previous chapter
next chapter






“So you're writing a biography of Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun?” The very question made me bristle. Of course I was not writing a biography. My métier is interpreting the visual image. “So then it's a monograph?” No, not that either. I prefer to explore a few works in great detail rather than range over an artist's entire career. And to tell the truth, while writing The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), I scarcely considered the staples of either biography or the monograph. I thought little of the artist's formal development and even less about her juvenilia; I was not fascinated by the society ladies she painted, and I had no interest in exploring her intimate relationships. All in all, I found it difficult to name the genre of my writing. “I'm working on Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun” was the most I could say.

In retrospect, it seems appropriate that I struggled to define my enterprise, since definition is a central issue in the book. Again and again, I found myself asking how Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun imagined and presented herself as an illustrious artist in late-eighteenth-century France, when “woman artist” was a contradiction in terms. Even though many Frenchwomen practiced the arts between 1770 and 1830, the category “artist” (like that of “intellectual”) excluded the sex thought weaker in reason and subject to uncontrolled fantasy. The construction of

“woman” in various overlapping discourses—including the aesthetic, the medical, the legal, the moral, and the psychological—established and enforced this exclusion. Yet there were cracks in this dominant construction, and among the more promising for women was the concept of the “exception,” which became a defining feature of my book.

In titling my book The Exceptional Woman, I wanted the term exceptional to point in at least two directions: first, toward the exceptional person, that individual who achieved something considered out of the ordinary, an individual whose success historians or contemporaries valorized, and second, toward the exceptional woman, that woman whose achievement required both a dispensation from and a strengthening of the laws that regulated other women. This second definition I based on the eighteenth-century legal notion of the exception, explicated, for example, in the Encyclopédie under “Exception, Jurisprudence”:

Exception is also sometimes a dispensation from the rule in favor of some persons in certain cases. One commonly says that there is no rule without exception because there is no rule, however narrow it be, from which someone cannot be exempted in those particular circumstances. It is also a maxim in Law that exceptio firmat regulam, which is to say that exempting from the rule someone who is in the category of the exception, is tacitly to prescribe the observation of the rule for those who are not in a similar category.[1]

Given Vigée-Lebrun's status, privilege, and acclaim, she was indeed both a woman artist and an exceptional woman. Her “exceptionalness” made it particularly important that an analysis of her life and work take up the question of what it meant to be classified as a “woman” in lateeighteenth-century France. Because the exception was held to confirm or strengthen the rule for everyone else (exceptio firmat regulam), the fate of the exceptional woman was inextricably tied to the destiny of all women. And although by definition the “exception” was held to strengthen or confirm the rule, it also contained a subversive potential. Indeed, without that subversive potential it would not have been necessary to emphasize exceptio firmat regulam. Freed from some rules that governed their sex, celebrated women like Vigée-Lebrun threatened the social order and thus were in particular need of control.

In my work on Vigée-Lebrun I explored the various ways academic and government officials, as well as critics and painters, tried to manage,

contain, and control the exceptional woman artist. I also investigated the mechanisms through which French society prevented exceptional women from becoming the rule. Here I found inspiration in the work of historian Geneviève Fraisse, who took up the concept of the exception to show the difference in women's position before and after the French Revolution.[2] Fraisse argued that the entire society under the ancien régime operated in terms of the “exception” because an established hierarchy ensured different rights and privileges for different persons. Under such circumstances, it was impossible for anyone to claim equal rights. Revolutionary and postrevolutionary notions of equality, however, allowed oppressed groups, most notably women, to claim for the majority what had been given only to a very few.

While granting the distinction between pre- and postrevolutionary France, I still wondered if and how the exceptional woman could call into question, perhaps even without knowing it, the very category that made a place for her. I wanted to know if being exceptional gave Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun a position, albeit a contradictory one, from which to challenge prevailing constructions of woman in general and woman artist in particular. Moreover, my reading indicated that to a large extent attitudes toward women expressed in medical, philosophical, and moral treatises remained consistent before and after the Revolution. I came to believe that women in postrevolutionary France could more effectively argue for their rights—particularly the right to be cultural producers—because the work of exceptional women put pressure on prevailing norms. The shift to a logic of equality thus seemed to me only partly responsible for change. As important in opening possibilities for creative women was the continuous presence of exceptional women in pre- and postrevolutionary France.

