Looking back at womankind
What an 18th-century art exhibit can teach us about life here and now
The new exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum, Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment, investigates the ways a historical moment set the tone for the feminist waves to come, and for the lives we live today.
Simone de Beauvoir says in her best-known book, The Second Sex, “one is not born, but rather, becomes a woman,” a quote that gives the exhibition its title. Though this was said long after the Enlightenment, you’ll see de Beauvoir’s meaning in the paintings, drawings, pastels and sculptures from the Horvitz family’s collection of 18th-century French art. These objects show women adapting to their role in society at their given point in time by embracing it and challenging it.
As I viewed Becoming a Woman with curator William Breazeale, I was surprised to find that I was thinking more of the present than the past—which I soon realized is the show’s main point. The challenges women in the Enlightenment faced were issues of marriage, work, children and beauty standards. And as Breazeale said, “Even though all the objects are essentially 18th century, they deal with issues that affect us all now. These issues are very current.”
Jacques-André Portail’s “Young Girl Reading,” a chalk drawing of a girl at a table focused on a book, can be seen as a comment on women’s changing responsibilities. Not only were women of the time expected to take care of their families, but they also wrote orders or managed a family’s budget, and a high reading level was necessary.
Similarly, “Young Lady Performing Needlework” by Princess Louise-Adélaïde de Bourbon-Condé, Abbesse de Remiremont depicts a girl mastering a complicated form of sewing. It was not enough to just be pretty or a good mother, a woman must also have a skill, or maybe moreso, she just wanted one.
While in our time, women have broken out of the role of only being a caretaker, there is still an unfair amount of pressure for the “breaking out” of our gender roles. Instead, they’re expected to fill both. Now, women are often expected to caretake and have a career, or hire someone to watch their children. This was also an issue of the Enlightenment, as depicted in Jean-Baptiste Mallet’s “Grooming of the Infant,” in which two women stand in a room with a baby, and the viewer can’t tell exactly who is the mother.
Many of the objects in Becoming a Woman reflect the competitive marriage market of the time. “Catherine-Étienne Tripier d’Aury Le Franc” by Jean-Jacques Bachelier is a profile of a girl with an inscription explaining that smallpox destroyed her features and chance at marriage. As Breazeale explained this, I looked horrified, and he said, “I’m not judging the society, I’m just relaying what it was.”
While the marriage market seems ridiculous and sad to me, I know it was incredibly important, because women of the time needed a man who could support them. As a Greek Orthodox girl living in Sacramento, my cousins and I were always made aware of the single Greek guys at our church on Alhambra Boulevard, and when Breazeale was discussing the grand balls of the Enlightenment, they seemed a lot like the annual Debutante Gala at the Convention Center. While things are different now and women are able to support themselves, there is still pressure in today’s society to pair up, though of course there isn’t as much at stake.
One of the most striking pieces in the show is L. Monbrison’s “Standing Young Man Holding A Letter,” where a good-looking boy leans against a wall holding a love note with a smirk on his face, like the world has nothing to teach him. It’s a look I saw on many boys when I was in school here not so long ago, as a naive St. Francis High School girl intrigued by cool boys all the other girls wanted too. But “Standing Young Man Holding A Letter” also offers something deeper. It’s a peek into the world of pressure young men were experiencing at this time, to be successful enough to attract a wife and support a household. As Breazeale said, “This exhibition isn’t all about women.”
It seems Becoming a Woman may be much more than its title. Maybe it’s not so much about the female experience, but more about the experience of being human. As I stared into the eyes of the women in these pieces, I felt them staring back at me as if to say something, or ask something of me. I especially felt this in the largest painting in the exhibition, Jacques-André-Joseph-Camelot Aved’s “Marie de Guérin du Treuil, Marquise de Sainte-Maure d’Origny,” a favorite of Breazeale’s.
“She’s so tremendously grand, she dominates the room,” he says.
Standing there in all her power, owning her time period, dressed in the excessive Turkish garb so in fashion, Marie looked deep in my eyes as if to say, “Don’t judge me, and I won’t judge you.”
I don’t believe this exhibition is trying to say that we have not progressed in feminism or equality, but rather that the fundamental challenges of family and honor will remain the same across centuries. It is the details, the freedoms, the fashions of our time periods which alter these fundamentals, and our challenge and interpretation of them in which we truly “become” the women of our time. Though, of course, you’ll have to see the exhibit yourself to know what the women of the Enlightenment have to say to you.