Facing the Revolution: Portraits of Women in France and the United States was scheduled to open on March 25, 2020. The Eskenazi Museum of Art has temporarily closed to support Indiana University’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 and the exhibition has been postponed.
In the meantime, we invite you to learn more about the artists and sitters featured in the exhibition by exploring the accompanying online publication.
Our priority is to protect the health and safety of our visitors, staff, and volunteers. We look forward to welcoming you back to the museum when it is safe to reopen.
Facing the Revolution: Portraits of Women in France and the United States was scheduled to open on March 25, 2020. The Eskenazi Museum of Art has temporarily closed to support Indiana University’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 and the exhibition has been postponed.
In the 1770s and 1780s, the United States and France underwent transformative periods of political revolution. With the assistance of the French military, American patriots in the thirteen colonies declared their independence from British colonial rule and established the United States of America in 1776. In 1789, France saw the beginning of events that would lead to the abolition of its monarchy and the establishment of a secular and democratic republic in its place. Inspired by radical ideas about the role of government, these revolutions profoundly altered the course of human history and prompted a wave of global upheavals.
This era brought with it a new emphasis on the individual and artists began to experiment with how portraiture could better reflect new ways of thinking about personal identity. Facing the Revolution explores the intersection of political and artistic revolution by foregrounding portraits of women painted by French and American artists between 1785 and 1835. Drawn from the collections of the Eskenazi Museum of Art, the Speed Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, and Lilly Library, these portraits feature women whose lives were drastically changed by circumstances outside of their control.
The exhibition includes portraits by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (two of the four female members of the French Academy in the 1780s); Marie-Victoire Lemoine, who exhibited her work regularly at the biennial Salons in Paris; and the Lyonnaise sculptor Clémence-Sophie de Sermézy. These important works by some of the leading women artists of late eighteenth-century France are presented alongside portraits by James Peale, Thomas Sully, and Antoine-Jean Gros, among others.
While some former subjects of monarchical rule became citizens of these new republics, many others–enslaved persons, colonial subjects, and most women–did not. The portraits in this exhibition highlights the lives of women who clung to the trappings of aristocratic life under monarchy as well as those who embraced the modern era and its new opportunities. Each of the sitters and artists in this exhibition sought to capture an individualized likeness and to create a lasting image at a time of uncertainty.
France and the United States
Between the War of Independence and the War of 1812, the complicated political relationship between France and the United States affected patterns of cultural consumption. At various moments during this volatile period, representatives of the French government were able to leverage treaties to exchange their fashionable luxury products for American dry goods and raw materials. American artists satisfied their taste for French art by traveling to Paris for inspiration and training, studying in the ateliers of artists like Jacques-Louis David.
T. Lawrence Larkin has observed that the unique set of political circumstances in France and the United States at the turn of the century prompted a “desire to be represented in a manner that eschewed the trappings of aristocracy and signs of social preeminence and embraced the values of personal integrity and collective patriotism.”1 On both sides of the Atlantic, portraits became a way of presenting the sitter as an individual, loyal to a shared set of political ideals.
Two examples by French and American artists illustrate the shared iconography of post-Revolutionary portraiture. In Antoine-Jean Gros’s Portrait of Celeste Coltellini, the retired Italian soprano singer is not shown in an elaborate costume but in a simple gown that illustrates the prevailing European taste for Neoclassical silhouettes. She crosses her arms at her waist and looks out to meet the viewer’s gaze directly, with a self-possessed smile. In Rembrandt Peale’s Portrait of Helen Miller, the American sitter wears a similar high-waisted white gown with puffed sleeves.
These two paintings do not represent a radical departure from the conventions of portraiture. Instead, their modernity is derived from the individualized likenesses and the direct, confident expressions of their sitters. The revolutions that broke out in France and the United States in the late eighteenth century led to the replacement of monarchical social and political structures with a new emphasis on individual liberty. Portraiture was the genre most sensitive to this shift as it required artists and sitters to consider markers of personal identity and to make them legible within their portraits. These two works by Gros and Peale are clear examples of this new mode of thinking and art making.
Between 1805 and 1807, the American painter Rembrandt Peale made portraits of the Miller family of Philadelphia: John Miller; his wife Margret Irvine; and their daughters Julia, Margaret, Jane, and Helen. Peale kept meticulous account books and recorded a price of twenty-five dollars for each portrait and nine dollars for each frame.
In the Portrait of Helen Miller, the sitter is shown seated in front of a romantic, imagined landscape, with a red shawl that highlights the warmth of her face and adds color to an otherwise muted palette. Her high-waisted white gown is exquisitely rendered, with careful attention paid to the buttons, the volume of her cap sleeves, and the sheer scarf she wears around her shoulders.
In 1815, Miller married Dr. Charles McLean, a Presbyterian clergyman from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The couple moved to Indianapolis where they founded the Indiana Female Seminary (later known as the McLean Seminary), a boarding school for girls that provided a standard curriculum as well as instruction in music, drawing, and painting.2 This portrait was given to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1929 as a gift from former students at the school.
Peale was a prominent American portraitist who became well-known for his portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Rembrandt was named for the seventeenth-century Dutch painter and his father, Charles Willson Peale, was himself an important early American artist and the founder of one of the first museums in the United States. Rembrandt Peale travelled to Europe in 1808 and in 1809–10, to study the work of Jacques-Louis David, among other artists. He was the nephew of the painter James Peale, who painted the Portrait of Madame Dubocq and her Children around the same time that Rembrandt made his portrait of Helen Miller.
Celebrated as one of the finest mezzo-sopranos of her time, the Italian opera singer Celeste Coltellini was known to her contemporaries as “la perla di Napoli,” or “the pearl of Naples.” She made her stage debut in 1780 at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and she performed on stages across Europe through the 1780s and early 1790s. Coltellini dazzled audiences and composers including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote soprano parts tailored for her emotionally affecting voice.3
In 1792, she married the Swiss banker Jean-Georges Meuricoffre and retired from public performance. However, Coltellini remained active in artistic and cultural circles, inviting many of the leading musicians and artists of the late eighteenth century to the Meuricoffre family properties in Genoa and Marseille.
A student of Jacques-Louis David, the French painter Antoine-Jean Gros spent the early 1790s in Paris preparing to compete for the Prix de Rome, an award that would provide several years of continued study at the French Academy in Rome. When the upheaval of the French Revolution threatened his plans and in 1793, Gros set out for Florence on his own to complete his artistic education.
He traveled first to the south of France, where he met the Meuricoffre family in Marseille. Then, after spending a few months in Florence, he took up residence at the family’s property in Genoa, where he hoped to find a better market for his portraits and miniatures.4 Gros’s Genovese period was marked by the production of a number of commissioned portraits; however, this portrait of Coltellini was likely painted as a gift for his hosts.
As is typical of Gros’s portraits from this period, the painting of Coltellini shows its sitter at half-length with her arms crossed, dressed in a simple, high-waisted muslin gown that reflects the popular taste for Neoclassical styles. Her wild curls, slight smile, and direct, expressive eyes enliven the portrait and nod to her past as an accomplished performer.
Coltellini was herself an amateur artist who received instruction from Gros during his stay in Genoa. On a visit to Italy, Gros’s friend Anne-Louis Girodet made a small drawing of Coltellini seated in front of a mirror, sketching her self-portrait. In 1800, Gros returned to France and became one of the most important artists to produce political propaganda for Napoleon. He remained friends with Coltellini, exchanging letters with her over the years.
The Fate of the Court Painter
As violence and political turmoil in Paris mounted in the summer of 1789, two women artists, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, were preparing portraits of members of the French royal family for exhibition at the state-sponsored Salon that would open in late August. Despite their shared ambitions and stature as two of the preeminent portraitists of the royal family, the artists’ reactions to the fall of the Bastille on July 14 were radically different.
By the opening of the Salon of 1787, Labille-Guiard and Vigée Le Brun had established themselves as portraitists of rival factions within the royal family and at the court at Versailles. When Marie-Antoinette became queen of France in 1774, she introduced new customs that undermined formal court etiquette and alienated the older nobility, including Louis XVI’s unmarried aunts, Mesdames Adélaïde and Victoire. At the Louvre in 1787, Vigée Le Brun’s Marie-Antoinette and Her Children hung near Labille-Guiard’s Portrait of Madame Adélaïde. While Vigée Le Brun had ascended to the position of primary portraitist for the queen, Labille-Guiard had secured the loyal patronage of the Mesdames.
In 1789, the two artists were facing a worsening political situation that threaten to jeopardize their position as portraitists to the court. Vigée Le Brun chose to leave Paris, heading south to Lyon before traveling on to Italy. She would travel throughout Europe in exile until 1802. Labille-Guiard remained in Paris, creating a new identity for herself as an artist whose work helped conceptualize the new French republic. She and other reform-minded moderates hoped for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. At the Salon of 1791, Labille-Guiard exhibited pastel portraits of fourteen deputies to the National Assembly, including members of a group that opposed the Jacobins’ rejection of the monarchy.5 She retreated to the French countryside during the Reign of Terror, a time when many of her patrons were guillotined and a number of her most ambitious paintings were destroyed.
The late eighteenth century was a period of unprecedented opportunity for women artists in France. Barred from the life drawing classes where history painting was taught, Vigée Le Brun and Labille-Guiard became portraitists for royal women who hoped to create lasting images at a time of historic uncertainty. However, while Vigée Le Brun cultivated new networks of patronage throughout Europe, Labille-Guiard saw her career irrevocably damaged by the events of the French Revolution.
In 1787, the catalogue published to accompany the opening of the official Salon identified the French painter Adélaïde Labille-Guiard as “premier Peintre des Mesdames,” or First Painter for Mesdames Adélaïde and Victoire, the unmarried aunts of Louis XVI.6 Labille-Guiard exhibited a number of portraits of royal women but it was her Portrait of Madame Adélaïde that captured the attention of audiences at the Louvre and secured her position as a preeminent portraitist of the court at Versailles.
Labille-Guiard made three copies of this important Salon painting to celebrate and memorialize its success, the finest of which is in the collection of the Speed Art Museum. Rich with iconography, the work asserts Madame Adélaïde’s loyalty to her country and to her family. The oval painting on the easel is a posthumous tribute to her father, Louis XV, her mother, and her brother, inscribed with the sentiment, “Their image remains the charm of my life.” The plans unfurled over the pliant, or folding stool, to her right are for the convent at Versailles that her mother founded and Madame Adélaïde directed. The frieze in the top register of the canvas shows Adélaïde and Victoire attending to their father, who died of smallpox.
Despite this portrayal of Madame Adélaïde as a virtuous, self-sacrificing figure, she is dressed in a luxurious gown that was suitable only for appearances at court. The red velvet robe is trimmed with gold and silver embroidery while the front of her dress is adorned with an elaborate ladder of bows from neck to her waist. Marie-Antoinette was often the target of criticism for her extravagant spending but the account book of the important Parisian dressmaker Madame Éloffe reveals that Madame Adélaïde spent more than any other client, including her niece.7
Although Labille-Guiard was admitted to the Academy in 1783 and made her debut at the Salon that year, it was at the Salon of 1785 that she captured the attention of the Mesdames. Madame Adélaïde so admired Labille-Guiard’s Self-Portrait with Two Pupils that she offered to buy it for a generous sum; however, the artist refused.8 When Madame Adélaïde learned that Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun had been commissioned to paint a portrait of Marie-Antoinette for the Salon of 1787, she commissioned portraits of herself, her sister, and their niece Madame Élisabeth from Labille-Guiard. These commissions reaffirmed the conservative values of the court of Louis XV in the context of the extravagance of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.
