Feminism In Art History: Three French Female Painters You Have To Know

Either for their beautiful works or the way they went beyond limits established in an art world dominated almost exclusively by men, here you have a glance of three awesome Parisian female artists to feel inspired by.

By Constanza Menares
August 2, 2020

Suzanne Valadon 
(France, 1865 – 1938), Post-Impressionism.

We all have heard about Montmartre or walked its cutes passages, right? Exactly in this place, french painter Suzanne Valadon used to have her atelier and paint her well known nudes.
Let’s start from the beginning. Valadon, that somehow came from Limoges to Paris, was many things before being famous as a painter. She was a trapeze artist, a dressmaker, a waitress, a model. Puvis de Chavannes, Degas and even Renoir had asked her to pose for their oil on canvas due to her beauty. 

Valadon is best known for her paintings of female nudes like this one. “Reclining nude” (1928) confronts the viewer, looking straight to us. The poses evokes gestures of modesty associated with classical Antique sculpture (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Suzanne had also met in Paris with Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh, from whom she learned the painting techniques, even though, by her own account, she was already drawing. So, one day she just started with oils. This born rebel and bohemian, grabbed a brush and begun to put life into the canvas. Something remarkable about her is that she painted female nudes, something unusual at that time. Not to mention male nudes. She did both.

“Seated nude brunette woman” (1930). Suzanne Valadon posed as model for the artists Degas, Renoir and even Tolouse-Lautrec. But then she became a painter and did several female nudes, a subject rarely chosen by women artist at that time. 

Her work is astonishing, and surely you can feel inspired by the way she composed her different nature mort, portraits —quite a few about her cat “Raminou”— and numerous self-portraits: some of them confronting the viewer, always using several vibrant colors and a very firm line.
A painter that wasn’t just “a muse”. Suzanne Valadon was her own muse.

Where to see her artworks:  Musée de Montmartre.

“Raminou” (1932). Her cat, named “Raminou”, was also a common subject in Valadon’s works. Can you notice the vibrant use of colors?

Marie Laurencin
(France, 1883 – 1956), Fauvism and then Cubism.

If you have seen some pastel-colored portraits of Coco Chanel or Colette, then you may already be familiar with the second recommendation I’ve for you: Marie Laurencin. 
This artist started as porcelain painter but a few years later she changed her focus and started to study oil painting. And she did it so well that became an important figure in the Parisian avant-garde, surrounded herself with artists from the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre, and other brilliant minds like George Braque, Pablo Picasso and french poet Guillaume Apollinaire (also her ex-boyfriend).

“Les Désguisés” (1926). Laurencin is mostly known for her oil paintings, in which you can see the influence of Picasso’s cubism.

Even if her work includes watercolors and drawings, Laurencin is mostly known for her oil paintings, in which you can see the influence of Picasso’s cubism —simplifying the shapes— and her pursuit of the feminine aesthetic. Her style, in my opinion, has too some subtle similarities with Modigliani’s work, that you can notice, for example, in her elongated faces and necks. As I mentioned before, Laurencin’s art usually included grey and pastel colors (as pink, lavander or light blue) and curvilinear soft forms.

French painter Marie Laurencin in her atelier with some of her students in 1932. Marie was an important figurei n the Parisian avant-garde, surrounded herself with artists from the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre.

I think it is important to incorporate feminist theory and talk more about female creators in art history, so I recommend you to read “Marie Laurencin: une femme inadaptée in Feminist Histories of Art”, by Elizabeth Louis Kahn if you want to know more about her.

Where to see her artworks: Musée de l’Oragerie.

“Bacchante” (1930). In her portraits, Marie usually included pastel colors like pink, grey or lavender.

Adélaide Labille-Guiard
(France 1749 – 1803), Rococo

If I must talk about a feminist painter, then Labille-Guiard is undoubtedly one of the prominent names. Why? She was without question an advocate for women to have the same opportunities as men to become professional painters. 

“Self-portrait with two pupils” (1785). In this piece, the artist portrayed herself as an elegant woman teaching other female artist (Marie Gabrielle Capet and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond) to paint following her example. 

I’ll tell you a bit about her background. She learned to paint by doing miniatures, probably because, during that period (18th century), painters weren’t supposed to teach to female pupils. Anyway, somehow, the artist took a few classes and after some time, in 1783, ended up being one of the first woman to become a member of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Another female artist that accomplished this at the same session was Marie-Louise-Élisabet Vigée Le Brun, with whom Labille-Guiard is often compared with. 

Portrait Madame Adelaide de France” (1787). Shown at the Salon of 1787, this large-format ceremonial portrait is a veritable manifesto, summing up the tastes and qualities of its model and sponsor, Madame Adélaïde.

Her most notorious work it is her Self-Portrait with Two Pupils (1785), a full-lengh portrait that shows her —as an elegant  woman— seated before her easel teaching younger women to paint following her example. “A bold statement”, according to description by MET Museum (that has the painting in its collection) because it suggests Adélaide’s attempt to  increase the number of females enrolled into the Academy. (Source: In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000). 
And, of course, the portrait subtly shows that female artists were capable to paint and teach as men.

Where to see her artworks: Château de Versailles

“Portrait of a woman” (1787) The artist often incorporated recent fashions into her paintings which allowed her to showcase her artistic ability.

So, you have three examples of feminism, hard work and amazing pieces of art. I hope you can feel inspired by them in some way.