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Séverine Sofio: Artistes femmes. La parenthèse enchantée, XVIIIe-XIXe siècles, Paris: CNRS Éditions 2016, 375 S., 13 Farbabb., ISBN 978-2-271-09191-8, EUR 25,00
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Rezension von:
Susan Siegfried
University of Michigan
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Marlen Schneider
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Susan Siegfried: Rezension von: Séverine Sofio: Artistes femmes. La parenthèse enchantée, XVIIIe-XIXe siècles, Paris: CNRS Éditions 2016, in: sehepunkte 17 (2017), Nr. 2 [15.02.2017], URL:

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Séverine Sofio: Artistes femmes

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Artistes femmes by Séverine Sofio delivers an unexpected verdict on women artists in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century France, which is tipped by the word "enchanted" in the sub-title: this book argues that women artists enjoyed "relatively egalitarian" conditions of work relative to men during an "enchanted parenthesis" between the end of the ancien régime and the middle of the nineteenth century. Moreover, Sofio claims, this half century was "unique" in ameliorating the working conditions and social standing of women artists, such that "the fine arts were the only professional space before 1850 in which women benefitted from a formation similar to men's" (347-348).

This good-news story dramatically upends the doom-and-gloom scenarios pronounced by feminist cultural and art historians such as Madelyn Gutwirth and Griselda Pollock in the 1980s and 1990s. Pollock, for example, declared the bourgeois revolution of 1789 an "historic defeat for women", including artists (Vision and Difference, 1988, 49); Gutwirth lamented that "the women are ineffectual" on canvas (Twilight of the Goddesses, 1992, 380). These second-wave feminists were looking for empowered women who could match the stature and achievements of the men who dominated, and still dominate, the master narratives of art history, and found them wanting in that period. They set the terms of the discussions that have followed, and while their conclusions about the post-revolutionary period have been challenged by art historians such as Gen Doy, Gill Perry and Emma Barker, and nuanced by numerous studies focused on individual artists, works, and themes, the general consensus has remained the same. [1] Sofio brings a different set of criteria to bear, primarily because she approaches the subject as a sociologist and works from the ground up to quantify and situate female practitioners within a particular field of culture, the contours and operations of which she analyzes.

In approaching the fine arts from the standpoint of a marginal group, Sofio throws light on the entire field during a critical period of its transition from the early modern to the modern period. One of the most valuable things she does is to situate fine-art production within a nexus of institutions that shaped the art world, tracking the implications for women of their changing positions relative to each other and relative to laws on citizenship, divorce, patents (intellectual property), and secondary education. She locates this synopsis of the cultural field within the longue durée of the liberalization of the fine arts that began in the late seventeenth century with the founding of the Royal Academy, was bolstered by the high regard for fine arts among French elites in the eighteenth century, and culminated in the rise of modernism in the later nineteenth century. She keeps the "big picture" of this social space in view by making statements about women artists that function symptomatically to illuminate the broader situation of the arts. Thus, questions raised about women's access to drawing the live model in 1785, she points out, resurrected debates over the liberal status of the fine arts that had been crystallized by the institutional reconfiguration of 1777, when the Royal Academy gained absolute preeminence over the guild.

Sofio follows Pierre Bourdieu's method of "double historicization" - that is, she considers the historical context of the documents under study while simultaneously contextualizing her own tools of analysis - and defines her concepts and categories of analysis at every turn. She applies this classic methodology to a field and period previously unstudied by sociologists, yielding valuable results for the sociology of work and history of gender relations as well as for the history of art. The study is much needed: the existing overviews of women artists during this period are dated and mostly out-of-print. [2] The need to update the art historical literature on this subject was recognized some years ago by Melissa Hyde and the late Mary Sheriff, and one looks forward to their collaborative study, Women in French Art, appearing in several years' time. Their attention to visual analysis of individual works of art and to the particular circumstances of an artist's making would offer a welcome complement to Sofio's sociological study of the field.

Sofio's study of the virtual totality of women artists working during this period leads her to highlight examples of practice that art historians have traditionally been loath to consider: minor genres such as flower painting, which was previously dominated by men but monopolized by women in the 1820s and 1830s, and painting copies (mainly of official portraits and religious paintings), a thriving, state-subsidized activity during the July Monarchy which employed a majority of women, at a time when painting copies was still honorable. Sofio is under no illusion about the limits of this opportunity. She makes it very apparent that genre did function to control and contain women's practice and that the result was a certain banalization of art work as their numbers increased. Even so, she calls attention to the numerical importance, social respectability, and public acclaim of certain types of art made by women that have been largely neglected.

Sofio's analysis of gender takes different forms. Besides her main focus on female producers, she draws astutely on feminist scholarship and theory to highlight telling distinctions between, for example, the sex of the artist, as at issue before the French Revolution, and the gender of the genre of work, as emerging after the Revolution with the ascension of minor genres of art in the open Salon exhibitions; and between the "non-inclusion" rather than the exclusion of women artists in certain roles as characteristic of the silent function of gender at work in the social structure. She obliges readers to consider a "feminization" of the fine arts as a whole, first from "on high" and then "by default", as instruction in drawing acquired different valences for boys and girls during the nineteenth century than it previously had had. One upshot of the increasingly feminized connotations of the fine arts was a belief in the "natural alliance" between women and the arts, which sanctioned their movement into teaching and producing art as professional activities deemed appropriate to all but the upper-classes. From a sample of 1124 women artists, she identifies three distinct generations - the "pioneers" (181 women), the "lettered" (222), and the "workers" (721) - and characterizes their practice and social backgrounds in a changing field. Linguistically, Sofio and her publisher found an elegant typographical solution to rendering the gendered variability of the French language - "un・e massièr・e, susceptible de le/la représenter" (207) - which keeps gender in play as the subject at issue.

The study is extremely well researched. It depends on data compiled for Sofio's dissertation from administrative and notarial archives, biographical records, exhibition catalogues, the periodical press, correspondence, and the very few surviving first-person accounts of art practice by contemporary women. Secondary sources from several disciplines and in several languages are amply documented in footnotes, though one regrets the absence of a bibliography. There is a recent database and publication that complement Sofio's study: the Database of Salon Artists, compiled by Harriet Griffiths and Alister Mill. [3] This searchable database of Salon records, covering 1827 to 1850, overlaps with Sofio's data sets and analyzes similar variables, such as gender balance and discrimination, genre, age, rejection rates, and awards.


[1] Gen Doy: Women & Visual Culture in 19th Century France, 1800-1852, London / New York 1992; Gill Perry / Emma Barker, in: Gill Perry (ed.): Gender and Art, New Haven / London 1999, 86-127.

[2] Three unpublished dissertations by Vivian Cameron (1983), Charlotte Yeldham (1984), and Margaret Oppenheimer (1996); Gen Doy: Women & Visual Culture in 19th Century France, London 1992; and two exhibition catalogues, Women Artists, 1550-1950, curated by Ann Sutherland Harris / Linda Nochlin, New York 1976, and Royalists to Romantics, curated by Jordana Pomeroy, Washington / London 2012.

[3]; James Kearns / Alister Mill (ed.): The Paris Fine Art Salon / Le Salon, 1791-1881, Oxford 2015.

Susan Siegfried