‘Becoming a Woman’: Exhibit looks at French art from Age of Enlightenment

  • “Conversation in a Park,” oil on canvas by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Image courtesy Smith College Museum of Art

  • “Seated lady in a Garden,” oil on canvas by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Image courtesy Smith College Museum of Art

Staff Writer
Published: 10/17/2018 3:57:49 PM

Also currently on display at the Smith College Museum of Art is an exhibit whose title is inspired by a comment from the 1949 book “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir, in which the French philosopher famously wrote “one is not born, but becomes, a woman.”

“Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment” offers a panorama of French art — paintings, drawings, sculpture, etchings — from the late 17th to early 19th centuries examining a question that was part of the Enlightenment’s drive to use science and reason to better understand the world: How can one define women?

The exhibit, which features art from some female but predominantly male artists, looks at how those artists depicted women, whether as mothers, young ladies in waiting, heavenly figures or artists themselves, or how they related to husbands, sons and brothers.

For some, the lot of women was to be subservient to men. Others, as exhibit notes put it, believed this kind of subordination “had its basis only in social convention and not in any natural differences between men and women. According to this view, [some] women … could aspire to be something more than obedient daughters, beautiful wives, and virtuous mothers.”

An accompanying catalog to the exhibit notes that an essay by an anonymous writer in an 18th-century French women’s journal stated that “reason and experience” made it clear women could “manage the affairs of the Republic, make war or peace, [and] render justice” just as well as men — a declaration that would seem more natural “in a feminist manifesto from 1974 than what was actually published in a ladies’ magazine of 1764.”

Thus the exhibit attempts to address a host of questions on how social roles and womanhood were defined in France during this era, how women might exercise independence, or what factors distinguished a girl from a woman and a woman from a lady — the era’s so-called “Women Question,” or La Querelle des Femmes.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Becoming a Woman” will be on display at the SMith College Museum of Art through January 6, 2019.



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