I wondered to what extent Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun could be seen to have aided those other creative women. To what extent might her career have provided a strategic model for others claiming to be artists? Did her work belong to a tradition of protest? In posing such questions, my goal was not to remake Vigée-Lebrun as a feminist but to recuperate her work for feminism. That recuperation seemed especially necessary on several counts. For many years mainstream art history had either ignored Vigée-Lebrun or demeaned her work. A portion of the museum-going public, however, cherished the artist as a painter of elegant ladies and beautiful mothers. Her more popular works—for example, the 1789 self-portrait (now hanging in the Grand Galerie of the

Louvre) that shows her embracing her daughter Julie—have circulated widely, reproduced on wastebaskets, paperweights, ceramics, and the like. Feminist art historians, meanwhile, could find no place for Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, even though she was arguably the most noted woman painter in history. Starting with Simone de Beauvoir, feminists vilified her as an artist who had sold out, who had cast herself in the most retrograde stereotypes of “woman.” Beauvoir used Vigée-Lebrun as a negative example of the narcissistic woman. In The Second Sex, she maligned the artist: “Madame Vigée-Lebrun never wearied of putting her smiling maternity on her canvases.”[3] Art historians have been even less kind: Griselda Pollock, for example, made Vigée-Lebrun the villain in two of her books, implying that the artist was merely a society lady on the wrong side of the Revolution.[4] Indeed, the association of Vigée-Lebrun with the ancien régime, and hence with conservative politics, seems to have veiled for many interpreters any association of her art and career with what might be called feminist goals. Whereas Griselda Pollock in her pioneering work valued the art of elite women such as Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, she pictured that of Vigée-Lebrun, the hairdresser's daughter, as objectifying women in the most traditional way. Such ideas probably seemed entirely consonant with the artist's unwavering allegiance to the monarchy, her flattering portrayal of aristocratic patrons, and, most important, her attachment to Marie-Antoinette. They are at odds, however, with the artist's career, with her role as a celebrated artist in the public sphere, with her self-representations, and with her depictions of other exceptional women. Recent work on Marie-Antoinette, moreover, has cast that ill-fated queen in a more sympathetic light. Scholars have explored the denigration of Marie-Antoinette as symptomatic of a widespread fear of powerful women in the public sphere and have elucidated the queen's close connections to her female friends and supporters.[5] Such work casts a decidedly different light on Vigée-Lebrun's attachment to the queen and the artist's associations with other women.

In considering Vigée-Lebrun's work, moreover, I became interested in how often art historians repeated many of the stereotypes beloved by Salon critics hostile to Vigée-Lebrun, the woman artist who stepped out of her place and cast herself as a history painter. Indeed, it was the attempt to place herself in that high rank by presenting as her academic reception piece the allegory Peace Bringing Back Abundance (Salon of 1783; Paris, Musée du Louvre) that most angered her critics. They argued

that she could not paint the “ideal,” that she understood neither beauty nor the classical tradition. Her idealized portraits—well, they were mere flattery; they lacked both naturalness and truth. Detractors found her drawing weak, her color mannered, her touch soft. They called her paintings “feminine,” despite the artist's masculine ambitions. Their criticism thus participated in the general cultural devaluation of the “feminine,” a category in which they grouped a whole set of aesthetically undesirable properties. It struck me as particularly odd that feminists would (even inadvertently) validate any of these longstanding stereotypes, stereotypes also associated with the denigration of rococo painting in favor of neoclassical reform. That such reform was closely tied to a remasculinizing of painting, a reclaiming of art for male practitioners and masculine ideals, is a point that I am hardly alone in making.

As I thought about the feminist reception of Vigée-Lebrun, I kept coming back to one of the first books on feminist theory I had read: Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics. That book opened with the challenge of rescuing Virginia Woolf, whose work feminist critics had received negatively, for feminist politics. “It is surely arguable,” wrote Moi, “that if feminist critics cannot produce a positive political and literary assessment of Woolf's writing, then the fault may lie with their own critical and theoretical perspectives rather than with Woolf's texts.”[6] I saw Vigée-Lebrun as a parallel case: she was a woman artist whose work feminist art historians had found wanting. A new, more positive analysis of Vigée-Lebrun called for new perspectives, and these new perspectives could best be framed in an old format, the monograph, which would allow an extended consideration of the artist, her art, and the cultural frame within which that art was produced and received.

