Volume 22, Issue 1 | Spring 2023

A Revolution on Canvas: The Rise of Women Artists in Britain and France, 1760–1830 by Paris A. Spies-Gans

Reviewed by Heidi A. Strobel

Paris A. Spies-Gans,
A Revolution on Canvas: The Rise of Women Artists in Britain and France, 1760–1830.
New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre and Yale University Press, 2022.
384 pp.; 157 color and b&w illus.; selected bibliography; index.
$55 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9781913107291

Paris Spies-Gans’s impressive study investigates the influence of the Revolutionary era on women’s professional practice of art. The text defines the Revolutionary era generously to cover the years from 1760 to 1830, encompassing both the American and French Revolutions, as well as the Napoleonic Wars. By examining women’s art production in London and Paris through the lens of exhibition data, she argues that women artists had a more substantial presence in these European capitals than previous art historical narratives have suggested. While women’s political rights remained curtailed and even constricted during these decades, Spies-Gans contends that their artistic output made a substantial space for them in British and French artistic, and sometimes, political arenas.

For many art historians who specialize in gender, Linda Nochlin’s pivotal essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” has been an important point of departure.‍[1] To paraphrase Nochlin, what are the biases and social structures that have hindered the examination of women artists? These shortcomings are found at the core of art historiography, which until recently, has privileged a Vasarian narrative that focuses on male genius and linear progress towards academic bona fides. The women who succeeded in the male-dominated world of art (such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Angelica Kauffman, or Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, to name a few) have been traditionally viewed as outliers in this restrictive narrative. Scholars working at the intersection of gender and art history have turned to different formats to rectify these omissions. Charlotte Yeldham’s superb doctoral thesis, Women Artists in Nineteenth-Century France and England laid the groundwork for the retrieval of lost female artists by providing summary biographies of women artists working in France and England and analyzing the subject matter they seem to have preferred.‍[2] Utilizing another approach, in Women, Art, and Society (1990), Whitney Chadwick surveyed women’s art production in the West in order to refute the contention that women artists are exceptional in art history. Other art historians have turned to the orthodox format of a monograph, despite such limitations as its “tendency . . . to privilege an appearance of coherence and a seamless historical narrative over a more honest telling in which gaps and contradictions play a role.”‍[3] Building on these formative texts, A Revolution on Canvas offers a comparative history that focuses on London and Paris; at several points, Spies-Gans suggests significant revisions to Nochlin’s essay.

Nochlin argued that the lack of great women artists was tied to structural and educational limitations. For example, in the field of art history, academy membership has often been used to identify an artistic professional. This practice has traditionally placed women artists, whose membership in such institutions was restricted, at a disadvantage and relegated them to the less serious category of amateur. If the imprimaturs of professional and greatness are conferred by membership in exclusive institutions such as the Royal Academy (London) or the Académie Royale (Paris), how could women ever achieve the same status as men? Spies-Gans provides a more appropriately expansive definition of professional artist to include both men and women who made money from their craft.

In the first chapter, Spies-Gans introduces the primary artistic exhibition venues in Paris and London. Data mined from catalogues of public exhibitions indicates that more than 1,300 women exhibited more than 7,000 works of art in these two cities. At least 833 women exhibited at the Royal Academy, contributing at least 6.9 percent of the works on display. Spies-Gans uses these figures to chip away at one of several long-held beliefs: that women did not have a substantial presence at the Academy. She argues that “rather than dissuading female artists, the restrictions placed on women’s participation at the Royal Academy raised the quality of their work, [and] ultimately helped women to establish a mainstream, public presence [there], as the works they submitted, by requisite, had to mirror the types and quality of works made by their male peers.” (27). In Paris, they similarly had a steadfast presence at the Salon of the Académie Royale; this claim opposes historical arguments that women experienced a contraction of rights during the revolutionary years. According to Spies-Gans, although only approximately four hundred women exhibited their work in the Parisian Salons, they often exhibited more works per person in comparison to their British colleagues.

Spies-Gans’s second chapter considers the various steps on the path to becoming a professional artist: family background, training, and studio practices, including, in particular, the study of the nude. Her discussion of the access that women working in Jacques-Louis David’s studio had to the nude model (essential for success in the most valued genre of history painting) is particularly strong. According to Spies-Gans, “David’s steady subversion of gender regulations within the French system parallels a larger history of opportunities that were subtly but increasingly available to members of the female sex” (65). Several examples of skilled anatomical mastery include Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s Study of a Seated Woman Seen from Behind (Marie-Gabrielle Capet) (1789) and Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier’s Red-Chalk Drawing of a Nude with Annotation by David (1786). While it was still difficult for a female artist to study the nude, by the early nineteenth century a growing number of them were doing so in England and France, an argument that offers a revision to Nochlin’s discussion of the “problem of the nude,” or its inaccessibility to women artists.

