In April, my daughter Rita and I took a trip to Washington DC. We’d received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. It was spring break, during her last and horribly trying year of public school, and we were itching to get out of the house. A day before we left, I made the sad discovery that all of the Smithsonian museums were indefinitely closed. Thanks to Google, however, I tracked down some private institutions that were accepting visitors by appointment only. We lucked out and snagged a timeslot at a gem of a museum that we might not have discovered under normal circumstances, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA).
When we arrived in our nation’s capital, we found the city in fine form. Trees were in bloom, flowerbeds were fresh and plentiful, hedges were trimmed, the streets were litter-free, and since most people were still working from home, traffic was low and the sidewalks only lightly salted with pedestrians.
On our second day, we walked to the NMWA, grabbing coffee and French pastries en route. It’s housed in a majestic 6-story building, and as we waited in the pandemic-spaced line to enter, I hoped that we wouldn’t regret spending time indoors on such a gorgeous spring morning. After a quick overview of the museum’s collection, delivered by an exuberant greeter as she pointed to a bottle of hand sanitizer and checked our temperatures, my concerns quickly evaporated.
A World-Class Collection
According to their website, “The National Museum of Women in the Arts brings recognition to the achievements of women artists of all periods and nationalities by exhibiting, preserving, acquiring, and researching art by women and by teaching the public about their accomplishments.” Walking through their galleries, it didn’t take long for us to appreciate the breadth of the collection. The museum truly represents women’s art from around the world and across the centuries.
After about an hour, Rita noted that unlike every other art museum that she’s ever visited, she had yet to see a canvas or sculpture that left her scratching her head, wondering, “how did this get in here?” I had to agree.
Inspired by the wonderful blog Equinoxio, I decided to take photos of some of the pieces to post on my blog. Given the francophone nature of this site, I only chose works by French artists, or that had been created by artists living in France. Unfortunately, my cellphone inserted plenty of unwanted glare, reflections, and angle distortions. Since most of the works exist in Wikimedia Commons or on the NMWA website, I decided to use some of those images in order to present the art in its best light. Except for photos of the sculptures, the pictures in this post were not taken by me.
Keep in mind, this is a minuscule sampling of what awaits if you ever have the chance to visit.
Enjoy Your Visite Guidée
Rosa Bonheur was born in Bordeaux, France in 1822. In 1829, she moved to Paris with her family. She was trained by her father, a minor landscape painter. While unconventional in her ambitions and personal conduct, Bonheur was traditional in her working method. She studied her subjects carefully and produced many preparatory sketches before she applied paint to canvas.
Enella Benedict was born in Lake Forest, IL in 1858. Benedict attended Lake Forest University, where she studied painting and drawing. She also studied at the School of the Art Insitute of Chicago and the Art Students League of New York. She then traveled to Paris to study at the Académie Julian.
Despite her acceptance to this prestigious French academy, as a female student, she received less rigorous training and was charged more for tuition compared to male students. As a woman, she was often isolated from other students.
Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911. Bourgeois put her artistic talent to use at a young age by helping in her family’s tapestry restoration workshop. She received a degree in mathematics before turning her attention to formal art study, first at Paris’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts and later through private lessons. At 27, she married American art historian Robert Goldwater and moved with him to New York City.
Bourgeois is considered one of the most inventive and influential sculptors of the 20th century for her use of unconventional materials and allusive psychological content. She associated the spider with maternal protectiveness and often remarked that her own mother exhibited many of the spider’s admirable qualities: patience, industriousness, and cleverness.
Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun
Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun was born in Paris in 1755. At the age of 15, Vigée-LeBrun was earning enough money from her portrait painting to support herself, her widowed mother, and her younger brother. Trained by her father, the portraitist Louis Vigée, she joined Paris’s Academy of Saint Luke at 19. Two years later, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre LeBrun, a painter and art dealer who helped her gain valuable access to the art world.
Vigée-LeBrun created some 660 portraits and 200 landscapes that hang in galleries and private collections all over the world. Her talent matches that of the great masters and was good enough to capture the attention of Marie Antoinette for whom she created more than 30 portraits.
When the French Revolution came, Vigée-LeBrun was forced to flee France with her nine-year-old daughter. During the following 12 years she created portraits of the most celebrated residents of Rome, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Berlin. After brief, highly successful stays in England and Switzerland, Vigée-LeBrun returned to France for good in 1809.
This is one of two canvasses by Vigée-LeBrun that I saw in the NMWA collection.
Joan Mitchell was born in Chicago, Il in 1925. Influenced by her mother’s work as co-editor of Poetry magazine and by authors such as T.S. Eliot who came to visit, Mitchell first considered a career in writing. After studying English literature for a time, she focused instead on painting, earning her advanced degree from the School of The Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1950, she moved to New York and began exhibiting her work to considerable acclaim. Mitchell is recognized as a principal figure—and one of the few female artists—in the second generation of American Abstract Expressionists.
Despite her burgeoning career in the United States, while still in her twenties, Mitchell began spending time in France and eventually settled there permanently.
Marianne Loir was born in Paris around 1715. Loir’s family members had been active Parisian silversmiths since the 17th century. Her brother was a highly regarded pastellist and sculptor, also specializing in portraiture.
Little is known about Loir’s life. She was trained by a distinguished French academic painter, Jean-François de Troy, and may have spent some time in Rome. That sojourn seems especially likely between the mid-1730s and 1740s, when there is no record of any artistic activity by her in Paris and when her teacher served as director of the Académie de France in Rome.
Scholars believe that Loir may also have lived for a time in the south of France. This theory is based on records of portraits she painted during the 1720s for patrons in Pau and her election to the Academy of Marseilles in 1762.
Niki de Saint-Phalle
Niki de Saint-Phalle was a French-American sculptor, painter, and filmaker, born in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, near Paris, in 1930. She spent most of her childhood and adolescence in New York City, and summers in Connecticut or Long Island. She frequently returned to France to visit relatives, becoming fluent in both French and English.
While attending a convent school in her youth, Saint-Phalle painted the fig leaves covering the classical sculptures on campus red, illustrating an early love of color and a disregard for following the rules. In her late teens, she married writer Harry Mathews, began a career as a fashion model, and also studied to become an actress. But in 1953, she was hospitalized for depression, and she began to delve into painting and collage.
Saint-Phalle was a self-taught artist who experimented with creative techniques that were distinctly her own. In the mid-1960s, Saint Phalle began to focus on figures of women. She called these sculptures “Nanas,” which translates to “broads” or “chicks” in English. These works epitomize Saint Phalle’s fascination with both conventional and progressive ideas about femininity.
In part II, you’ll find more examples of French-related works from the National Museum for Women in the Arts.
Before you leave, however, I’d love to hear what you thought of the pieces in this post or of the museum in general. Have you ever visited? Which pieces are your favorites? Are there any that you feel are unworthy? Let me know in the comments below.
I’ve lifted and condensed most of the descriptions of the artists’ lives from pages on Wikipedia and the NMWA website.