woman. It is striking on the walls of the gallery amid paintings of old white dudes in shiny pink tights and white women in fluffy hats. Ultimately, however, I could not help but leave the painting thinking about the ways that white women have instrumentalized the struggle of black women throughout history to advance rights for themselves and leave black women behind.
***You may recognize the image from Beyonce’s (The Carter’s) famous Louvre video, APES**T.
Constance Mayer (Room 936)
Le rêve du bonheur
*Bonus: Before leaving Richelieu and heading to Sully, stop by the Marie de Medici Cycle by Peter Paul Rubens. It was not created by a woman artist, but the commissioning is an interesting story with a feminist telling.