It never occurred to me, however, to write a traditional monograph, treating a single artist's entire career as a more or less self-contained entity. I prefer exploring a few works in detail, and I use the narrow focus on a single work to open a broad range of cultural, social, and aesthetic issues. Moreover, I viewed my book on Vigée-Lebrun, not as a self-contained monument to a single artist, but as a chapter in a different story of art, as well as my contribution to another history—the history of how women talked back to those discourses determined to configure them as incapable of reason or cultural production.[7] In other words, I saw my monograph as part of a collective enterprise. Here I was inspired by a remark Gerda Lerner made in her sweeping history

of feminist consciousness, where she argued that for centuries “individual women had to think their way out of patriarchal gender definitions and their constraining impact,” unsupported by cultural institutions and unable to pass on their knowledge effectively.[8] If Lerner is right, and I believe she is, then it seems imperative to examine how individual women artists thought their way out of restrictive definitions and to write the histories of those endeavors.

This is not to say that only women have had to think themselves out of constraining ideals and stereotypes, for surely all oppressed groups have faced similar, and sometimes far more difficult, challenges. It is to propose that art historians pay more consistent attention to the interaction between normative concepts and individual artistic production. Such a practice could illuminate differently even the work of such canonical masters as Raphael or Poussin.

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun's self-representations, as well as her representations of other “exceptional” women, became my central object of analysis. Did these images merely pander to the worst stereotypes, as others had argued, or did they together suggest a struggle with and against those stereotypes? Frankly, I thought it inconceivable that selfimages by a painter with Vigée-Lebrun's ambition and talent, by a woman who imagined herself a great artist, would not bear the marks of such struggles. But could I glimpse through her self-representations how the artist thought herself out of patriarchal definitions? Could I interpret her self-representations as themselves subversive of patriarchal norms? These questions led me to focus on autobiography insofar as it concerned professional identity. Here the writing of French feminist philosopher Michele Le Doeuff greatly influenced my thinking.[9] In her work, Le Doeuff asked how philosophers marked themselves as philosophers, how philosophy defended its position as a master discourse accessible only to male practitioners, and, most important, how women came to philosophy. Again, I saw myself facing similar questions. My study primarily considers how the work represents the professional life, and I view Vigée-Lebrun's self-images as made by an artist in a particular historical, social, and cultural situation. Being classed as “woman” was an important part of that situation.

Although my stress on self-representation does link life to work, I do not “reduce” the works to autobiography, nor do I leave out their larger significance, two fears feminists have voiced about the monograph as a genre of art historical writing. What seems to me important

for feminist inquiry is precisely an analysis of how a painter negotiated her identity as an artist and as a woman when all the mythologies of art, all the elements of what I call the painterly imaginary, asserted the artist's masculinity. Only if I could show how in the particular case Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun reworked these patriarchal norms could I write her art into a history of woman's resistance.

Despite my ambitions, one aspect of my book might still incline some readers to think I focused on the life at the expense of the art: my long readings of particular passages in Vigée-Lebrun's autobiography. These I took not as statements of the artist's life but as self-representations equivalent to pictorial portraits. Indeed, this eliding of the written and painted is fully justified in the French tradition, where the term portrait refers to both textual and visual depictions. Thus I did not read the Souvenirs for factual or biographical data, for their picture of life in ancien régime France, or for information about Vigée-Lebrun's sitters. Even a cursory look shows that this autobiography is no accurate record of events but a series of highly charged and often conventional image patterns. Vigée-Lebrun takes the standard tropes of the artist's biography and myths of the painter's imaginary and inserts into them the events—remembered, fantasized, or constructed—of her own life. These are combined with flattering poems and letters transcribed into the text and with reports of the libels and gossip that dogged her reputation. Vigée-Lebrun stakes her claim by publishing these self-representations as the text of her life, her biography in an approved version. Whether that life genuinely belonged to her, whether she actually lived or wrote it, mattered little to me. For my purposes, it was enough that she acknowledged that text as the representation of her life—both explicitly, in the body of the work, and implicitly by publishing it under her name during her lifetime.[10] In truth, I never believed that I was interpreting Vigée-Lebrun's life, professional or otherwise; the object of my analysis was its authorized representation. I found particularly useful those vignettes that commented on her status as both artist and woman.

