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Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment

By Claire Fenton

The Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida is presenting an exhibition of more than 150 drawings, pastels, paintings and sculptures addressing some of the most important and defining questions of women’s lives in the 18th and early 19th centuries. “Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment: French Art from The Horvitz Collection” will be on view to December 31, 2017.

Antoine-François Callet (Paris 1741 - 1823 Paris), Head of a Woman in Distress, pastel on tan laid paper adhered to board. The Horvitz Collection.

The status and representation of women in Western culture until the 18th century was oppressive and restrictive. For thousands of years they enjoyed very few economic, legal, or political rights and their role in society were primarily domestic. However, the representation of and attitude toward women started to gradually improve, particularly through literature, music and visual arts. During the Enlightenment, women began to take advantage of new intellectual trends, such as the ‘cultural salons.’ A salon was a social and intellectual gathering of people who would meet to discuss the latest cultural trends, from literature to politics, from art to philosophy. Salons were meant to be social gatherings for fun and entertainment as well as sources of intellectual stimulation. These social outlets enabled women to have more of a public voice.

Jean-Michel Moreau, called Moreau le jeune (Paris 1741 - 1814 Paris), Les Adieux: Scene from the “Monument du Costume, pen and brown ink and brush with brown wash on cream laid paper. The Horvitz Collection.

Many women took advantage of new literary forms as a way to participate and contribute to society. As the novel became an increasingly popular form of reading during the 18th century, female authors started to emerge during this period and increased in number over the course of the century and beyond. Additionally, a few women started to publish writings that grappled with the new theories of the Enlightenment and the subordinate position of women in society. “Becoming a Woman…” address cultural attitudes and conditions that shaped how female were defined in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Antoine Vestier (Avallon 1740 - 1824 Paris), Allegory of the Arts, 1788, oil on canvas. The Horvitz Collection.

The exhibition is organized into nine sections that include “The Fair Sex: Conceptions and Paradigms of Woman;” “Women in Training;” “What’s Love Got To Do With It?;” “Married with Children;” “Dressing the Part;” “Aging Gracefully;” “Pleasurable Pursuits;” “Private Pleasures” and “Work: Leaving it to the Professionals.”

Ranging from spirited, improvisational sketches and figural studies to highly finished drawings of exquisite beauty, the works included in the show are by many of the most prominent artists of the time. They include Antoine Watteau, Nicolas Lancret, François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, as well as lesser-known artists both male and female, such as Anne Vallayer-Coster, Gabrielle Capet, François-André Vincent and Philibert-Louis Debucourt.

Louis-Léopold Boilly (La Bassée 1761 - 1845 Paris), Conversation in a Park, oil on canvas. The Horvitz Collection.

“‘Becoming a Woman’ will offer opportunities to consider how its themes compare to some of the most pressing social issues of our own time and how things may or may not have changed,” said Melissa Hyde, guest curator of the exhibition. “Although the circumstances and the specifics have changed, pay equity, reproductive rights, violence against women and work-family balance are but a few of the many women’s issues covered in the exhibition that still remain today.”

The Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida’s campus is located at 3259 Hull Road. Gainesville, FL 32611 | www.harn.ufl.edu

Claire Fenton is an arts writer based in Gainesville, FL.