With her right hand keeping her place on the page, Mrs. Chinnery lifts her eyes from her book and turns to meet the viewer’s gaze. The daughter of a wealthy London family, Margaret Chinnery was a well-connected and well-read member of the educated class in early nineteenth-century England. She regularly hosted international dignitaries, literary figures, musicians, artists, and composers at the Chinnery family estate in Gillwell. A devotee of the parenting theories espoused by the French author Madame Stéphanie de Genlis, Chinnery is pictured reading a handwritten copy of one of Genlis’ books, a gift from the author in honor of their decades-long friendship and correspondence.
Chinnery had her portrait made by the French painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun during the artist’s stay in England between 1802 and 1803. A member of the Academy and the preferred portraitist of Marie Antoinette, Vigée Le Brun left France soon after the invasion of Versailles by revolutionaries in October 1789. She traveled extensively throughout Italy, Austria, Russia, Switzerland and England, returning to France only periodically until 1808. During her travels, Vigée Le Brun was widely sought as a portraitist and was admired for her attention to detail, her elegant manipulation of color and tone, and her skill for capturing both a physical and psychological likeness of her sitters.
Dressed in a red velvet dress cut in a fashionable Neoclassical style and adorned with gold embroidery and tassels, Chinnery completes her outfit with a diaphanous scarf tied beneath her chin. A matching velvet headband holds her hair back and she leans forward slightly, looking out towards the viewer with a bright expression.
Despite her considerable wealth and privilege, Chinnery’s life was marred by personal tragedy and scandal. She outlived all three of her children, having suffered the loss of her youngest son, Walter, just one year before this portrait was made.9 Her husband, William Bassett Chinnery, was a chief clerk in the treasury. In 1812, it was discovered that he had embezzled more than £80,000 from the government.10 He fled to Le Havre to escape his creditors while Margaret was left to liquidate their assets and to sell the family estate at Gillwell. William never successfully repaid his debts, and he remained in exile in France for the rest of his life, where his wife joined him permanently in 1824.
Outside the Academy
In 1783, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun were admitted to the French Academy, bringing the total number of female members to four. Although the Academy did not exclude women, it failed to provide them with equal opportunities, as female members were not permitted to swear allegiance to the institution or to its rules. Despite these limitations, the académiciennes were granted access to the official Salon du Louvre, where they could exhibit their work.
The successes of Labille-Guiard and Vigée Le Brun were the exceptions in a city where the majority of women artists worked outside of the official auspices of the Academy and the Salon. Marie-Victoire Lemoine was one such artist.
Lemoine left no memoirs or correspondence offering insight into her life and career. She was not a member of any artists’ group, exhibiting only occasionally at the Salon de la Correspondance and, after 1796, at the official Salon. None of her paintings were made into prints and because she obtained few royal commissions, many of her works remained in private collections through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a result, she is not as well-known as her contemporaries Labille-Guiard and Vigée Le Brun, although the three women likely socialized in the same circles in the 1770s and 1780s.
Without the institutional support of the Academy and the guarantee of exhibiting at the Salon, Lemoine had to cultivate a network of patrons. She developed a personal, identifiable style and technique, becoming a specialist in small-scale, oval portraits of women and girls, often costumed in allegorical dress.
Lemoine has yet to be the subject of a book-length monographic study or a major museum exhibition. As her works continue to surface, she emerges as an artist of great talent who earned her place among the leading stars of late eighteenth-century women artists in France.
A student of the history painter François Guillaume Ménageot, Marie-Victoire Lemoine was primarily known for her paintings of women and children. She was born in Paris in 1754 to an artistic family–two of her three sisters were professional artists, as was a female cousin on her father’s side.
This portrait of an unidentified sitter, likely painted around 1790, is typical of the artist’s commissioned portraits from this period. The young woman is shown at half-length in an oval composition, her wrists elegantly crossed to highlight the sheer ruffles at her cuffs and the monogrammed button on her sleeve. Her hair is crowned with a small spray of roses and she wears delicate gold earrings. Her rosy-cheeked face looks out from the canvas, meeting the gaze of the viewer with a slight smile.
The sitter’s identity is unknown; however, because the painting was in the collection of the Budan de Russé family in the nineteenth century, it is believed to be a portrait of a relative. In the early twentieth century, it was attributed to the French painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. The two women artists were contemporaries who worked and socialized in the same elite Parisian circles in the 1770s and 1780s.
In 1796, Lemoine exhibited The Interior of an Atelier of a Woman Painter at the Salon, a painting now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The work is an affirmation of the status of women as professional artists and some art historians have described Lemoine’s decision to exhibit the work in 1796 as a discrete homage to Vigée Le Brun, who had fled France seven years earlier in response to the violence of the French Revolution.11
In 1796, Marie-Victoire Lemoine made her debut at the Salon du Louvre in Paris. An accomplished portraitist, she had previously shown works at the Salon de la Correspondance, an exhibition venue for artists who worked outside the official, state-sponsored Academy. Unlike her contemporaries Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Lemoine was not admitted to the Academy in the 1780s, despite cultivating a prestigious group of patrons and securing modest royal commissions. In 1791, the Academy was abolished and the official Salon was opened to all artists.
After her debut in 1796, Lemoine would show works intermittently at the Salon until 1814. Only thirty known works by Lemoine have been identified, the majority of which are portraits or allegorical figures of women and young girls. The accessibility of the Salon after 1791 provided Lemoine with the exposure she needed to obtain portrait commissions in the 1790s and early 1800s.
