Whether or not Paris was the “capital of the 19th century,” as it has sometimes been called, it really was the capital of 19th-century art. That’s something to ponder, because at the start of the century, its preeminence might not have been easily predicted. Just before the Revolution, the one figure we still recognize as belonging among the great masters is Chardin, essentially an outlier: a largely self-taught artist who gained the esteem of the French Academy with paintings that ignored its promotion of a narrative and literary art focused on heroic public action over the depiction of everyday domestic life and its mute objects. We also still remember the florid talents of his contemporaries Fragonard, Boucher, and Greuze, but they offer little hint of art’s future. The postrevolutionary scene was dominated by David, a massive force, to be sure, but one whose neoclassical pictorial rhetoric mainly served to initiate an academic rigor that would soon almost strangle French painting. What subsequently made Paris a lightning rod for artistic energy was, in fact, a sequence of rebellions against David’s neoclassical strictures—first Romantic, then Realist, and finally Impressionist.
The traveling exhibition “Women Artists in Paris, 1850–1900,” curated by Laurence Madeline, helps recover much of this rebellious energy, and it does even more to redress the still-ongoing undervaluation of the work of women artists in this period of incredible richness and dynamism. On view at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, through September 3—concluding a national tour, organized by the American Federation of Arts, that also included the Denver Art Museum and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky—it also offers a fresh look at an artistic situation of 19th-century Paris, a look that does not presuppose that all the judgments that have been handed down over the intervening century or so must be taken at face value.
Imagine an exhibition simply titled “Art in Paris, 1850–1900.” Its structure, centering on Impressionism, seems already predetermined. It would start with the Realism, so-called, of Courbet, follow with the great transitional figures of Manet and Degas, encompass all the major and secondary protagonists of Impressionism (Pissarro, Renoir, and the rest), and then set off all the brilliant sparks that uneasily coexist under the label Post-Impressionism (Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat) before concluding, not with the art of a new generation, but with at least a foreshadowing of the astonishing late achievements of Cézanne and Monet as they lived on into the 20th century. Perhaps all this would be accompanied by a sort of counterpoint of academic resistance (Cabanel? Gérôme?—but would there be any aesthetic basis for the choice?) and Symbolism (Redon), but the main line of development would be a foregone conclusion.
I expected nothing less than to see a sort of distaff version of this story in “Women Artists in Paris.” After all, today the best-known of the women artists active in Paris in the second half of the 19th century are both central figures in Impressionism: Berthe Morisot and her American colleague Mary Cassatt—artists who still have not received their due as the major talents they were. And both are well represented here, as are the less-engaging talents of Marie Bracquemond, who participated, like Morisot and Cassatt, in the Impressionist exhibitions, and Eva Gonzalès, a student of Manet’s who did not exhibit with the group but is nonetheless usually considered an Impressionist herself. Instead, what I found was a depiction of these female Impressionists as part of a much more varied ecosystem of artists attempting to find a way forward amid shifting and often contradictory currents.