The Woman of Ideas in French Art, 1830-1848 / Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists / Masculinities in Victorian Painting

By Reed, Christopher | The Art Bulletin, September 1996 | Go to article overview

The Woman of Ideas in French Art, 1830-1848 / Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists / Masculinities in Victorian Painting


Reed, Christopher, The Art Bulletin


JANIS BERGMAN-CARTON The Woman of Ideas in French Art, 1830-1848 New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. 280 pp.; 108 b/w ills. $30.00

DEBORAH CHERRY Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists New York: Routledge, 1993. 291 pp.; 47 b/w ills. $60.00; $24.95 paper

JOSEPH A. KESTNER

Masculinities in Victorian Painting Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1995. Distr. Ashgate Publishing, Brookfield, Vt. 336 pp.; 124 b/w ills. $69.95

Taken together, the books under review offer an occasion to map the overlapping conceptual fields of "women's studies," "gender studies," and "men's studies" as they relate to art history in general, and to 19th-century European painting in particular. With varying degrees of sophistication, these books rely on tried-and-true strategies of feminist analysis, familiar since the 1970s and commonly known as the "Images of' and "Images by" approaches. Both methods have been critiqued, often by the same feminists who put them to good use.1 The way each author negotiates-or fails to negotiate-the limitations of these methods is indicative of the relative potential of the three "studies" fields that currently structure our approaches to sex and gender.

Janis Bergman-Carton's first book, The Woman of Ideas in French Art, 1830-1848, is a classic "Images of' study, which brings to a new historical context the methods that feminists have long used to identify so-called negative imagery. In the author's words, her focus is on "the cultural mechanisms that undermined the power and visibility that the woman of ideas achieved after 1830 and that guaranteed her legal disenfranchisement after the failure the Revolution of 1848" (p. 2).

Given this aim, the execution is professional. In clear prose, Bergman-Carton describes the historical background for the emergence of French women of letters in the early l9th century, then overviews the caricatures of women authors that appeared in the popular press, devoting one chapter to Honore Daumier and another to lesserknown illustrators. Turning to painting, one chapter analyzes the iconography of women reading in French painting (including a somewhat tangential excursus on images of the Magdalene, both reading and penitent), and another chapter reviews portraits of women authors. Occasionally, Bergman-Carton's ambition to demonstrate the viciousness of men's visions of intellectual women leads her to exaggerate the lasciviousness of the caricatures.2 But overall, her analyses accumulate to document the overwhelming misogyny that greeted women who tried to be taken seriously as writers and thinkers. Pictured both as sexless shrews and soulless whores, women writers were vilified as traitors to their sex, violators of the natural order, and threats both to particular governments and to civilization more broadly. Today, when mass culture encourages young women to take feminist gains for granted, at the same time deploying analogous rhetoric against those who advocate for further reform, the history recovered by Bergman-Carton seems well worth telling.

The limitations of the "Images of' approach, however, lock this project into some uncomfortable assumptions and foreclose possibly productive lines of analysis. Bergman-Carton presents her study as a supplement to existing books on negative images of women in 19th-century France, which "focus on victimized women," especially "courtesans and women victimized into prostitution" (p. 1 ). This formulation is problematic in both its totalizing equation of prostitution and victimhood-which prevents any consideration of feminist agency by poor women, including prostitutes3-and its corollary assumption that middle-class "women of ideas" were the 19th century's "unruly female types" (p. 221), forerunners of today's feminists. This assumption is embedded in the label "woman of ideas," which is not a period term, but refers to the recent feminist tract, Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them, from Aphra Behn to Adrienne Rich.

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