Numerous scholarly analyses of the 19th-century art scene in France are mostly male-dominated and focused on the rise of Impressionism. However, the century was also marked by numerous rarely known figures, most of them women. The number of female artists significantly declined after the French revolution as they had to struggle with the stereotypical gender roles.
Practicing drawing and painting at the amateur level was supported as it was considered part of a proper bourgeois education; women were not permitted to pursue professional careers and were expected to maintain the role of wife and mother. For that reason, many of them ultimately had to choose between career and marriage.
It wasn’t until the 1870s that life drawing classes became more open to French female students wanting to be become artists in Paris, while the École des Beaux-Arts, the leading training facility, began accepting women in 1897. The milestone of female independence in the terms of art-making happened in the 1880s when women painters founded their own network in Paris called the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs.
On the other hand, female collectors were even less studied than the artists. The chance for women to become collectors was conditioned by both cultural and legal circumstances. Despite the fact the Revolution introduced the principle of equal inheritance rights, women were banned from obliging to any legal agreement without the consent of their husbands.
Let us thus take a closer look at four groundbreaking 19th century French female figures who changed the status of women and paved the way for more liberated generations to come.
Featured image: Rosa Bonheur - Gathering for the Hunt, 1856. Haggin Museum, Stockton, CA. Image creative commons.
Marie-Louise-Jeanne Peyrat, aka Marquise Arconati Visconti (1840 – 1923) was an important social figure and collector. She was the daughter of journalist and politician Alphonse Peyrat and Marie Pauline Thérèse Risch raised in the cult of the French revolution.
During her youth, the Marquise lived in Paris and attended the courses of the School of Charters, the Sorbonne, and the School of the Louvre. She was transfixed by history, philosophy, and politics, and her favorite period was the Renaissance. In the 1860s, she met Gianmartino Arconati-Visconti, an intellectual and an artist and the two fell in love and married in 1873 despite the disagreement of his family. Visconti died three years later in Florence, and Marie-Louise Arconati-Visconti inherited an immense fortune, moved to Paris and devoted herself to collecting and art patronage.
Marquise Arconati Visconti held a literary salon in her private mansion until 1914 and died almost ten years later in 1923. She bequeathed her castle to the Belgian state, and the rest of her belongings to the University of Paris.
Featured image: Portrait of Marquise Arconati Visconti. Image creative commons.
Adelaide Nathalie Marie Hedwig Philippine d'Affry, the Duchess of Castiglione Colonna, known as Marcello, (1836 –1879) was an established Swiss artist and sculptor. She was born in Fribourg as the eldest daughter from the d'Affry military family. Marcello spent time between Freiburg and Givisiez during the summer months, and Nice or Italy during the winter. She received a classical education, including drawing lessons from Auguste Joseph Dietrich, as well as modeling classes in the studio of the Swiss sculptor Heinrich Max Imhof in Rome.
In 1856, Adèle d'Affry married Carlo Colonna (1825–1856) in Rome who had the title of Duke of Castiglione-Altibrandi. The marriage was very short as Carlo Colonna died of illness in Paris the same year. She devoted herself to the workshop of Imhof, closely observed antique art and Michelangelo. In 1857, Marcello modeled the bust of her late husband, and quickly afterward she produced her self-portrait.
In 1859, d'Affry moved to Paris and became part of the Second Empire elite. The following year, she produced her first successful composition, La Belle Hélène (1860) after studying animal drawings at the Natural History Museum under the direction of sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye. To extend her craft she attended anatomy classes from Professor Sappey in the basement of the School of Medicine, and in 1860 she met Eugène Delacroix.
Despite the gradual growth of her career, d'Affry fell ill in 1877 and moved to Italy, on the advice of her doctors. In 1879 her health worsened and she passed away.
Featured image: Edouard-Théophile Blanchard - Portrait of Duchesse Castiglione, 1877. Oil on canvas. Collection Musée d'art et d'histoire Fribourg.
Cornélie Barbe Hyacinthe Jacquemart, known simply as Nélie (1841–1912) was a renowned French painter and a distinguished art collector and patroness of the arts. She was born in Paris in a humble working-class family. At a certain point, she became a protégée of Paméla Hainguerlot, and was empowered to develop drawing skills. Thanks to Mme. de Vatry, Nélie Jacquemart studied in the workshop of Léon Cogniet, a Professor at the École Nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, as an only female student at the time.
The artist came to prominence in 1858 after taking sketches of the burial of Malka Kachwar, the Queen of Oudh, who died in Paris on her way home from London. The same were made into lithographs by Évremond de Bérard and Jules Worms on the bequest of Aristide Merille, an editor at L'Illustration, and published in the magazine later that year.
In 1863 Nélie presented her work at the Parisian Salon which resulted in several commissions. Three years later one of her works show at the Salon was purchased by the government and was on display at the Palais des Tuileries until it and the building were destroyed during the Commune.
After the Franco-Prussian War, Nélie Jacquemart painted a portrait of the art collector, Édouard André, and nine years later the two got married and merged their collections, totaling in 207 sculptures and 97 paintings. André died in 1894 and despite the difficulties regarding the disposition of wealth, the artist won the case and expanded the collection with medals and English paintings.
Nélie Jacquemart died in 1912 in Paris, and according to the agreement she made with her late husband, all possessions were bequeathed to the Institut de France, and a year later, the two Musées Jacquemart-André were opened to the public.
Featured image: Nélie Jacquemart-André - Self-portrait, 1880. Oil on canvas, 134 cm (52.7 in) x 81 cm (31.8 in). Collection Musee Jacquemart-Andre.
The last relevant 19th-century French female figure on our list is Rosa Bonheur (1822 – 1899), who is celebrated for her astounding depictions of animals, but also her realist sculptures. She came to prominence after the French government commissioned her painting Ploughing in the Nivernais, which was displayed in 1849 and now part of the Musée d'Orsay collection. Another famous Bonheur’s work is a large-scale oil painting The Horse Fair made in 1855 which opened the doors for international acclaim as she traveled to Scotland and met Queen Victoria; there she produced a set of works that responded to Victorian taste.
In 1865 Bonheur was decorated with the French Legion of Honor by the Empress Eugénie and was inaugurated into an Officer of the order in 1894. She was represented by the art dealer Ernest Gambart who brought her to the United Kingdom. AS her wealth accumulated, the artist purchased the Château de By near Fontainebleau nearby Paris where she lived until the end of her life.
Bonheur was openly lesbian; she lived with her partner, Nathalie Micas, for over 40 years until Micas died, and was known for wearing men’s clothes – she explained the trousers were a convenient attire for painting the animals. Bonheur died at the age of 77 and was buried together with Nathalie Micas at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.
Interestingly so, in her 1971 iconic essay, Why Have There Been No HGreat Women Artists? the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin titled an entire section after Bonheur, as an homage to the artist.
Featured image: André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri - Portrait of Rosa Bonheur, 1861 – 1864. Albumen print on cardboard (Card photograph), 84 mm (3.30 in) x 52 mm (2.04 in). Collection Getty Center.