Arts & Theater

The role of women explored in "Becoming a Woman"

"The Chestnut Vendor" by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, on display at “Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment: French Art from the Horvitz Collection" at the Crocker Art Museum.
"The Chestnut Vendor" by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, on display at “Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment: French Art from the Horvitz Collection" at the Crocker Art Museum. Horvitz Collection

In many ways, thoughts about the role of women in society in 18th century France resemble debates that arose in this country with the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 70s and continue today.

Whether women should work outside the home or devote themselves to caring for their children and husbands were conflicts facing women then as they are now, said Crocker Art Museum Curator, William Breazeale, on a walkthrough of “Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment: French Art from the Horvitz Collection.”

Drawn from the finest private collection of French art in the United States, the show includes more than 120 paintings, drawings and sculpture by famous French artists such as Antoine Watteau, Francois Boucher, and Jean-Honore Fragonard, as well as lesser-known artists, some of them women, whose works illustrate the process of becoming a woman, from childhood to old age, in a turbulent society torn between religion, tradition and progressive, rational thought.

Most of the works in the show are from the Rococo period typified by Pierre-Antoine Baudouin’s delightfully frivolous watercolor of a liaison dangereuse between a reluctant young lady, an avaricious mother, a pandering violinist and a lecherous dancing master in an ornate interior.

However, Brezeale pointed out, it moves from Baroque painter Hyancithe Rigaud’s dignified drawing of a mature woman, handsome but no longer considered desirable, to Jacques-Louis David’s dramatic Neoclassical drawing of “Andromache Mourning the Death of Hector.”

(An antidote to Rigaud’s mature woman of a “virile age,” is provided by Pierre-Hubert Subleyras’s portrait of Anne-Marie Zina Durand de Lironcourt, a sexy, self-assured “woman of a certain age.”)

The exhibition opens with Antoine Vestier’s 1788 pretty but slightly fatuous painting “Allegory of the Arts,” which depicts a young lady in a fashionable, fancy dress drawing from a bust of a classical goddess while her younger sibling looks on.

From there, the show is loosely divided into nine sections beginning with historical and biblical images of feminine paradigms, such as Antoine Rivalz’s sexy drawing of a bare-breasted Cleopatra holding a sinister asp and Boucher’s sweet drawing of the Virgin Mary with adoring baby angels at her feet.

There are so many brilliant works in the show that I can only mention a few. In the section “Women in Training,” which deals with childhood and adolescence, “Bust-Length Portrait of a Young Girl,” an oval miniature by Jean-Honore Fragonard’s wife Marie-Anne Fragonard, captures young her sitter’s fragile beauty.

For many girls in the Age of Reason, Breazeale notes, the most important step in becoming a woman was becoming a wife. Because women at that time could not own property, the best way for them to gain control over their destinies was to marry well.

Young girls were groomed to be successful in what Breazeale calls “the Marriage Market.” Adolescents from well-to-do families were taught to be pleasing to prospective husbands by dressing fashionably, mastering the rules of etiquette, developing conversational skills, and learning the arts of flirtation, music and dance.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s lavish painting “Seated Lady in a Garden” depicts a married woman who enjoys the bounty of a successful marriage. Her smooth pale skin, rich attire and elaborately dressed, powdered hair identify her as woman of high status.

The landscape behind her and the orange in her hand - a clue perhaps that she is a member of the House of Orange – tell us her family owns land and may have royal connections.

Women of lower classes, who work of necessity, are also depicted in the show. Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s masterful drawing “The Chestnut Vendor” and Jean Touze’s “Market Scene with an Old Man Aggressively Trying to Kiss a Young Woman” depict the travails of women trying to earn a living, which as today, include sexual harassment.

Jean-Honore Fragonard’s brilliant wash drawing “The Puppet Show” in which light seems to be eating the actors, portrays a popular entertainment of the time enjoyed by all classes, while Pierre-Alexandre Wille gives us a charming drawing of a humble village wedding procession with a modest bride, her father, and groom accompanied by children, musicians, and wedding guests led by a tall man bearing a flag.

Lamentably, few women artists are included in the show, but their works, including Madame Fragonard’s miniature portrait, are well worth seeing.

Fortunately, Marie-Suzanne-Therese Roslin-Giroust’s “Presumed Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter,” an image of a very young girl in a low-cut dress and fashionably powdered hair designed to catch a husband, isn’t too creepy.

Adelaide Labille-Guillard’s direct, painterly portrait of a vigorous man of an age and stature to find a fine wife is beautifully done, as is Marie-Gabrielle Capet’s red, white, and black chalk self-portrait that gives us a striking image of a woman artist with a loose, natural hairdo, at work in a simple dress that a real working artist might wear, looking at the viewer with a direct, bold gaze.

It’s terrific.

But the star of the show is Anne Vallayer-Coster’s masterful “Still Life with Dead Hare.” This gorgeous painting was described by her fellow artist Pierre-Alexandre Wille as that “truly of a perfect man.”

Denis Diderot even compared it to the work of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, the leading still life painter of the time, though he noted, “This is not quite Chardin...but it is very good for a woman.”

“Becoming a Woman” reminds us that while women have made strides in many disciplines, they still face challenges in workplace relations, promotions, equal pay, seeking political office, conflicts between work, marriage and motherhood, and still too often unwanted sexual aggression.

If you go

Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment: French Art from the Horvitz CollectionWhen: Through August 19.Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O Street. Tickets: $12-$6. Free for museum members and children 5 and younger. Information: 916-808-7000,