How to be a ‘lady’: Taking a look at gender in SCMA’s new exhibit

PHOTO COURTESY OF SMITH.EDU  “Becoming a Woman” explores the formation of womanhood during the Enlightenment period.


“Becoming a Woman” explores the formation of womanhood during the Enlightenment period.

Phoebe Lease ’21 | Arts Editor

Upon opening the doors to the exhibit, you immediately lock eyes with a pale woman in a turquoise robe who looks out from her ornate frame with a small smile. She is one of the few in the gallery who will actually make eye contact with you; the rest of the women gaze demurely at things out of sight as if they are wishing for something their gilded world cannot give them.

“Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment” opened last month at the SCMA. The gallery displays the French art of the Horvitz Collection and gives you a walkthrough of what 18th-century society deemed the “best” version of a Victorian woman: charming, obedient, beautiful (until you turned 40, at least) and, in most cases, white and Western European. The gallery blurbs address this last part, noting that “in the rare instances when women of different ethnic or racial backgrounds were evoked as exemplars, they were generally figured as European women in exotic costumes and settings.”

“Becoming a Woman,” then, gives a very particular view of women’s lives during the Enlightenment; they were filled with material decadence and privilege but constricted in most other facets of living. The gallery explores this dichotomy in nine sections, starting from the popular discourse of a woman’s worth, to fashion and marriage, to motherhood and professionalism. The work is mostly of famous male French artists, but the gallery also holds art from female painters as well, like Anne Vallayer-Coster.

The principle theme of this exhibit seems to be physical appearance under the influence of age, and the anxiety about this began in early childhood. The paintings from the 18th and early 19th century tend to depict girls as miniature adults rather than kids. Their hair is carefully coiffed, their intricate dress necklines are already deeply plunged and their cheeks are reddened not by boisterous play but by rouge. This artificial display of adulthood makes sense, since young girls were sometimes married off as early as twelve years old. Indeed, one sketch – called “The Return,” by artist Jean-Baptiste Isabey – really caught me off guard. It’s innocuous enough, just a man taking a female figure in a passionate kiss, except for the fact that the woman looks so young that I first thought she was his child. I realized that despite the fact that it was really his wife, she was still probably several years his junior. Section IV of the gallery, “Married With Children,” explains that although girls could be married off as children, a man would often have to wait until the age of 30 to choose a bride of his own without a parent’s permission.

There are a few paintings of men sprinkled throughout the gallery, and they create a significant contrast against their embellished female companions. As the men in these paintings age, they become more dignified in dress and manner. Their clothing style is handsomely rugged, and their facial expressions indicate deep thought. Several of the women, on the other hand, are portrayed as tired mothers, and the artists did not shy away from adding wrinkles, frumpy clothing and other details of aging from these paintings. However, some women were able to reach a status of respectability in their old age and are instead painted as wise and loving mentors.

The part of the exhibit that drew the most attention from amused visitors was “Private Pleasures.” Hidden under a heavy velvet curtain were several pornographic drawings of the 18th century, complete with very descriptive comical titles written by the artist himself (which are best to not be printed here). There are several scenes that eschew social norms, including homosexual relations between women and a man crossdressing. But, despite this nonconformity, the erotica is still for mostly heterosexual male audiences, keeping women in their place as just entertainers.

On SCMA’s website is a project called “Thinking About Womxn Today” by Tara Sacerdote ’18. Sacerdote compares the Enlightenment Age women to several works in the permanent Smith collection, which represents a more diverse array of womxn across race, class and gender identity. Here, a different experience of “womanhood” is presented; for one, the subjects in these works look directly at the viewer with a feeling of power and determination. In Marie Watt’s piece “Companion Species (Fortress),” the artist makes a quilt of words used to describe womxn, offering a vocabulary that is much more varied than what was available to those in the 18th century.

As our concepts of gender continue to change, it is important for us to look at both the past and the future as these two projects have. We must remember where we came from in order to map out what work still needs to be done.

There will be a guided tour of the exhibit on Oct 26 at 2 p.m. by Danielle Carrabino, SCMA’s new curator of painting and sculpture. “Becoming a Woman” will be on display at the SCMA until Jan. 6, 2019.