To the disappointment of some readers and the pleasure of others, my book opened, not with a visual image, but with a textual self-representation whose complexity could be probed only by exploring along with it a variety of medical, moral-philosophical, and aesthetic texts on the nature of creativity. Those accounts were deeply gendered. In my opening self-portrait, Vigée-Lebrun recounts a visit to the cabinet of the famous anatomist Felice Fontana and describes her reaction to the

wax models of women's bodies displayed there. The sight of women's internal organs upsets the artist, who, after leaving the cabinet, develops a fixation on what she saw there. She returns to Fontana, seeking the anatomist's advice on coping with the affliction, which she describes as being caused by her sensitive organs. Although she specifies her organs of sight, the whole episode resounds with the current medical opinion that held women easily deranged because of their overly sensitive sense and sex organs. But rather than attribute her sensitivity to her female body, Vigée-Lebrun casts it in terms of her artistic gift. When Fontana advises her to calm her sensitivity by giving up painting, she flatly refuses. Addressing her readers, she remarks: “You will easily believe that I was not tempted to follow his advice; to paint and to live have only ever been a single and identical word for me, and I have quite often rendered thanks to Providence for having given me this excellent sight.”[11] In portraying herself in Fontana's cabinet, Vigée-Lebrun challenges the problematic that deemed the “normal” female body oversensitive and inclined to mental imbalance yet that simultaneously gave to the abnormally sensitive male body the capacity to make great art.[12]

The self-representation that opens my book also sets the pattern to follow in that it shows the artist manipulating accepted paradigms to her advantage, challenging the discourses that limited women by putting pressure on their inherent contradictions. I must admit that when I came across the account of her visit to Fontana's cabinet, I was stunned. I could not believe that no one had ever noticed or commented on the section, since it so brilliantly condensed and subverted all the aspects of science that deemed woman's body and mind unfit for intellectual and artistic production. Moreover, the scene was perfectly set—taking place in an anatomical cabinet with the artist contemplating a scientific model of woman's viscera. In addressing the anatomist, Vigée-Lebrun not only turns common belief on its head but also makes him play the fool for advising her to give up painting. It is a portrait to savor, especially if one likes uppity women. But, perhaps more important to my argument, Vigée-Lebrun presents herself in this scene as both the typical woman and the exceptional one; indeed, she performs the oversensitive woman only to prove herself a great and dedicated artist. Through her performance, she undermines the distinction, often made in medical treatises and art theories, between productive male sensitivity and dangerous female obsession.


In studying the paintings of Vigée-Lebrun, I noticed that she repeatedly reworked traditional forms and stories, claiming the role of Dibutades, the mythical originator of painting, or posing as the heir to Raphael or Rubens. My work here intersected with, and was informed by, Mary Garrard's brilliant (and now classic) analysis of Artemisia Gentileschi's Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting.[13] Garrard's work posed for me two fundamental questions: How does a woman picturing herself as an artist disrupt accepted ideas? and How does the woman artist fit herself into established paradigms? What seemed notable about Vigée-Lebrun, however, was that she continually identified with the constructions of others, casting her self-portrayals in preestablished conventions. This process of self-construction was entirely appropriate, for in her day, one became someone by becoming someone else. One became original by imitating. Yet eighteenth-century theories of imitation did not in themselves clarify the artistic identity forged through imitation, nor were those theories concerned with questions of gendered identity. The artist, they assumed, was a heterosexual European male, and thoroughly masculine, subject. Current theoretical formulations helped to elucidate imitation's effects on different subjectivities. Judith Butler, for example, has shown how imitation and identification occasion the sort of crisscrossing movement across the sexual divide that produces a complex, layered, and (apparently) contradictory subject.[14] Butler's use of citation, a notion borrowed from Derrida, is especially helpful. Butler argues that although cultural pressures urge individuals to cite (or perform) the norms that legislate identity, citation is inevitably interpretation. As such it opens gaps between the cultural text and the individual's mimicry of it.[15] In those gaps lie possibilities, no matter how momentary, for subverting and questioning the very norms and laws cited.

This understanding of imitation, citation, and mimicry helped me to interpret several of Vigée-Lebrun's works, including the self-portrait she exhibited in 1783 (private collection; autograph copy in London, National Gallery of Art; Figure 4) as part of a Salon debut calculated to present her as a history painter. The work imitated Rubens's Le Châpeau de Paille (1620–25; London, National Gallery of Art), believed in the eighteenth century to be a portrait of his wife and often taken as an exemplar for representing beautiful women. Vigée-Lebrun's selfportrait intrigued me because Griselda Pollock had twice used it as a negative example of women's art.[16] To reevaluate the work, I began


4. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Self-Portrait, 1783, oil on canvas

[Full Size]
thinking about Vigée-Lebrun not only as the object of representation but also as the subject who made the representation, as both woman model and woman artist. Although such an approach might seem obvious, Pollock had argued that so strong was the image of “Woman” that it occluded any glimpse of the “artist.” The comment troubled me because, as a specialist in eighteenth-century painting, I could see the artist quite clearly.


The portrait shows Vigée-Lebrun with the attributes of her art—brush and palette—and, more important, in what was by 1780 a conventional attitude for a (male) artist's self-portrait. We see her, not working at her easel, but focusing on inner vision and, at the same time, making a rhetorical gesture indicative of reason. Moreover, the apparent paradoxes of the image—for example, showing an elegantly dressed artist holding the tools of her trade—were all common in male selfportraits of the same period. Thus, certain aspects of the portrait pointed not to “woman” but to the eighteenth-century self-portrait conventions Vigée-Lebrun imitated. She was an artist at work imitating both Rubens and an accepted model of self-portraiture. A written description of the painting included in her Souvenirs (a self-portrayal of a self-portrait) also cast her as an artist at work and stressed the aesthetic challenge of imitating a difficult effect of light, mastered by Rubens in his Châpeau de Paille. Vigée-Lebrun thus depicts herself performing as Rubens, or, to use the eighteenth-century term, emulating Rubens. To emulate another artist was to try to surpass or outdo the acknowledged master, and Rubens was one of the most revered masters in eighteenth-century France. Thus the self-portrait shows Vigée-Lebrun as the emulator of Rubens even as it casts her as the one Rubens loved by borrowing elements of Rubens's depictions of his model-wife. Yet the many transformations of costume, composition, pose, gesture, dress, gaze, attributes, and so forth effectively sever any easy identification between Vigée-Lebrun and the woman Rubens depicts. Indeed, her changes also forced other associations: the costume in which she presents herself, for example, allies her to Marie-Antoinette and the queen's female friends, the so-called tribades of Trianon.[17]

Not only the work itself but its reception proved key to my analysis. Because the painting appeared in the Salon of 1783, I had a record of many contemporary responses to it, most of them written by anonymous Salon critics and pamphleteers. Those responses showed that there were many ways of reading the self-image. Far from seeing it as an unproblematic depiction of woman, as one could argue for Rubens's Châpeau de Paille, contemporaries understood the work as a representation of an inspired artist, one whose aspirations included history painting. Indeed, history paintings by Vigée-Lebrun (most notably her Peace Bringing Back Abundance, which she designated her reception piece) were on display at the same Salon and drew much comment—both positive and negative—from reviewers.


For one of the critics most closely associated with the “reform” of painting, who wrote under the name Coup de Patte, the image raised the specter of the hermaphrodite, an equivocal being of no sex. He presented his evaluation of the Salon as a conversation between a painter, a poet, and a musician. The trio pause before Vigée-Lebrun's self-portrait, and the painter is troubled because the figure's hair is a little négligé. The musician takes that as a sign that she has the “taste” of great artists not focused on mundane details. Addressing himself to the painter, the musician asks, “Is she a history painter?”[18] And the painter replies: “No. The arms, the head, the heart of women lack the essential qualities to follow men into the lofty region of the fine arts. If nature could produce one of them capable of this great effort, it would be a monstrosity, the more shocking because there would be an inevitable opposition between her physical and mental/moral (morale) existence. A woman who would have all the passions of a man is really an impossible man.”[19] Thus, for our reform-minded critic, Vigée-Lebrun's self-portrait did not evoke the acceptable image of the eternal feminine. Rather, it suggested an unacceptable—even abominable—attempt to show herself a great painter, a history painter. That attempt she signaled in her distracted gaze and disheveled hair, correctly read by the musician as a sign of her affinity with masters like Rubens.

In interpreting the self-portrait, I found the traditional techniques of art historical analysis as important as the insights of contemporary theory. I compared the work with other self-portraits of the period, isolating their iconographic and stylistic features. I considered the various “sources” for the image, although I often treated them as intertextual references rather than self-conscious borrowings. Yet in the end I did not try to resolve any of these citations into a coherent picture; rather, I took seriously Butler's claim that imitation and citation produce a complex, layered, and apparently contradictory subject. Contradiction was particularly important to me, since I found the position of exceptional woman by definition contradictory. I concluded that the portrait assumed no single coherent style or posture and posited no essential identity, whether of “eternal woman” or “great artist.” In her self-portrait Vigée-Lebrun identified herself all at the same time as an intimate of the queen, the painter Rubens, his beloved wife, a painted figure made by Rubens, a history painter, a hermaphrodite, an inspired artist, an intellectual making a reasoned point, a speaking subject, a beautiful woman, an immodest woman/artist pleasuring in self-display. Thus

she seems conceptually disunified, composed of discontinuous gestures or expressions, all of which are cited from other images. She is also disunified through time—presenting herself as various seventeenthand eighteenth-century figures (Rubens, Rubens's wife, Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette's intimate)—through position (subject, object), and through sex and gender identity. Those visual fragments and associations are framed in a coherent pictorial structure, which encourages viewers to imagine them in conformity with the dominant notion of a coherent identity, even though the image resists that reading.

Like the self-portrait in Fontana's cabinet, the image shown at the Salon of 1783 brilliantly undermines the traditions it invokes through consummate artifice. By mastering the contemporary practices of art making, Vigée-Lebrun formed her citations and imitations into a conventional pictorial structure that nonetheless challenged conventional logic. I can easily see why her work raised the sort of fear expressed by Coup de Patte, the fear that women would try to follow men into the highest realms of art. What, I wondered, could an artist with Vigée-Lebrun's talent and intelligence have achieved had she been given the freedoms and opportunities of her male colleagues? And when she performed as the emulator of Rubens, well, I imagine she was both asking that question and answering it—showing her potential as an artist. That she made many of her most compelling statements in selfportraits may be a measure less of her narcissism and more of the relative freedom the self-portrait allowed, for in that genre the artist is sometimes less constrained by the demands of sitters and markets.

If through my analysis I saw that, intentionally or not, Vigée-Lebrun's work subverted and/or remade traditional forms, I have come to envision my book as imitating that strategy. I have indeed written a monograph, insofar as a monograph is a study of an individual artist. Yet there are certain obvious differences. I assume that “artist” is a category both contested and always under construction; I organize my material thematically rather than chronologically; and I am consistently engaged with contemporary theory (in particular, feminist theory and psychoanalysis). Thus my monograph is not dedicated to the singular, original genius, and the name Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun does not simply point to a particular artist whose will organizes and gives meaning to a unified body of work. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun signifies a particular historical individual, a construction of her self-representations, an imagined figure articulated through feminist discourse, and

an allegory of the exceptional woman. I used a variety of materials to make that portrait of the artist. Archival records, novels, doggerel, paintings, memoirs, pamphlets, engravings, scientific treatises, moral tracts, letters, legal codes, journals—all from the historical period—I interspersed with feminist philosophy, psychoanalytic theory, art historical analysis, literary criticism, and cultural history.

Although reviewers have consistently drawn attention to the unconventional nature of my monograph, some felt that rather than revitalizing an art historical form, it pushed art historians out of the picture: “A book that has no color illustrations, except on the cover, and a bibliography in which art historians are a distinct minority crowded out by historians, philosophers, and trendy French megathinkers is clearly not your ordinary art history monograph.”[20] Yet I never meant to crowd out art historians. In fact, of the 257 secondary sources cited in my bibliography, 94 are by art historians, 57 by literary scholars, 50 by historians, and the rest by writers in other fields. Moreover, I count only 7 works by “trendy French megathinkers,” and those are scattered among the many, many citations to very nontrendy French art historians, whose work of accumulating and transcribing documents, sorting through primary material, and compiling catalogues of collections and artists little known to anyone but specialists was fundamental to my own research. I do not view art historians as crowded out; rather they rub shoulders with historians, philosophers, and literary critics. I like the idea of following Michel Foucault's Birth of the Clinic with Joseph Raymond Fournier-Sarlovèze's 1911 monograph Louis-Antoine Brun: Peintre de Marie-Antoinette 1758–1815.

What I did intend to crowd out, however, were some of art history's most limiting assumptions, assumptions I am hardly alone in throwing over. They include not only myths of artistic genius and originality but also the belief that meaning is contained or fixed in a work of art and that scrupulous historical analysis can unveil the true meaning. I also wanted to jettison the interpretive strategies that hindered a feminist reclamation of Vigée-Lebrun's work. Toward that end, I imported into art history tactics I encountered in other fields of inquiry and borrowed from scholars writing about women in eighteenth-century history and literature. But most fundamental to my work were three decades of feminist art history. Clearly my work addresses the basic question Linda Nochlin posed more than twenty years ago: “Why have there been no great women artists?”[21]


If my attention to Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (and to other women of the eighteenth century) has strengthened my conviction that for centuries women have eroded the categories that excluded or disabled them, my work has also convinced me that it is useful to consider paintings as interpretations of other paintings comparable to, though obviously different from, analyses written by art critics and historians. Vigée-Lebrun's reworking of a portrait by Rubens, for example, is both a new work of art and an interpretation of an older one that has the power to alter how the earlier work is seen. I no longer can look at Rubens's painting without also seeing what Vigée-Lebrun made of it, and I hope that my book induces others to visualize her work even as they look at his. Such a process disrupts the singularity of any given painting, returning the work to the web of representations to which it belongs. Henceforth the two works are engaged in a dialogue whose outcome is open to interpretation. Although Vigée-Lebrun could not change the historical conditions under which Rubens's painting was made, used, or seen, she could alter its meaning for her own time and thereafter, for meaning does not inhere in the work but is continually negotiated by those who interact with it.