In the third chapter, Spies-Gans examines the subject choices that women artists made in England. She argues that they increasingly turned to narrative scenes, the genre least associated with them in art historical scholarship. She offers a generous definition of narrative painting as a cerebral endeavor that could include images depicting historical, religious, literary, classical, allegorical, or contemporary vignettes (117). This expansive categorization supports her contention that a considerable number of British women achieved professional success on the artistic stage. In the future, this paradigm might be employed on a more individual level, thus improving the understanding of individual female artists.

In 1791, the exhibition at the Académie Royale was open for the first time to non-Academicians of both sexes, providing women artists with unparalleled artistic opportunities. According to Spies-Gans, women artists working in France responded by choosing portraiture and (again, broadly defined) narrative painting, especially those subjects that featured female protagonists. She argues that women artists often used their subject matter to fashion themselves as professionally successful artists. An early example is Marie-Victoire Lemoine’s Interior of an Atelier of a Woman Painter (1789, exhibited at the 1796 Salon), which depicts an individualized lesson between a female artist and student at work on a narrative scene featuring the goddess Athena. A painting produced by her sister, Marie-Denise (Nisa) Villers, Charlotte du Val D’Ognes (1801), also points to the increased presence of women artists in Paris as both teachers and students. In the fourth chapter, Spies-Gans indicates that such images were part of a larger trend of more informal depictions of women artists at work. This represented a break with earlier images like Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s relatively posed Self-Portrait with Two Pupils (1785). By the end of the eighteenth century, women artists were ever more present at the Salon, submitting seventeen percent of all entries in 1799, even as their political rights diminished during the decade. Surviving accounts of the Salon indicate that their works also hung in prominent places, another indication of their success in the artistic arena. The depiction of narrative works by women featuring women also increased in the early nineteenth century. Examples include Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s The Farewell of Psyche to Her Family (1791) and Marie-Geneviève Bouliar’s stunning Aspasie (1794), depicting the partner of the Athenian statesman Pericles. Spies-Gans’s analysis of the career of Constance Mayer, who was encouraged to pursue classical subject matter, is yet another example of a woman who had access to the nude model. Spies-Gans’s empirical analysis of French artists further revises Nochlin’s essay, for following the fall of the ancien régime, successful women artists from artistic backgrounds were increasingly the exception, rather than the rule.

The fifth chapter focuses on the various ways of establishing professional networks. As English and French husbands, lovers, and sons were active in the military in the early nineteenth century, growing numbers of women turned to art as a means of supporting their families. In this chapter, Spies-Gans expands on her earlier discussion of the professional and amateur categories by dissecting the (nebulous) “Honorary Member” classification, particularly at the Royal Academy. She argues that to exhibit one’s work publicly signaled professional intent, an appropriately broad definition that once again brings more women (and men) into the picture. Another benchmark of professionalism included forging relationships with influential patrons (especially those of royal birth). Angelica Kauffman and Maria Cosway, among others, solidified their artistic and financial success by selecting subjects that would translate well into print. The most successful of them (like Kauffman, Mary Moser, Bouliar, and Angélique Mongez) achieved financial success equal to many of their male peers. By the 1810s, women artists on both sides of the Channel increasingly utilized a range of these methods to supplement the exposure and opportunities offered by the Royal Academy and the Académie Royale. Their strategic successes formed a template for a younger generation of successful female artists.

Spies-Gans proposes important revisions to the scaffolding of art history by analyzing and ultimately expanding definitions of greatness, professional, and amateur. The volume itself is a hybrid, moving between broad overview and mini biographies. Her use of empirical data based on exhibition catalogues provides important groundwork on which future scholars can build. While a comparative approach provides a solid framework for Spies-Gans’s examination, the method also has its drawbacks. Focusing on Paris and London limits the amount of analysis that can be given to artists working outside of these capital cities and countries.

In her concluding chapter, Spies-Gans convincingly argues that the equation of artistic greatness with male genius was a product of a later era and does not accurately describe estimations of artistic achievement in the period she considers. The criteria addressed by Nochlin fifty-one years ago grew up in the art historiography of the twentieth century, written largely by men. In contrast, Spies-Gans’s expansive art historical definitions and empirical analysis not only bring more women into the art historical picture, where they belong, but also demonstrate that they enjoyed greater visibility and status in an earlier age.


[1] Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 158–72.

[2] Charlotte Yeldham, Women Artists in Nineteenth-Century France and England: Their Art Education, Exhibition Opportunities, and Membership of Exhibiting Societies and Academies, with an Assessment of the Subject Matter of their Work and Summary Biographies (New York: Garland, 1984).

[3] Kristen Frederickson and Sarah E. Webb, eds., Singular Women: Writing the Artist (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 13.