The Depiction of Women During the French Revolution
Figure 1: Vigée Le Brun 1800. A posthumous portrait of Marie Antoinette. Figure 2: Vigée Le Brun c 1800. Rose Bertin.
The history of women during the four stages of the French Revolution and the roles that they played, remain hotly debated and somewhat obscure to this day. According to Yves Bessieres’ and Patricia Niedzwiecki’s journal "WOMEN IN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION (1789)" commissioned by Institute for the Development of the European Cultural Area, there are almost 1,500 historical documents written by those who witnessed the French Revolution. The lack of women mentioned in these documents is attributed, according to Bessieres and Niedzwiecki, to the fact that out of the officially recognised 17,500 people guillotine, only 166 were women (Bessieres and Niedzwiecki. 1991). This coupled with the fact that history has been predominantly documented by men for men, creates an absence of investigative and diverse historical data regarding the role French women played in the Revolution and women in our collective history.
The lack of rights for women in acquiring certain skills and professional positions in a man’s world meant the female race and her history had been largely ignored and left at the mercy of a patriarchal society that fought against the very notion of semblance that women could equally achieve what men could. It’s understandable that such a society would not have readily endorse any narrative that reeked female heroism. And like Marie Antoinette, the visual depiction of women in the French Revolution has been vastly distorted, one dimensional and primitive.
On 5 October 1789, around 6,000 women marched to Versailles protesting the staggering 97% of wages, the poorest of the poor needed to purchase bread for their families. Their march triggered the rapid dethronement of the King and the First and Second Estates, but the women are most remembered and depicted as angry, vulgar wild beasts with axes and spikes. Any precursor to the nature of their characters was erased, leaving us with an unfair glimpse of angry and vicious women. By contrast, their male revolutionary counterparts were written about with a degree of dignity despite being responsible for some of the most ignoble acts. Leaders like Robespierre and lesser known male players in the revolution were celebrated and presented in a less derogatory manner, leaving their unsuitable mortal moments out of the spotlight. However, let’s put some facts and figures into perspective. By the end of the eighteen century, France was unsustainable, its population was over 28 million, 20 million of which were poor peasants and half of that 20 million were women. Of the 20 million 80% were illiterate and of the remaining percentage that was considered cultured, the majority were women (Bessieres and Niedzwiecki. 1991). Despite these numbers and the fact that members of women’s rights groups were prominent in the marches, their roles at the time, were reduced to vague and unflattering anecdotes by eye witness writers of the revolution.
In my quest to rebuild and restore the visual image of Marie Antoinette using conceptual photography, I’m also indirectly restoring the image of many women who fought for and against each other during the French Revolution.
Figure 3: Alexandre Kucharski 1787. Marie Olympe de Gouges. Figure 4: Vigée Le Brun 1782. Self-portrait in a Straw Hat. Oil
Rights of Women Pre-Revolution
The rights of women in France leading up to the French Revolution were virtually non-existing. Women had no political rights to vote, they were barred from holding political office, and their schooling and education were generally focused on being a good wife and homemaker. Our personal preferences, like hobbies that we cherish and consider our private right, were not private for women in 18th century France. A woman’s activities and hobbies were centred around learning the interests of their husbands and adapting them. Gambling which we have associated strongly with male activity was part of French noble women’s activities. And Antoinette in her younger teenage years at Versailles was none the less an active participant in adopting particular hobbies and interests as were the social norm.
Women pre- revolutionary France like many of their counterparts around the world, relied on men for direction and decisions on how they should be governed. Prior to the Revolution, the seeds of feminism were quietly but firmly growing on all levels of French society. You had women of nobility and influence like Marie Antoinette, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Rose Bertin who visually asserted their presence and influence using art and fashion to garner political favours and admiration that were denied to them because of their gender. Then you had the ordinary woman who worked as a flower girl or servant becoming more and more dissatisfied with unequal pay, their male counterparts earning 50% more for similar jobs. In the middle were the intellectual women who created organisations pre-revolution that promoted the rights of women, these groups were dismantled during 1794-1800.
The playwright and notable feminist Olympe De Gouges, who wrote ‘Les Droits de la Femme, 1791’ –‘ Declaration of the Rights of Woman, 1791’, was arrested, tried and sentenced to the guillotine on 2 November 1793, ironically on what would have been, Antoinette’s 38th birthday. Olympe was beheaded the following day, 3 November 1793, eighteen days after the beheading of Antoinette. Interestingly, when authorities failed to find any evidence against Olympe when they searched her property, she led them to a storage area where she kept her papers, it was in one of her plays depicting the Queen and the Revolution that would be used against her at trial.
During the French Revolution, Olympe De Gouges advocated for change in the conditions of slaves in the colonies (1788), three years later, she would write her declaration, demanding equality for women, after all, the Revolution was about liberty, equality and the rights of man, for the people by the people. However, while De Gouge's views suited the revolution movement, she was also sympathetic to the monarchy and wanted it to remain in place. When Louis XVI was put on trial, she offered to defend him and had suggested he should be exiled rather than beheaded. The preface of her famed Declaration of the Rights of Woman was dedicated to the Queen, Marie Antoinette. It’s quite telling and complimentary that one of the world’s most extraordinary people, a supporter of human rights and renown feminist, was also a supporter of Marie Antoinette. It lends credence that a person living in such times, who was most aware of the political landscape, truth and gossip, would not have supported the queen had she believed the political pornographic pamphlets and the vast amount of propaganda against Antoinette.
Figure 5: Le Brun 1783. Marie Antoinette in Muslin Dress. oil. Figure 6: Le Brun 1783. Antoinette with a rose. oil.
Getting back to the nobility, women like Rose Bertin, for example, supported equality of the woman at Court - the French royal, political, social arena for networking. Bertin designed her dresses for women of nobility as wide as 2 to 3 metres. This was a strategic move to create a visual sensation and acknowledgement of the woman, in an environment where her political power and fundamental rights were invisible. It was subtle in its way of agenda, but the impact it had was profound. It enabled women like Marie Antoinette, though she was the Queen of France, she had no real political influence, but with Bertin’s designs she would become the Queen of Fashion, gossiped and talked about more than her husband, the king, and all other men of political power and influence. In some respects, one can speculate that it was her rise in celebrity status that furthered infused a sense of feminism among other women, who were already tirelessly working to promote the rights of women with their clandestine get-togethers or subtle, political bourgeois tea parties.
Antoinette’s friend and favourite portrait artist, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, was equally subtle in her agenda to promote a powerful narrative of women using art. Her portrait of Antoinette in a chemise dress caused a scandal, and Vigée Le Brun was forced to redo the painting with Antoinette in proper Queen’s attire. Leading up to the Revolution when anti-monarchy sentiments were growing alongside outrageous bread prices, Le Brun would later paint Antoinette with her children in a solemn scene, an empty cradle symbolic of the child Antoinette lost, the portrait was meant to garner sympathy for the royal family and promote a softer narrative of Antoinette. Suffice to say; it was a little too late; the damage had already taken hold.
Figure 7: Baptiste 2017. The Pillars that held Four.
In spite of the horrors during the Reign of Terror, women of the Revolution made their mark, collectively and individually, and as we look back at history, it’s decent to note all those who played a role in fighting for the rights of all genders. Cheers to the women of the French Revolution!
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Figure 1. ÉLISABETH VIGÉE-LEBRUN, ÉLISABETH. 1800. A posthumous portrait of Marie Antoinette.
Figure 2. VIGÉE LE BRUN, ELISABETH. 1800. Rose Bertin.
Figure 3. KUCHARSKI ALEXANDRE, 1787. Marie-Olympe de Gouges
Figure 4. LOUISE ÉLISABETH VIGÉE LE BRUN [PUBLIC DOMAIN], VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS. n.d. Self-portrait in a Straw Hat [image]. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASelf-portrait_in_a_Straw_Hat_by_Elisabeth-Louise_Vig%C3%A9e-Lebrun.jpg [accessed 7 June 2017].
Figure 5. ÉLISABETH LOUISE VIGÉE LE BRUN, ÉLISABETH LOUISE VIGÉE. 1783. Marie Antoinette in a Muslin dress [image]. Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/00/MA-Lebrun.jpg [accessed 7 June 2017].
Figure 6. ÉLISABETH LOUISE VIGÉE LE BRUN, ÉLISABETH LOUISE VIGÉE. 1783. Antoinette with a rose [image]. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Louise_Elisabeth_Vigée-Lebrun_-_Marie-Antoinette_dit_«_à_la_Rose_»_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg?uselang=en-gb [accessed 7 June 2017].
Figure 7. BAPTISTE, MANDISA. 2017. The Pillars that held Four.