Posted by: acheever19 | December 14, 2018

A Review: “Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment”

Smith College Museum of Art Review:

Recently, I visited Smith College’s Fall Exhibition: Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment. This collection included French art from the Horvitz Collection and played on Simone de Beauvoir’s iconic statement in The Second Sex that “one is not born, but becomes a woman.” The art embodied this sense of “becoming” by traversing the many modes of existing and aging in 18th century France and beyond.

Prior to my visit I assumed that the period collection would yield a static answer to the question of how one can define a woman. Instead, the exhibit categorized womanhood into nine themed aspects of women’s lives: The Fair Sex, Women in Training, What’s Love Got To Do With It?, Married with Children, Dressing the Part, Aging Gracefully, Pleasurable Pursuits, Private Pleasures, and Work. Your physical movement around the gallery space becomes a pilgrimage, from young aristocratic girlhood into womanhood and marriage. Yet, assumptions of the comfort zone are complicated with art that challenges Enlightenment aesthetics, social hierarchies, and matters of the female body.

The second section “Women in Training” reminded me of our class discussions on the transition from girlhood to womanhood. The paintings in this part of the collection are inspired by a quote from Rousseau’s Émile: “Observe a little girl spending the day around her doll, constantly changing its clothes… She awaits the moment when she will be her own doll.” Thus, childhood for a young girl constitutes a stage of training, as girls were taught to embody virtue, beauty, and self-restraint and domestic skills respective to her social class. Determining the age of these children was difficult because their representations emphasized maturity in dress and posture. 

As you walk down the light blue outer walls (contrasted by the royal blue interior walls), the girls grow up and play transforms into intimacy.  Etienne Charles Leguay’s “Two Seated Ladies” speaks to the romantic friendships that developed between women while Jean Simon Fournier’s “The Desired Letter” uses narrative play to capture the art of courting. In it, a maid receives a letter from a suitor behind her mistress’ back while helping her dress and it leaves us wondering whether the letter is for the lady or her maid. The love letter is a theme in French literature and art and represents the precariousness of love. Yet, as you continue to walk along the wall of paintings, love is solidified into marriage. This “becoming” suggests a temporal quality to this journey of marriage, motherhood, and sometimes loss.

My favorite “chapter” of the collection, however, was next: “Aging Gracefully.” Set on the furthermost wall from the entry doors, the art explored the “impossible contradiction” of what it means to age well, pulling from accounts of what this “virile age” entailed–some thinkers believed that by forty years old, a woman could not fulfill her two raisons d’être of pleasing men and bearing children, effectively ceasing to be a woman. Yet, the women depicted in the paintings on this wall refused to render themselves invisible.

In Pierre-Hubert Subleyras’ painting of Anne-Marie Zina Durand de Lironcourt (1747), one of his favorite patrons,  Lironcourt looks out with ease and confidence–she leans on her elbow and delicately holds her finger to her cheek, as if she is considering something beyond the frame. I like how composed and regal she is depicted in comparison to some of the other paintings of this chapter, which then proceed to deconstruct aged beauty into its respective stages–a woman tweezing and rouging, gray hair settling in, and gazes of defiance and exhaustion. However, this chapter could benefit from more paintings that depict what aging looks and feels like for the French working class.

Another favorite “chapter” was the hidden alcove on Pleasurable Pursuits, so hidden that I almost missed it. It was an unexpected mini collection of drawings selected from a much larger portfolio of Claude-Louis Desrais’ drawings. These drawings sit in a glass viewing case, shrouded by a sapphire cloth with gold fringes with a disclaimer above. To see them, the viewer must lift the curtain–an act that transforms the act of looking at pornographic images into an intentional, knowing thing and captures the illicit nature of hidden art through concealment and exposure. The drawings included a bearded man with an erection, acts of flogging, a woman receiving an enema, and a couple having sex on a swing, all images that eschew conventional sexual restraints. While I wasn’t really sure how to interpret or read any of these images because I’m unfamiliar with illicit art of the era and its viewership, this chapter of the collection drove home the idea that the rest of the art in the exhibit is not all-encapsulating of Enlightenment pursuits–it chooses to capture some things and leave others out and sometimes you have to hunt for the hidden interiors of past life.

This entire collection frames “becoming” as a cultural force and enables scholars of art to examine the hegemony of womanhood and femininity throughout the many aspects of a woman’s life. It raises questions of “who decides” and how scientific and philosophical thought shaped the way women were defined. In turn, the male artists of the time also created and upheld aesthetic standards for women and children. Reading these art pieces gives life to a mediation of artist and subject, where both of them share in this “becoming.”

Ultimately, this exhibit has a lot to explore but for maximum potential would best be paired with another collection in Smith College’s Museum. The very small “Girl Culture” photographic collection upstairs employs a modern lens at the ways American popular culture has fueled an obsession with appearances and is presented in conversation with the Horvitz’ “Becoming a Woman” collection (even though separated by stairs). In any visit to the museum, these two exhibits together can enable discourse on how the painted woman differs from a photographed one and how the body has become a canvas, a “palimpsest on which many of our culture’s conflicting messages about femininity are written and rewritten.”

**Note: I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the art in this exhibit. My apologies for not having any graphics! But if you would like to visit, the exhibit is up until the beginning of January 2019.**


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this! I am super fascinated by this idea of a little girl waiting to take the place of her doll, to become a woman and dress herself. An idea that I of course knew, as in, know what society expects of little girls and why they are given dolls, but the wording of that quote felt particularly pointed. I am immediately reminded of our conversation in class about the Victorian conceptualization of child-hood and woman hood, and that horrible painting of the little doll child that we looked at together. Honestly I feel, looking at this painting, that the little girl is already expected by society to act just like her dolls, to be silent and pretty and useless.
    I also love the question that this piece raises about this art being created by men, who are upholding these stereotypes, so truly the story told is not one of women, or a woman’s life and experience, but societies idea of a woman and how women have been represented.

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