Painted in the 1790s, this oval portrait of a young girl holding a basket of flowers was likely a commissioned work. Like the Portrait of a Lady from around the same time, this painting shows its sitter meeting the gaze of the viewer directly, her face brightened with rosy cheeks and a subtle smile. Framed by a natural setting, she holds a basket of flowers on her left wrist and three roses in her right hand. In her hair, she wears a ribbon crowned with wildflowers (probably forget-me-nots and tuberose) and at her neck she wears a fichu, or lace scarf worn for modesty.
One of Lemoine’s younger sisters, Marie-Denise Villers (née Lemoine), was also a successful portraitist who exhibited regularly at the Salon in the late 1790s and early 1800s. Just as many of Lemoine’s paintings have been mistakenly attributed to better-known artists, Villers’s œuvre is still being recovered. Her Portrait of Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d'Ognes, for example, was exhibited at the Salon in 1801 but was attributed to the Neoclassical French artist Jacques-Louis David in the late nineteenth century.
For some women, the events of the French and American Revolutions brought little change to their daily lives. Women who were wealthy enough to have their portraits made were often insulated from the violence that ensued and women of all classes were barred from actively participating in political reform.
Nonetheless, this period of turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic brought drastic change to the lives of two women: Madame Houbigant of Paris and Madame Dubocq of Philadelphia, by way of present-day Haiti. Houbigant was widowed soon after her portrait was painted by Merry Joseph Blondel and she was left to make difficult choices in order to maintain her family’s business. Dubocq had to begin anew in Philadelphia after the Haitian Revolution drove her family from Port-au-Prince.
In both portraits, the artists and sitters took care to present markers of individual identity and good taste. In Blondel’s portrait, Madame Houbigant is shown seated in a finely appointed interior, dressed in the latest fashions. The red Kashmir shawl that rests around her hips is an import from India. These textiles became exceedingly fashionable in France around 1800, when Napoleon and his officers brought them back from their military campaigns in Egypt. Despite the portrait’s focus on fashion and ornament, Blondel gives his sitter a direct, intelligent gaze. The book in her hand also indicates that she is a well-educated woman with intellectual interests.
In James Peale’s Portrait of Madame Dubocq and Her Children, the sitters are finely dressed in complementary gowns and all but one of the children wears jewelry. The oldest and youngest children hold a book and a flute, respectively, pointing to the family’s diverse interests. The closeness of the family is underscored by the intimate composition, which has each sitter resting their hands on one another. This familial intimacy is particularly important given the events of the early nineteenth century that required the Dubocq family to resettle in Philadelphia.
Merry Joseph Blondel’s Portrait of Madame Houbigant catches its sitter in a quiet moment, her closed book resting in her lap with her finger marking the page. Despite the intimacy of the portrait’s close focus and extraordinary likeness, the sitter is carefully costumed and accessorized to emphasize her social position and wealth. Houbigant wears a chemise, a stiffened corset, a full-length underdress and sheer overbodice embellished with a dotted ruff, and a white satin dress cinched at the waist with a bow. Her ostrich-feather cap and the red Kashmir shawl are markers of her considerable wealth.
Née Nicole Adélaïde Deschamps, Houbigant was married to Jean-François Houbigant, founder of the Maison Houbigant, the second oldest perfumery in France. The Maison Houbigant was established in a small shop on the rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris in 1775 and by the 1780s, it had become a favorite of Marie-Antoinette, the queen of France and wife of Louis XVI. The royal patronage of the perfumery continued through the beginning of the French Revolution and when Marie-Antoinette was led to the guillotine on October 16, 1793, she carried three vials of Houbigant perfume in her corsage.
Following the abolition of the French monarchy, the Houbigant family quickly realigned themselves with a new clientele that reflected the political upheaval of the 1790s. During the Thermidorian Reaction that saw the overthrow of the Jacobins and the swing of the political pendulum back towards conservatism, the Maison Houbigant became a favorite shop of the Muscadins, a group of bourgeois reactionaries named for the musk perfume they preferred. In 1807, Napoleon, the emperor of France, appointed Jean-François Houbigant his personal perfumer.
While the family successfully weathered the violence and turmoil of the 1790s and early 1800s, Houbigant was widowed by the sudden death of her husband in 1807. Licensing requirements in the perfumery business meant that she could not run the thriving shop alone so she married the chief clerk and operated the business with him until her death.
Merry Joseph Blondel was an apprentice with the Dihl and Guerhard porcelain factory before beginning his painting instruction in the atelier of Jean-Baptiste Regnault in 1802. Over the course of his career, Blondel was sought as a portraitist for prominent figures and he secured prestigious commissions at the Louvre and Chateau de Fontainebleau.
Painted in 1807, this portrait of Madame Dubocq and her children was made three years after the arrival of the Dubocq family in the United States. Dubocq, née Marie-Anne Françoise Trochon de Loriére in Nantes in 1773, was the daughter of a French aristocrat. Her family fled to Port-au-Prince in present-day Haiti at the onset of the French Revolution. There, she met and married the French merchant William Dubocq. They would live in Port-au-Prince through a period of political and military upheaval that rivaled that of France in the 1790s.
The Haitian Revolution began in the French-controlled colony of Saint-Domingue in 1791 as an anti-colonial insurrection led by self-liberated slaves. In 1801, Toussaint Louverture issued a constitution that affirmed the independence of Saint-Domingue as a sovereign black state.
Napoleon’s troops invaded the island in 1802 and brought it back under French control. The fight for freedom from slavery and colonial oppression continued and in 1804, Haiti declared its independence and became the first nation in the Americas to permanently abolish slavery.
