Amélie Beaury-Saurel (French,1848–1924), Into the Blue (Dans le bleu), 1894. Pastel on canvas, 29 1/2 x 32 1/4 in. Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, RO494. Courtesy American Federation of Arts

Nineteenth-century social convention prevented women from moving through the public sphere independently and from having the same access to public places—such as cafés, theaters, or boulevards—as men. Because of these limitations, and the expectation that women manage the home, women artists often turned to domestic life for their subjects. This was also in keeping with the suggestion that women were best suited to paint minor genres such as miniature portraits, still lifes, or other subjects deemed “feminine.” While male artists also turned to the domestic sphere for inspiration at this time, women had a distinctive perspective on a world that was intended to serve as a safe haven for them but also represented their limited freedom.
The paintings in the exhibition, however, confer profound insight into subjects that many considered secondary or negligible, whether the subject arranges flowers, pours tea, or reads a letter. Attention to surface details and the careful rendering of atmosphere and light effects emerge, rather than straightforward narrative, revealing the skill and inventiveness of these artists. In quiet scenes, the sitter’s gaze becomes a powerful metaphor for the creativity and introspection of women who were moving from a hidden life to a more public existence.

A fully illustrated catalogue, Women Artists in Paris, 1850–1900, has been published by the American Federation of Arts and Yale University Press. Along with an art-historical overview by curator Laurence Madeline, the catalogue includes essays by Jane R. Becker, collections management associate, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Richard Kendall, former curator at large, Clark Art Institute; Bridget Alsdorf, associate professor, History of Art, Princeton University; and Vibeke Hansen, curator, Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo.