Rousseau Cast Aside: Women Painters and the Absence of the Bourgeois Ideal


In Women and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century France, Gen Doy points out that the bourgeois ideal of the “happy mother” is rarely represented in paintings produced by early nineteenth-century French women painters.(1) Even in the “feminine” genres of portraiture and genre scenes, this paradigm is a rarity. Among David’s pupils, Constance Charpentier appears to be the only one who produced a self-portrait of the artist and her child (untraced). Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Césarine Davin-Mirvault, and Angélique Mongez also had children but, judging what can be drawn from their available work, made no reference to them in their art. The portraiture of the first two usually depicts single well-known or anonymous figures. While the subject of motherhood is present in Mongez’s Astyanax Torn from His Mother, a large-scale history painting, the representation of an active Andromache fighting the soldiers attempting to take her son-as opposed to her passive counterpart in François-Guillaume Ménageot’s painting of the same subject-hardly conforms to the sweet, docile model expected of women at the time. Outside the school of David, some women painters were depicting another form of motherhood: that of the grieving mother, a common theme in the art of Constance Mayer, who never had children of her own but cared for the five children of her teacher (and possible lover) Pierre-Paul Prud’hon.

What does this tell us of the French custom painting art world in the early nineteenth century? In the years immediately preceding the French Revolution, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun produced two portraits of herself and her daughter to prove to the audience  that women could simultaneously pursue their careers and be loving mothers.(2) Less than twenty years later, the production of such representations were decreasing. Apparently women artists in general did not feel as if they had to make such a statement, despite the fact that contemporary laws and philosophies show that French, or at least Parisian, society was not ready to accept the notion that women could “have it all.” This article will offer a possible explanation.

At this time, social philosophy in France was grounded in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Book V of his Emile details his image of the ideal woman whom he calls Sophie. Her life is devoted to her husband and their children, and she has no interest in the events outside the private sphere. Her education is to be solely domestic. She would educate the daughters, while her husband would educate the sons. As the ideas of Rousseau became increasingly popular, society’s general expectations of women were that they model their lives after that of Sophie.