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'The mute who speaks': women's voices on art in prerevolutionary France

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posted on 2024-03-26, 23:58 authored by Anna Rigg

Although only a handful of Salon reviews by women survive from the Old Regime, the pamphlets of the 1770s and 1780s present us with wild fantasies of femininity as critic after critic chose to ventriloquise the voices of female Salon-goers: fictional noblewomen, ingénues, brash bourgeoises, simple flower sellers, frivolous coquettes, goddesses, and mythological figures. They took their place in a parade of virtues and vices, acting out a constant interrogation of women’s participation in the public sphere of the Salon. At the same time, female viewers continued to comment on the arts in other contexts, leaving traces of alternative forms of viewership that have gone largely unnoticed because they fall outside the accepted bounds of art criticism. This thesis examines how the prerevolutionary Salon literature used female voices to define and limit the terms of women’s participation in artistic discourse, making a case for the centrality of the enforcement of sexual difference to the development of art criticism as a genre. What was at stake in writing art criticism ‘as a man’ or ‘as a woman’? How did women, under such scrutiny, forge a place for their own discourse on art? And how might our view of the Old Regime art public change when we consider the extent to which it was in fact constituted through and in reaction to the voices of real and imagined women?

Part I of my thesis focuses on men writing women, surveying the use of female characters in the art-critical pamphlet literature of the Old Regime. For art critics, working in an upstart genre that remained profoundly ambivalent about its own legitimacy, these fictional women served as mouthpieces and as scapegoats—vehicles for the criticism of art and women alike. Supplementing the survey is a case study of a particularly interesting critic, Robert-Martin Lesuire (1737-1815), whose female protagonists include a fourteen-year-old Creole girl, a mute young woman, and Dibutades, the mythical Greek maiden who invented the art of painting.

Part II looks at women’s own commentary on art. Sophie Arnould, a star of the Paris Opéra, left behind no writing about art, but her many quips on the subject were eagerly reported by the press. I posit Arnould’s numerous bon mots as a marginal art-critical oeuvre, one that—despite its unverifiable authenticity—circulated widely in her name both orally and in the press. These anecdotes are a complex study in authorship, ventriloquism, and the reception of art by an educated denizen of the Old Regime demi-monde. Finally, I turn to Henriette-Louise Dionis, who in 1777 published a collection of pastoral and erotic works including a short fable inspired by Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s famous allegory of lost virginity, The broken pitcher. Dionis’s text—an interesting counterpoint to Diderot’s conversation with Greuze’s Girl with a dead canary at the Salon of 1767—provides us with a female viewer’s response to a painting best known as an invitation to heterosexual male voyeurism.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains All Rights

Degree Discipline

Art History

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre, Media Studies and Art History


Maskill, David; Spiteri, Raymond

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