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Art Review

Ooh la la: woman as muse

Exhibit explores art of 18th- and 19th-century French sexual politics

'Promenade Matinale'' by Richard Ranft. "Promenade Matinale'' by Richard Ranft. (Worcester Art Museum)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / May 27, 2011

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WORCESTER — “Woman,’’ wrote the French poet Charles Baudelaire, “is far more than just the female of man. Rather she is a divinity, a star . . . She is a kind of idol, stupid perhaps, but dazzling and bewitching.’’

Baudelaire was writing specifically about woman as artistic muse, and in particular for the artist Constantin Guys, whose 1860 drawing “A Lady of Fashion in a Black Evening Gown’’ is among the works in “Leisure, Pleasure, and the Debut of the Modern French Woman,’’ a cheeky, rollicking exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum, assembled mostly from the museum’s own rich collection.

The show examines depictions of women in French prints and drawings of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Guys drawing is not the best of the lot, which includes small gems by Mary Cassatt, Paul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas. The lozenge-shaped face, plunging neckline, and radical up-do of Guys’s lady of fashion conspire to portray her as ridiculously vertical above her voluminous, billowing skirt.

Curator Nancy K. Burns has great fun exploring nearly 200 years of French sexual politics, with everything from satirical prints that verge on farce to advertising posters to delicately rendered prints and pastels. Her wall labels are often as kicky as the art, with dollops of gossip and quotes — such as Baudelaire’s — that seem outrageous today leavening the history and commentary she imparts.

Before the French Revolution, women were generally portrayed by artists either as genteel and virtuous or as coquettes. Louis-Marin Bonnet’s 1777 engravings “The Pleasures of Education’’ and “Provoking Fidelity’’ depict aristocratic ladies with small dogs, equating women with the canine traits of loyalty, affection, and obedience. The woman in “The Pleasures of Education’’ instructs a wiry pup, and the expression on her face is benign to the point of being vapid.

Charles-Antoine Coypel’s astute and beautifully textured 1735 pastel “Portrait of Charlotte Philippine de Châtre du Cangé, Marquise de Lamure’’ shows a woman gazing directly at the viewer out of a trompe-l’oeil window. Although young, with pearly skin and clothes that froth with lace, she looks canny and self-possessed; Coypel imbued his subject with more intelligence than we see in most French portraits of women of the day.

A seductress appears in Philibert Louis Debucourt’s comic aquatint and etching “The Two Kisses’’ (1786), in which an elderly man gazes upon a painting of himself kissing his young wife, as his actual wife, all frou-frou in hair and garb, flirts openly with the painter.

After the French Revolution, artists no longer in the back pocket of the aristocracy started to portray the rising bourgeoisie. Women were still often stereotyped as either morally upright mothers or plummy tarts, but more options now appeared.

Félix Bracquemond’s delicately rendered 1876 etching “Terrace at the Villa Brancas’’ depicts his wife Marie, a painter often held up as one of the great female Impressionists, along with Cassatt and Berthe Morisot. In the print, she sketches a woman nearly aglow in white, demure beneath a white parasol. In the foreground, Marie is all in dark tones. It’s hard not to read good and evil into Bracquemond’s portrayal, although likely he was simply trying to distinguish between artist and model. Marie Bracquemond ultimately quit painting because it caused tension in her marriage.

Which leads us to Cassatt, who never married nor had children, but took motherhood and women’s domestic lives as her signal motif. Her 1889 drypoint and aquatint “On the Omnibus’’ is anything but sentimental in its depiction of motherhood, though. A young mother gazes almost sullenly over the head of a nanny, who dandles a baby on her lap as they sit on the bench of a bus. Gauguin’s early pastel portrait “Mademoiselle Manthey’’ (1884), executed in an electrifying shower of rough hash marks, captures a young woman in a black boater, looking off to the side. Although Gauguin has been accused of objectifying women (think of his Polynesian nudes), this early drawing conveys his subject’s bright, discerning character.

The advance of printmaking technologies such as lithography brought large-scale, image-driven ads to the fore, and Paris was a hotbed of posters featuring can-can girls and voluptuous singers. There’s a familiar Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec color lithograph here for the nightclub “Divan Japonais’’ (1893).

Then there’s work by Alphonse Mucha, the Czech-born art nouveau artist known for his posters featuring enthralled women with long, flowing locks. His 1896 color lithograph “JOB,’’ is a cigarette ad. Women didn’t smoke much at the time, but this golden-haired beauty holds a lit cigarette between her fingers, and as the smoke curls upward, her head lolls back, her eyes close, and her mouth opens in pleasure. Ooh la la! Sex sells. Mucha was an advertising visionary.

It was a 19th-century Frenchman, the journalist and critic Alphonse Karr, who wrote “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’’ The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.

LEISURE, PLEASURE, AND THE DEBUT OF THE MODERN FRENCH WOMAN

At: Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, through Sept. 11. 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org

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