Laura H. Mathis, Associate Specialist in 19th Century European Art, explains how three works offered in New York on 18 April reflect the increase in status, confidence and opportunities afforded to women in Belle Epoque Paris
During the 19th century, women began to fight against restrictions limiting their sphere of influence to the home. As they pushed against society’s limits, seeking to exercise more control over their lives — both socially and economically — the term ‘the New Woman’ was coined.
The New Woman strove to become a more active participant in society and in the workforce. She achieved new legal rights to own property and fought for greater academic advancement. The New Woman, and the way she was changing the face of society, soon became a popular subject in art, literature and drama of the time — as the three works works below, all offered in 19th Century European Art in New York on 18 April, attest.
From private to public — how ‘promenading’ helped to set women free
The ‘New Woman’ claimed the right to live much more of her life in public. Previously, respectable women had had very little need to leave their homes, so a woman promenading on the streets would likely have been considered a prostitute. By the late 19th century, however, it was not only acceptable but fashionable to stroll the wide boulevards and parks in Paris created by Haussmannisation to show off one’s modish new dress or hat.
The beau monde of Paris spent much of its day, especially Sunday afternoons, riding and promenading, essentially transforming the boulevards and avenues into plein-air receiving rooms. The new shops, cafés and entertainments of Belle Époque Paris created an entirely new culture, one in which women for the first time played an integral role.
This shift is reflected in Jean Béraud’s 1880 painting Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées (above), in which the occupants of two carriages exchange pleasantries. This was no doubt common enough, but the fact that one of the drivers is a young woman, well turned out in a vested bodice, bright red tie and bowler hat, puts a unique twist on the scene.
She is driving a cabriolet, a light, two-wheeled carriage that can easily be drawn by one horse, and is clearly in control of her vehicle — a perfect representation of the New Woman showing off her style and independence.
The rise of the omnibus — the new hub of social interaction
The introduction of the omnibus to the major population centres of the western hemisphere was a watershed in the 19th century. Available to all, use of this new mode of transportation by women reflected their newfound freedom to appear in public — even unchaperoned — and afforded them much greater mobility around the city.
Omnibuses were used by women of the leisure class because they offered a direct route from the posh suburbs to the fashionable shopping districts. But they were equally popular among working-class women, who found them an inexpensive and efficient way to travel to their jobs.
In his 1877 painting L'Omnibus (above), Pierre Carrier-Belleuse depicts public transportation as the hub of social mingling that it was. The top-hatted, monocle-wearing figure on the far left sits only a few seats away from the slightly dishevelled working-class man who has fallen asleep.
The new attitudes embraced by younger women were not always so well-received by older generations
Most striking, though, are the two unchaperoned female figures at the painting’s centre. Both fashionably dressed, the bright pink bows and fashionable choker of the young woman facing the viewer stand in sharp contrast to the more soberly dressed figures alongside them. The disapproving look of the older woman on the right seems to be directed their way: the new attitudes embraced by younger women were not always so well-received by older generations.
The model at the centre of a society scandal
La Lettre (below), painted by Paul-César Helleu in 1880, hews more closely to the popular image of 19th-century women. Fashionably dressed, she reclines on a beautiful blue and white settee reading a letter, its envelope casually discarded on the floor. This image of a woman of leisure, cloistered within an elegant interior, is about as far from the idea of the New Woman as one can get.
Marie Renard, the striking brunette model who sat for the painting — and who also sat for Édouard Manet, Berthe Morisot and John Singer Sargent — was not, however, as conventional as the painting might suggest. Most notoriously, Renard was also the model for Henri Gervex’s La femme au masque of 1885, in which she posed wearing nothing but a black domino mask. That painting, whose whereabouts are today unknown, created a furore when it was first exhibited at the Salon.
One man was so convinced that his wife was the sitter for La femme au masque that he challenged the artist to a duel
Though Gervex never claimed that the model was anyone but Renard, not everyone believed him. One man was so convinced that his wife was the sitter that he challenged the artist to a duel, and was wounded on the field of combat.
At the turn of the century, La femme au masque became the centre of a court case involving a woman named Camille du Gast. In an effort to deprive her of her inheritance, du Gast’s family claimed that she had been the model for the picture. Du Gast, an accomplished motorist who also raced boats and once parachuted from a hot air balloon, was truly a New Woman. Though both Gervex and Renard appeared in court to swear that du Gast was not the sitter, she still lost her case, and rumours continued to swirl about the mysterious young model’s true identity.