Having lost their position of power in the French colony, the Dubocq family moved to the United States where William quickly became a naturalized citizen and began rebuilding his shipping business. The portrait made by James Peale shows Dubocq with her four children: Urania, born in 1800; Alphonse, who would die just a few years after this portrait was painted; Marie Algae; and Marie Lucille Delphine, who would return to France as an adult.
Dubocq’s dress reflects the popularity of Napoleonic styles in Philadelphia in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Her high waistline and ornamented sleeves were typical for women of her social standing in 1807, both in the United States and in France. The short, puffed sleeves on the gowns worn by her children were popular in France as early as 1805, having been introduced as a historical revival at Napoleon’s coronation in 1804.
In Philadelphia, the Dubocq family was part of a fashionable and culturally progressive community of French expatriates that lived in the center of the city in the early nineteenth century. The painter James Peale had served as a first lieutenant in the Continental Army during the American Revolution before retiring as a captain and moving to Philadelphia in 1779. He learned to paint from his brother, Charles Willson Peale, the patriarch of the Peale family of painters.
A New Generation
The dawn of the nineteenth century brought with it new generations of women who only knew life in these new French and American republics. They came of age in times of uncertainty and optimism, looking ahead to the transformative political and cultural shifts of the period, including the Industrial Revolution.
As the social character of the United States took shape in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the lives of its young women were often governed by inequality. In 1776, Abigail Adams expressed her concerns to her husband John Adams, who would become the second president of the United States. She wrote, “In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”12 It would be nearly 150 years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granted women in the United States the right to vote and women in France did not obtain the right to vote until 1945.
While the Declaration of Independence affirmed the equality of all men, many citizens of the new republic faced prejudice and brutality. In Philadelphia, the Levy family—whose daughters are pictured in a portrait pair by Thomas Sully—was subjected to anti-Semitic attacks in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
The lives of the young women in these portraits are known primarily through records of their births, marriages, children, and deaths. Thus, their historical identities are shaped by their roles as daughters and mothers, as in the case of Gabrielle Horacie Vitet, whose likeness was captures by the sculptor Clémence-Sophie de Sermézy but who is only known today as the daughter of a prominent Lyonnais politician.
Similarly, the lives of the Walsh sisters—painted by Thomas Sully in 1834–35—are known only through that of their father, Robert Walsh, an important American writer and diplomat. Louise Brongniart, who sat for a portrait bust by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon in 1777, also faded into obscurity as an adult. Nonetheless, the Houdon portrait busts of the Brongniart children were so admired that they were widely reproduced and circulated throughout Europe and the United States as copies in marble, bronze, porcelain, and terracotta.
Born in Philadelphia in 1798, Martha Levy was just twelve years old when she posed for this portrait by the American painter Thomas Sully. Standing at a spinet (a small keyboard instrument) she turns the page of her music book with one hand, keeping her place on the page with the other. Her features are delicately painted and she wears a white dress with puffed cap sleeves that were typical of the period. A pink sash is tied at her waist with a bow and fringed edges.
Although her parents were Episcopalian, Martha was the great-granddaughter of Moses Raphael Levy, a founding member of one of the earliest American Jewish community. Moses Levy immigrated to New York City from England in the late seventeenth century and established himself as an independent merchant trader.
The Levy family had been practicing Episcopalians for two generations before Martha was born but that did not protect the family from anti-Semitism. Her father, Judge Moses Levy, was a magistrate in Philadelphia who became a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Pennsylvania legislature. His status as a member of prominent legal, political, and social circles in the city made him a target of anti-Semitic attacks in the popular press.13
In her portrait, Martha is turning the pages of Benjamin Carr’s Six Ballads from the Poem The Lady of the Lake, a book of compositions based on the poems by Sir Walter Scott. Published in 1810, Carr’s music book represents the height of popular tastes. This detail suggests that Levy was a sociable, well-educated young woman who sought to present herself as modern and forward-looking.
The account books of the American painter Thomas Sully indicate that this portrait of Henrietta Levy was begun on October 4, 1810 and completed on October 27 for a sum of sixty dollars. When Sully arrived in Philadelphia in late 1807, he began developing a network of patrons, offering portraits at thirty dollars apiece. In 1809, he traveled to London to further refine his talents, visiting the studios of Thomas Lawrence and Benjamin West. When Sully returned to Philadelphia in 1810, he reopened his studio and began to ask higher prices for his portraits. In the decades that followed, he would paint no fewer than two thousand portraits.
In her portrait, Levy is seated beneath a tree in an imagined landscape. She is turned in three-quarters profile, with her hands holding a book that rests in her lap. While her sister, Martha, looks out directly at the viewer in her portrait, Henrietta looks ahead as though lost in thought. Hers is a more introverted portrait, one that suggests she was a young woman who preferred literary interests and quiet reflection.
Little is known about the life of Henrietta Levy, who was eighteen when this portrait was made. Her sister, Martha, married and had five children. Both portraits of the Levy sisters were descended in the family to Martha’s grandchildren and acquired by the Eskenazi Museum of Art in 1992.
Descended from an aristocratic family in Lyon, the French sculptor Clémence-Sophie de Sermézy saw her career shaped by the collapse and restoration of the Bourbon royal family. Born Clémence Daudignac, she married Marc Antoine Noyel de Béreins, Count de Sermézy, in 1789. A captain in the first infantry, he was killed during the French Revolution, just months after the birth of the couple’s second child.14
Despite this personal tragedy, Sermézy began to study with the Neoclassical sculptor Joseph Chinard. Soon after, she opened ateliers at a prestigious address in Lyon and at her country estate in Charentay, where she continued her work in plaster and terra cotta.
Semérzy’s country estate quickly became a gathering place for Lyonnais intellectuals, politicians, artists, and literary figures. Many of these visitors were models for her portrait busts and over the years, she amassed a considerable collection of her own work. In 1815, a battalion of Napoleon’s army of the Alps descended on the estate at Charentay and pillaged its collection, believing that the Sermézy family was preparing a celebration for the restoration of the Bourbon royal family.
Nearly two decades of Sermézy’s work was lost but she arranged to have her studio rebuilt and she resumed her artistic practice. She was elected to the Academy of Lyon in 1818 and continued to work until she was in her eighties. She died in 1850 at the age of eighty-three.
Sermézy’s Bust of Mademoiselle Vitet was made in 1799, when the artist was thirty-two and her sitter was just fourteen. Gabrielle Horacie Vitet was the daughter of Jean-François Vitet, a politician who would rise to the highest position in the Lyon Court of Appeals.
Sermézy began her work on each portrait bust by spending time in close observation of her model. She would then choose an expression she believed to be characteristic of her subject. Vitet looks down and to her left, with her mouth curled in a subtle smile. The bodice of her dress is simple and she wears no jewelry or other adornments.
Admired for the soft, romantic sensitivity of his work, the American painter Thomas Sully was widely sought as a portraitist for young women. In The Walsh Sisters, he pictures his four sitters in a dreamy, imagined landscape.
Sully links all four sisters with a group composition that cascades from the left of the canvas to the right side. The two young women on the left are shown in three-quarter profile, looking down toward their sisters. The eldest sister, at center, looks out from the canvas with a solemn expression while the youngest, dressed in white, rests her crossed arms on her sister’s lap, her eyes looking upward. The women lean into each other with sisterly affection and intimacy, while the eldest daughter places her hand protectively on the shoulder of the youngest.
Sully was a British-born artist who came to the United States in 1792 with his family, who were theater and circus performers. He first began his work as a portraitist in Philadelphia in 1807 and traveled to Boston and London early in his career to study with Gilbert Stuart and Benjamin West, respectively. He became the preeminent portraitist of his generation, painting portraits of John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Queen Victoria.
The Walsh sisters’ father, Robert Walsh, was an attorney who abandoned the law to become a writer and one of the period’s most distinguished men of letters.15 His daughters—Isabella, Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary—were just four of his twelve children. He had commissioned a portrait of himself from Sully in 1814 and must have been pleased with his likeness, returning to the artist twenty years later to commission this portrait of his daughters. Soon after this painting was complete, Walsh moved to France and from 1844 to 1851, he served as the consul general of the United States in Paris.
At the Salon of 1777, the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon exhibited eleven portrait busts in marble and terracotta. The group included terracotta portraits of the son and daughter of the Neoclassical architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart, Alexandre and Louise. Brongniart was the architect of the Bourse (stock exchange building) in Paris and a close friend of the sculptor. The family was well-connected to artistic circles and counted the French painter Jacques-Louis David among their friends.
The portrait busts of Alexandre and Louise were so admired at the Salon in 1777 that they were widely reproduced in marble, bronze, porcelain, and terracotta, with Houdon making later variants in his own studio. The Eskenazi Museum of Art’s example is likely one of these later copies in terracotta made outside of the artist’s studio. Despite her young age, Louise is remarkably self-possessed, her hair swept back from her face as she looks out with a solemn expression. Her irises are deeply carved and the resulting shadows allude to her dark eyes and give the portrait bust a serious look.
In addition to their friendships with Houdon and David, the Brongniart family was close with the French painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and she painted a portrait of their youngest daughter, Alexandrine-Emilie, in 1788 or 1789. Like many liberal bourgeois families, the Brongniarts welcomed the start of the French Revolution in 1789. When Vigée Le Brun decided to leave France in October 1789, she first took refuge at the Brongniart family home. Their friendship continued in the decades ahead, with the Brongniart family petitioning for Vigée Le Brun’s return to Paris in 1802, when Napoleon began to grant amnesty to émigrés who had been stripped of their French citizenship for fleeing the French Revolution.
Born in 1772, Louise was five years old when this portrait bust was made and seventeen at the outset of the Revolution. Little is known about her life as an adult except that she married twice and died in 1845 at the age of seventy-three. Her brother, Alexandre, became a prominent mineralogist and the director of the Sèvres porcelain factory.16
Timeline of Events
Arts & Life
The French and Indian War 1756–1763Tensions over land disputes and trade led to a declaration of war in 1756. The expense of the war is what causes England to raise taxes on their colonies. The conflict ends in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris.
First Continental Congress formed September 5, 1774Delegates from twelve of the thirteen British colonies met to discuss the punitive measurements passed by the British Parliament.
1775The Maison Houbigant is founded on the rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris. It is operated by Jean-François Houbigant until his death in 1807.
1777Sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon exhibited eleven portrait busts in the Salon, including those of the children of Neoclassical architect, Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart.
February 6, 1788France signs the Treaty of Alliance, officially entering the war as an American ally.
1779After completing his military service, James Peale moves to Philadelphia and begins his work as a portraitist.
1780Celeste Coltenni makes her debut on stage at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.
Articles of Confederation March 1, 1781The Articles of Confederation are ratified by all 13 colonies.
May 31, 1783Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun are elected to the Academy.
The Treaty of Paris September 3, 1783The Treaty of Paris ends the American Revolution. The treaty acknowledged the free and independent existence of the United States and delineated its territorial boundaries.
1787Adélaïde Labille-Guiard exhibits her Portrait of Madame Adélaïde at the Salon.
March 4, 1789The United States Constitution comes into force.
Summer 1789Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun prepare portraits of the French royal family to be exhibited at the Salon in August.
