The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art / the Art of Louis-Leopold Boilly: Modern Life in Napoleonic France / the Rococo Interior: Decoration and Social Spaces in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris

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The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. 353 pp.; 45 b/w ills. $40.00 SUSAN L. SIEGFRIED

The Art of Louis-Leopold Boilly: Modern Life in Napoleonic France

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, in association with Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, and National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. 221 pp.; 50 color ills., 125 b/w. $55.00


The Rococo Interior: Decoration and Social Spaces in Early EighteenthCentury Paris

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. 342 pp.; 40 color ills., 256 b/w. $65.00

These three books share not only a common field of investigation-French visual culture and architecture of the 18th century (extending, in Siegfried's case, to the early l9th century)-but also a methodological ambition to reformulate the questions and revise the criteria that have helped shape this field so far. By focusing on the underprivileged, misconstrued, or otherwise inadequately appreciated aspects of artistic production in this period, the three authors seek to generate new ways of accounting for the period's cultural importance. Their work suggests that by considering, respectively, the woman artist, genre painting, and the rococo interiorsubjects that the discipline of art history has tended to disregard or view as irrelevant or even antithetical to modern art-we may actually get quite a different view of the fundamental issues on which the most recent discussions of modern visual culture have centered. These issues include the role of the institutional conditions of art production and, particularly, the way in which these conditions were altered by the French Revolution; the status of the visual representation of everyday life; and the relation between architectural style and society. Given the status of the 18th century in the dominant art-historical constructions of the modern paradigm, Sheriff, Siegfried, and Scott offer us three propositions to reimagine the genesis of modernism.

I will concentrate here specifically on the methodological dimension of the contribution that each of these books makes. While seeking to develop new approaches, each author works with and reformulates earlier interpretive paradigms: Sheriff mobilizes and develops the feminist model of cultural analysis; the approaches of both Siegfried and Scott belong with the procedures of social art history, which, however, both authors transform differently. Siegfried combines a focus on class with enhanced attention to issues of gender and sexuality, and Scott strives to nuance the model of discursive mediation developed in the scholarship on 18th-century painting by bringing it to bear on the architectural form.

Sheriff's innovative monograph on Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun not only offers a new, sophisticated account of one of the most gifted portraitists of her time but also explores the ways in which a focus on the work and career of a woman artist may transform our understanding of aesthetic practice in France in the second half of the 18th century. Rather than simply trying to fit her carefully researched account of Vigee-Lebrun's endeavor within the dominant art-historical narratives of the period, Sheriff's work puts pressure on the criteria behind the formulation of these standard narratives. Her book relentlessly exposes the gendered nature of the assumptions that shaped Vigee-Lebrun's image in the eyes of her contemporaries and of modern art historians as well.

Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842) was a talented and highly ambitious artist who had to carve a career for herself in a world that had difficulty imagining feminine creativity and that strove to keep women on the margins of the principal institutions of production and reception of art. A daughter of a guild painter and a hairdresser, Vigee-Lebrun quickly climbed the steps of the social and professional ladder, becoming the official painter to the queen and one of the very few female members of the Academy. …