Since completing The Exceptional Woman, I have tried more consistently to take advantage of that observation and to develop a practice of subversive reading. I have used it, for example, in rereading works like Bernard d'Agesci's Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise (ca. 1758, Art Institute of Chicago), works whose sensual presentations of women are easily dismissed as mere fodder for the male gaze.[22] Yet in presenting a woman not only as a subject who reads but as one who reads the writing of another woman, Bernard d'Agesci's painting readily lends itself to feminist revamping. In the same way that Vigée-Lebrun re-created the body Rubens painted in his Châpeau de Paille, I imagine my interpretation making something different out of this seductive reader. Such a reading practice allows me to steal a few images from the canon, reinscribe them, and return them as subversive facsimiles decidedly different from the originals imagined by the artist, his patrons, or even mainstream art history. Through subversive reading, we take back the bodies of some painted women, rather than discarding them as mere signifiers of a phallocentric and phallocratic regime.

It pleases my sense of irony to root my practice in the eighteenth century and claim it as historically “accurate.” Needless to say, I have negotiated earlier practices into alignment with recent feminist theories

of interpretation. With Shoshona Felman, I aim to locate the “inadvertent textual [in my case, pictorial] transgression of male assumptions and prescriptions” and to amplify them by my desire and rhetorical interposition as a feminist interpreter. That interposition opens up the field of interpretation, taken as both the unique encounter with the painted image and a pragmatic act, a particular reworking of social or personal expectations.[23]

As feminist scholarship continues to urge a fundamental rethinking of the discipline, it is my hope that The Exceptional Woman will encourage others, especially those working on earlier centuries, to reimagine traditional forms of art historical writing and to reinvent canonical images through subversive interpretation. In pursuing such practices, we imitate the women whose lives and work we study.


1. “Exception, est aussi quelquefois une dérogeance à la regle en faveur de quelques personnes dans certains cas: on dit communement qu'il n'y a point de regle sans exception, parce qu'il n'y a point de regle, si étroite soit elle, dont quelqu'un ne puisse être exempté dans ces circonstances particulières; c'est aussi un maxime en Droit, que exceptio firmat regulam, c'est-à-dire qu'en exemptant de la regle celui qui est dans le cas de l'exception, c'est tacitement prescrire l'observation de la regle pour ceux qui ne sont pas dans un cas semblable.” Diderot and D'Alembert, Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres, facsimile of 1751–80 edition (Stuttgart: Friedrich Frommann, 1967), 6:218. [BACK]

2. Geneviève Fraisse, La raison des femmes (Paris: Plon, 1992), 51–54. This concept is also developed in her earlier book, La Muse de la raison (Aixen-Provence: Alinéa, 1989). [BACK]

3. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H.M. Parshley (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 707. [BACK]

4. For this assessment, see Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), 96, and Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and the Histories of Art (New York: Routledge, 1988), 46–48. [BACK]

5. See, for example, Elizabeth Colwill, “Just Another Citoyenne? Marie-Antoinette on Trial,” History Workshop 28 (Autumn 1989): 63–87; Lynn Hunt, “The Many Bodies of Marie-Antoinette,” in Eroticism and the Body Politic, ed. Lynn Hunt (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991); Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Sarah Maza, “The Diamond Necklace Affair Revisited (1785–1786): The Case of the Missing Queen,” in Hunt, Eroticism and the Body Politic; and Jacques Revel, “Marie-Antoinette in Her Fictions:

The Staging of Hatred,” in Fictions of the French Revolution, ed. Bernadette Fort (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1991). [BACK]

6. Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics. Feminist Literary Theory (New York: Methuen, 1985), 9. [BACK]