The Storming of the Bastille July 14, 1789In what is considered the first event of the French Revolution, frustrated members of the Third Estate stormed the Parisian fortress and prison of Bastille, seen as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power and absolutism.
October 1789Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun leaves France and does not return until 1802. She first takes refuge in the Brongniart family home.
Around 1790Marie-Victoire Lemoine paints her Portrait of a Lady and Portrait of a Young Girl.
The Haitian Revolution August 21, 1791
1791Adélaïde Labille-Guiard exhibits at the Salon pastel portraits of fourteen deputies of the National Assembly.
January 21, 1793King Louis XVI is executed.
June 1793 (debated)The Reign of Terror begins. Within a year, 16,594 royal sympathizers are put to death.
1793Antoine-Jean Gros leaves France for Italy.
1796Marie-Victoire Lemoine makes her debut at the Salon in Paris where she exhibits The Interior of an Atelier of a Woman Painter.
1799Following the Coup of 18 Brumaire, Napoleon Bonaparte becomes the First Consul of France and begins his reign as an absolutist leader.
1799Clémence-Sophie de Sermézy makes her plaster portrait busts of Gabrielle Horacie Vitet, the daughter of an important Lyonnais politician. It is one of the few works from this period in Sermézy’s career to survive.
1800Antoine-Jean Gros returns to France after seven years away and becomes one of the most important political propaganda artists for Napoleon.
1802Merry Joseph Blondel beings his painting career in the atelier of Jean-Baptiste Regnault.
The Napoleonic Wars 1803–1815Napoleon led a series of major conflicts against European powers which organized themselves into various coalitions. England was often at war with France, while the United States remained neutral.
1803Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun visits the Chinnery family home at Gillwell and paints her portrait of Mrs. Chinnery.
1807Napoleon appoints Jean-François Houbigant, husband of Nicole Adélaïde Houbigant, his personal perfumer.
1807Merry Joseph Blondel paints his Portrait of Madame Houbigant, born Nicole Adélaïde Deschamps. Soon after, Madame Houbigant’s husband dies and she chooses to marry the chief clerk so that she can continue to operate the thriving business. This same year, James Peale paints his Portrait of Madame Dubocq and her Children.
The War of 1812 June 18, 1812The United States declares war on England, marking the start of the War of 1812 which lasts until 1814. This followed years of tension between the two countries resulting from the United States’ trade neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars between France and England.
1808After travelling extensively throughout Italy, Austria, Russia, Switzerland, and England, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun returns to France permanently.
1810Thomas Sully paints his portraits of Martha and Henrietta Levy in October and November. He is paid a sum of 120 dollars for the pair.
1810Benjamin Carr’s Six Ballads from the poem The Lady of the Lake, a book of compositions based on Sir Walter Scott’s poems, is published. Martha Levy is shown turning the pages of this book in the portrait painted of her by Thomas Sully.
1815A battalion of Napoleon’s army descends on the family estate of Clémence-Sophie de Sermézy. Believing that the family was preparing a celebration for the restoration of the Bourbon family, they pillage her studio collection.
The Battle of Waterloo June 18, 1815Napoleon’s army is defeated by the Seventh Coalition, which includes England, Prussia, German states, and others.
1818After rebuilding her studio and restarting her practice, Clémence-Sophie de Sermézy is elected to the Academy of Lyon where she continues to work until she is in her eighties.
May 5, 1821Napoleon dies in exile on the island of Saint Helena.
The French Revolution of 1830 July 26–29, 1830Also known as the July Revolution. The House of Bourbon is overthrown, and King Charles X is replaced by his cousin, Louis Phillipe, Duke of Orléans
1834–35Thomas Sully paints his Portrait of the Walsh Sisters.
1835Shortly after Thomas Sully completed this portrait of the Walsh sisters, their father, Robert Walsh, moved to France where he served as the Consul General of the United States in Paris from 1844–1851.
Rembrandt Peale (American, 1778–1860)
Portrait of Helen Miller (Mrs. Charles G. McLean), ca. 1806
Oil on canvas, 28 x 30 in.
Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, 29.166
Antoine-Jean Gros (French, 177–1835)
Portrait of Celeste Coltellini, Madame Meuricoffre, ca. 1790s
Oil on canvas, 28 3/8 x 36 9/16 x 3 1/8 in.
Gift of Mrs. Berry V. Stoll
1983.10. Collection of the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky.
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (French, 1749–1803)
Portrait of Madame Adélaïde, ca. 1787
Oil on canvas. 107 3/4 x 73 3/4 in.
Gift of Mrs. Berry V. Stoll
Restored by income from the Marguerite Montgomery Baquie Memorial Trust, 1993, with additional support from The National Endowment for the Arts
1982.21. Collection of the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (French, 1755–1842)
Portrait of Mrs. Chinnery, ca. 1803
Oil on canvas, 36 x 28 in.
Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 75.68
Marie-Victoire Lemoine (French, 1754–1820)
Portrait of a Lady, ca. 1790
Oil on canvas, 28 3/8 x 23 in.
Bequest of Alice Speed Stoll
1998.6.4. Collection of the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky
Marie-Victoire Lemoine (French, 1754–1820)
Portrait of a Young Girl, ca. 1790
Oil on canvas, 17 1/2 x 14 in.
Bequest of Alice Speed Stoll
1998.6.5. Collection of the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky
Merry Joseph Blondel (French, 1781–1835)
Portrait of Madame Houbigant, born Nicole Adélaïde Deschamps, ca. 1807
Oil on canvas, 51 3/8 x 42 3/8 x 3 7/8 in.
Gift of Mrs. Hattie Bishop Speed, by exchange
1993.17. Collection of the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky
James Peale (American, 1749–1831)
Portrait of Madame Dubocq and Her Children, 1807
Oil on canvas, 51 1/8 x 41 3/16 in.
