Although this week’s readings from Gender and Art ranged in subject matter from the masculine and nationalist attributes of English architecture to the role of women in European academies, the latter topic took center stage in our discussion. I began with a proposal that tropes such as “double standards” and “the glass ceiling,” which describe the obstacles that prevent women (and other groups) from achieving equity in the workplace today, can also be applied to the 18th-century French and English academies. These academies functioned as gatekeepers, vetting members for skill and largely excluding women and non-white artists, although Jade made the great point that in Johann Zoffany’s The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771-2), a Chinese Academician appears in one of the figure groupings at the far left of the picture. Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, however, the two women in the Royal Academy, were excluded from life classes and appear only as portraits that are nearly lost in the background of this busy scene.
As our discussion moved to the female members of the French Academy Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, we honed in on the idea that the academy was not the only institution vetting artists or dictating the ideal subjects of their output. As we explored the situation of Vigée-Lebrun, who was married to the art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun (the same Lebrun who was a crucial force behind the Louvre, as Jess pointed out), we made room for the powerful role that market forces played in the art world of this era. History painting represented the apogee of painting within the academy, but portraits and still lifes that testified to the power and wealth of private patrons dominated the market.
Women artists who were associated with these “lesser” painting categories would thus have received reinforcement from the commercial marketplace that they did not get from the academy. And as Jade and Professor Powell brought up, France’s dominant salon culture also meant that women played an important role as consumers and tastemakers outside of the academy, as reflected by the powerful women in Watteau’s scene of shopping in the gallery of Gersaint, another important 18th-century French art dealer. As the above juxtaposition of Zoffany’s academy and Watteau’s marketplace shows, while women did not occupy strong positions in academic spaces, they were compelling figures in the market settings.