7. The problem was exacerbated because, by excluding the possibility of woman's reason, the dominant construction of woman defends itself against any assault by a “real” woman. Here, for example, is the influential physiologist Cabanis speaking about women who would claim achievement in intellectual or artistic endeavors: “For the small number of women who can obtain true successes in these categories that are completely foreign to the faculties of their minds things are perhaps worse. In youth, in maturity, in old age, what will be the place of these ambiguous beings who are, properly speaking, of no sex?” Pierre-Jean-George Cabanis, On the Relations between the Physical and Moral Aspects of Man, trans. Margaret Saidi, ed. George Mora, intro. Sergio Moravia and George Mora (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 2:242. [BACK]

8. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness from the Middle Ages to 1870 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 220. Only when learned women could cluster together in informal groups, which substituted for established institutions, could an alternative vision (or feminist imaginary) begin to take root. With the recent institutionalization of women's studies, gender studies, and feminist theory in universities here and abroad, woman's resistance to patriarchy is increasingly recuperated, narrativized, and theorized. [BACK]

9. Michèle Le Doeuff, The Philosophical Imaginary, trans. Colin Gordon (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989). This English version appeared nine years after the French edition (L'imaginaire philosophique [Paris: Payot, 1980]) and is a careful, readable translation. See also Michèle Le Doeuff, Hipparchia's Choice: An Essay Concerning Women, Philosophy, Etc., trans. Trista Selous (Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1991). [BACK]

10. I am suggesting that Vigée-Lebrun makes an “autobiographical pact” with the reader. For this concept, see Philippe Lejeune, On Autobiography, trans. Katherine Leary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 3–30. Other works that particularly shaped my thinking include Domna Stanton, ed., The Female Autograph (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Felicity Nussbaum, The Autobiographical Subject: Gender and Ideology in Eighteenth-Century England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); Françoise Lionnet, Autobiographical Voices (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989); and Sidonie Smith, A Poetics of Women's Autobiography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987). [BACK]

11. “On croira sans peine que je ne fus pas tentée de suivre son conseil; peindre et vivre n'a jamais été qu'un seul et même mot pour moi, et j'ai bien souvent rendu grâces à La Providence de m'avoir donné cette vue excellent, dont je m'avisais de me plaindre comme une sotte au célèbre anatomiste.” Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Souvenirs, ed. Claudine Herrmann (Paris: Des femmes, 1986), 1:238. For a more complete interpretation of this encounter, see Mary D.

Sheriff, The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), chap. 1. [BACK]

12. For an extended analysis of this problematic, see Mary D. Sheriff, Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), chap. 2. [BACK]

13. Mary Garrard, “Artemisia Gentileschi's Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting,Art Bulletin 62 (March 1980): 97–112. See also Garrard's essay in this book. [BACK]

14. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993), 104–19. [BACK]

15. Ibid., 108. [BACK]

16. See note 4. [BACK]

17. For a fuller discussion see Sheriff, The Exceptional Woman,chap. 5. [BACK]

18. Coup de Patte, Le triumvirat des Arts ou Dialogue entre un Peintre, un Musicien & un Poëte sur les Tableaux exposés au Louvre, année 1783, pour servir de continuation au Coup de Patte & à la Patte de velours, 1783, Collection Deloynes, no. 305, p. 27. [BACK]

19. “Non. Les bras, la tête, le coeur des femmes sont privés des qualités essentielles pour suivre les hommes dans la haute région des beaux-arts. Si la nature en produisoit une capable de ce grand effort, ce seroit une monstruosité d'autant plus choquante, qu'il se trouveroit une opposition nécessaire entre son existence physique et son existence morale. Une femme qui auroit toutes les passions d'un homme, est réellement un homme impossible. Aussi le vaste champe de l'Histoire, qui n'est remplique d'objets vigoureusement passionnés est fermé pour quiconque n'y sauroit porter tous les caractères de vigueur.” Ibid., no. 305, p. 27. [BACK]

20. Ann Sutherland Harris, “Portrait of a Lady,” Women's Review of Books 14 (January 1997): 2. [BACK]

21. Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness, ed. Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran (New York: New American Library, 1981), 480–510. [BACK]

22. This interpretation is developed in Mary D. Sheriff, “A rebours: Le problème de l'histoire dans l'interprétation féministe,” in Où en est l'interprétation de l'oeuvre d'art? ed. Régis Michel (Paris: École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 2001). Another essay offers a subversive reading of Fragonard's painting The Souvenir: see Mary D. Sheriff, “Letters: Painted/Penned/ Purloined,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 26 (1996): 29–56. [BACK]

23. Shoshona Felman, What Does a Woman Want? Reading and Sexual Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 6. [BACK]

previous chapter
next chapter