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Have there truly been no great women artists? Reconfiguring the canon in the Louvre

If you think of the Louvre, you’ll have no difficulties identifying its most well-known icon: that is, the Mona Lisa. In the world’s biggest museum, the celebration of the female body certainly is depicted in an endless array of poses and techniques: painting, sculpture, architecture or decorative arts. The Venus de Milo, Liberty Leading the People, Artemis with a Doe, Ingres’ Odalisques all embody internationally famous emblems of a first-class collection. As unquestionable canons of ideal beauty, each of these works typifies the eternal feminine offered to the pleasure of the viewer’s gaze.

Leonardo Da Vinci, The Mona Lisa, 1503 – 1519, oil on wooden panel, 77 x 53 cm
The Venus de Milo, c. 100 BC Marble, H. 202 cm

“Do women have to be naked to enter the museum?” used to claim activist group Guerilla Girls in the late 80s on billboards featuring Ingres’ supine nude. It is said that the Louvre comprises a totality of 460 000 exhibits. Only 663 of these have been attributed to women artists. Which means that in large European and American museums, from 5% to 10% of their collections is devoted to female creation. A rate that gives food for thought when one realises it equates that of the proportion of lady artists admitted to the Salon – the official art exhibition of the Royal Academy in Paris – before the French Revolution.

However, the Louvre does feature works by artists celebrated during their lifetime. Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744 – 1818), Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749 – 1803) and Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755 – 1842) – the sole female painter of the Ancien Régime to have been the subject of a major retrospective in Paris recently – were labelled “The Three Graces” by their contemporaries, thanks to their skills and their almost simultaneous admission to the Academy of the Arts.

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Self-Portrait with her Daughter Julie, 1786, oil on wood, 105 x 84 cm
Anne Vallayer-Coster, Tuft of Marine Plants and Corals,1769, oil on canvas, 130 x 97 cm

Because they were restricted to the production of pictorial genres deemed as less “noble” and barred access to certain institutions, women have been written off art history and heritage as we have conceived it since the 18th century. It was thought that because of their “weaker” nature, they were incapable of creating or becoming geniuses. On moral grounds, respectable ladies were forbidden to attend life classes and draw from the nude, thus resorting to a more limited range of formats and techniques.

Constance Mayer, The Dream of Happiness, 1819. Oil on canvas, 132 x 184 cm

Born from Revolutionary models of equity and democratisation of culture, can the Louvre still maintain its motto of universalism? As an example for museums in Europe and abroad, this institution nevertheless established itself around gender difference. Only recently, through the influence of the #MeToo movement, has there been a surge of interest in women’s lost legacies. Gender studies entering the museum are thus valuable assets enabling us to shatter traditional art histories and create alternative narratives.

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Article written by Laure

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