The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have acquired Psyche says goodbye to his family (1791) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist – a rare work by a female old master, and the first history painting shown in the salon in Paris by a female artist.
“Marie-Guillemine Benoist is in some ways truly such a unique artist, but it also characterizes this opportunity for French female artists of the late 18th century,” Emily Beeny, curator of European paintings, told Artnet News .
Before 1791, the biennial salon in Paris was only open to members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture or the Royal Academy – very few of them were women. But two years into the French Revolution, the art administration suspended this rule, and Benoist, just 23 years old, took advantage of it. She had not one, not two, but three story paintings accepted for the salon.
“The fact that she wanted to become a history painter makes her absolutely extraordinary,” Beeny said. “It was such a bold ambition for a woman at this moment. Within the hierarchy of genres as established by the Royal Academy, history painting, that is, episodes from literature, mythology, Roman history, the Bible and other narrative subjects were in fact exclusively reserved for men. “They were considered to require considerable learning as well as the ability to find inventions, and female painters were more often referred to lower genres that were seen as essentially imitative, such as still lifes and portraits.”
Benoist began his education with Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, one of only a handful of women who became a full member of the Royal Academy, and portraits of Marie Antoinette. When Vigée-Le Brun closed her studio, Benoist began studying under Jacques-Louis David and became one of only three female students to do so.
But she was still worse than her male peers.
“Benoist’s male classmates in David’s studio would have had the opportunity to study male nudity as an essential part of their education to become history painters. For a female artist to study a nude model during this period would have been a scandal – really unthinkable, “Beeny said. “So Benoist may have chosen this particular episode from the story of Psyche because it allowed her to paint dressed figures.”
“It’s a moment when Psyche’s father, the king, has just been told that his daughter’s groom will be this monster with incredible destructive power, and the only way to save the kingdom from this monster is to leave Psyche on this desolate rock for to be claimed by her groom, “Beeny added.” It’s a story of a familial victim of the public good – a subject of much resonance with contemporary revolutionary political ideals. “
Unfortunately, these revolutionary ideals, although they allowed Benoist to make his triumphant Salon debut, were not translated into a successful career in history painting. By the time of the salon in 1793, her husband had fallen into political disfavor under the rule of the radical Jacobins. It was her former teacher David himself who signed the arrest warrant and forced the couple into hiding.
When they re-entered the community, the Benoist was the only one in the family considered to be employed.
“She had to give up the dream of becoming a history painter to put food on the table by painting these dry, boring portraits – some of them are lovely, but many of them feel somewhat uninspired,” Beeny said. (These commissions included Portrait of Madeleine in 1800, now in the collection of the Louvre in Paris, and a portrait of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1803.)
“Eventually, her husband is fully rehabilitated, his career picks up, and he receives a high-level post in the recovery government after the fall of Napoleon. Benoist is told that painting is not an appropriate pursuit for the wife of a high-ranking official, and she must give up his brushes all together, “Beeny added. “Her career has this tragic arc.”
But the story of Psyche says goodbye to his family have a happier ending. The painting remained in its first owner’s family for 200 years, leaving it in a remarkable state of preservation. (The current residence of the other two Benoist paintings from the 1791 salon remains unknown, although the allegorical Innocence between vice and virtuesold at auction for the equivalent of $ 53,585 in France in 2000, according to the Artnet Price Database.)
“There are wonderful little touches, like the tears that seem to sparkle on the cheek of Psyche’s mother when they have one last embrace, or the glimpse of the pearls wrapped around her arm – moments of truly refined technique and surface texture. , “said Beeny. “All these subtleties would have been lost if the painting had been lined or cleansed. This painting comes down to us in such a beautiful condition.”
The canvas has never been on public display since its debut in the salon back in 1791, and is now one of just three benoist canvases in public collections in the United States. The other two, which are not historical paintings, belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the San Diego Museum of Art.
Psyche says goodbye to his family was acquired with the assistance of museum donors at an undisclosed price. It was last sold at the Vasari Auction in Bordeaux, France, for € 292,000 ($ 328,458) in 2020. It will be shown in San Francisco later this month with works by Benoist teachers Vigee Le Brun and David.
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