Gift of Mrs. Aglaé Kent Bixby
Conservation funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal agency
1932.29.1. Collection of the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky
Thomas Sully (American, 1783–1872)
Miss Martha Levy at the Spinet, 1810
Oil on panel, 30 1/4 × 25 1/4 × 5 1/2 in. [framed]
Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 92.196
Thomas Sully (American, 1783–1872)
Miss Henrietta Levy, 1810
Oil on panel, 30 × 25 × 5 1/2 in. [framed]
Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 92.197
Clémence-Sophie de Sermézy (French, 1767–1850)
Bust of Mademoiselle Vitet, 1799
Plaster, 18 1/8 in.
2018.4. Collection of the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky
Thomas Sully (American, 1783–1872)
The Walsh Sisters, 1834–35
Oil on canvas, 42 7/8 x 54 7/16 in.
Bequest from the Preston Pope Satterwhite Collection
1949.30.305. Collection of the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky.
After Jean-Antoine Houdon (French, 1741–1828)
Bust of Louise Brongniart, later reproduction of 1777 original
Terracotta, 18 1/2 x 10 x 7 in.
Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 63.95
Jane Fortune Endowment for Women Artists
In 2019, the Eskenazi Museum of Art received a transformative estate gift from Indiana philanthropist Jane Fortune (1942—2018), a passionate advocate for women in the arts and founder of the Florence, Italy-based nonprofit Advancing Women Artists. In addition to a collection of 61 works of fine art, the donation established the Jane Fortune Endowment for Women Artists and the Jane Fortune Fund for Virtual Advancement of Women Artists.
Facing the Revolution: Portraits of Women in France and the United States is the first exhibition to be supported in part by Fortune's important gift. The works by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Adelaide Labille-Guiard, Marie-Victoire Lemoine, and Clemence-Sophie de Sermezy on view in this exhibition were brought together thanks to Fortune's investment in the advancement of women artists. New research on these artists is at the center of A Space of Their Own, an online portal that will present the most comprehensive research to date on female painters, printmakers, and sculptors active in the United States and Europe between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. The online component for Facing the Revolution is the first phase of developing the A Space of Their Own research database, which will be launched with startup funds from the Jane Fortune Fund for Virtual Advancement of Women Artists.
1 T. Lawrence Larkin, ed., Politics and Portraits in the United States and France during the Age of Revolution (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2019), 5. Return to text
2 Jacob Piatt Dunn, Greater Indianapolis: The History, the Industries, the Institutions, and the People of a City of Homes (Indianapolis, IN: Unigraphic, 1910), 1:129. Return to text
3 Mozart wrote soprano parts for Celeste Coltellini in Dite alemno in che mancai K479 and Mandina amabile K480. The composer Giovanni Paisiello also wrote the opera Nina, o sia La pazza per amore for her in 1789. See “Coltellini, Celeste,” in Enciclopedia dello spettacolo (Rome: Le maschere, 1956), 1146–1147. Return to text
4 He wrote to his mother in September 1794, “I would have more financial possibilities here [in Genoa] for two reasons: one is that the city is wealthier, the other is that in Florence there are more artists (French, of course) and here there are not any decent ones.” As published in Philippe Bordes, “Antoine-Jean Gros en Italie (1793–1800),” Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de l’Art Français, année 1978 (1980) : 221-244, 238. [« J’aurais plus d’occupations pécuniaires ici pour deux raisons, l’une que la ville est plus riche, l’autre c’est qu’à Florence il y a plus d’artistes (français bien entendu) et qu’ici il n’y en a pas de supportable. »] Return to text
5 Base de données “Salons et expositions de groupes 1673–1914,” salons.musee-orsay.fr, a project by the Musée d’Orsay and by l’Institut national d’histoire de l’art supported by the Ministère de la Culture et de la communication. Return to text
6 “Salon 1787,” Base de données “Salons et expositions de groupes 1673-1914,” salons.musee-orsay.fr, a project by the Musée d’Orsay and by l’Institut national d’histoire de l’art supported by the Ministère de la Culture et de la communication. Return to text
7 Gustav-Armand-Henry, comte de Reiset, Modes et usages au temps de Marie-Antoinette; Livre-journal de Madame Étoffe, marchande de modes, couturière lingère ordinaire de la reine et des dames de sa cour (Paris, 1885), 2:511, as cited in Laura Auricchio, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard: Artist in the Age of Revolution (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009), 55, n. 130. Return to text
8 Ibid., 54. Return to text
9 Mrs. Chinnery had three children: twins, George Robert (1791–1825) and Caroline (179 –1812), and their younger brother, Walter Grenfell (1793–1802). See Warwick Lister, Amico: The Life of Giovanni Battista Viotti (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 233, 264-65, and 363. Return to text
10 Ibid., 373. Return to text
11 See, for example, Joseph Baillio, “Vie et œuvre de Marie Victoire Lemoine (1754-1820),” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 127 (April 1996), 125-164. Return to text
12 Lyman H. Butterfield ed. Adams Family Correspondence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), 369–371. Return to text
13 Richard Brilliant ed., Facing the New World: Jewish Portraits in Colonial and Federal America (New York: Jewish Museum, 1997), 44–45. Return to text
14 Anne Tapissier, Madame de Sermézy: Élève de Chinard (Lyon: Audin, 1936), 17. Return to text
15 About Walsh, the poet Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “He is one of the finest writers, one of the most accomplished scholars, and when not in too great a hurry, one of the most accurate thinkers in the country.” See John H. Ingram ed., The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (London: A. & C. Black, 1901), 4:239. Return to text
16 Annuaire de la noblesse de France (Paris: Au Bureau de la publication, 1869), 52 :369. Return to text