Glancing back on the nineteenth century made us realise that, unlike previous eras with limited female artists, this period offered a steep increase in women artists. Even though it was still uncommon to see a woman paint regularly, it was no longer a rarity, which once it had been. The century, in addition, showed us that even if a woman does not possess an artistic connection, she still could be an artist by herself through her talent and have money and a supportive family behind her. Unlike previous periods, we did not witness women’s careers and ambitions ending after their marriage. Nevertheless, there were a few exceptions, such as Rosalba, Artemesia, and Duparc, of different periods, who became famous despite their marriage and all sort of difficulties. To understand the artistic scenarios of the nineteenth century, we referred to the young Russian Marie Bashkirtseff’s diary and saw the lively scenes of the society. It describes how numerous women in Paris experienced a sense of freedom and independence after they were able to move in public, own their studios, travel and undergo training in different recognised institutes. There were no limitations or boundaries in any way stepping inside, and everyone rejoiced with their talents. However, despite all the privileges, there were still dozens of nineteenth-century female artists whose names remained obscured and whose works are still unknown to large masses. Amidst this shadow, Constance Mayer is one of the artists for which we are here. We will read about her life history and some of her artworks today.
Artist Abstract: Who Was Constance Mayer?
In the late 1790s in France, when there was finally the end of the reign of Terror and the return of family values, there was an increase in demand for portraits and miniatures. And at this time, Constance Mayer was in her early twenties, converting her hobby of painting portraits and genre scenes into a professional career. Being one among the increasing number of women artists, she found ample new opportunities to exhibit her work in Paris Salon. Her art was majorly influenced by her teachers, Joseph Benoit Suvee and Jean Baptiste Greuze. The style of her art includes soft brushwork and selective choices of themes, representing popular sentimental subjects.
|Birth||1775 (date unknown)|
|Died||26 May 1821|
|Genre||Portraiture and Genre Paintings|
|Famous Paintings||The Unfortunate Mother, Self-Portrait with Artist’s Father|
An Account of the Artist’s Life.
Born in Paris in 1775, Constance Mayer was the daughter of a customs official. Although we lack information about her early life, we know about her artistic journey. She started her early training under Jean Baptiste Greuze and worked in the studio of Jacques Louis David, though his heroic manner was not to her taste. In 1802, she met with Pierre Paul Prud’hon, and even though she had completed her training and had her works already exhibited at Salon in Paris since 1796, she still studied with him. There was more than a teacher-pupil connection between them, which soon converted into a love affair.
In 1810, she moved to Sorbonne in Paris in a studio apartment to live nearby Pierre. Despite being seventeen years younger than him, she was one of her closest collaborators, partners, and lovers. When his wife had a nervous breakdown in 1803, and her condition was so intense that she was shut away in an institution, Mayer looked after the couple’s children ran his household, and supported him financially.
Even with her dedicated love towards Prud’hon, she had no fulfilment in her life, leading a severe depression and panic. The reason behind this was her self-absorbed affection for her collaborator, which made her personality disappear from the results of their shared creativity. Her work would occasionally reach the markets under his name, but Prud’hon drew detailed sketches and studies before Mayer executed the painting herself. As a result, she began to fear for her livelihood, and when it became clear that Prud’hon was unwilling to marry her after his wife’s death, she succeeded in these events by taking her own life by slitting her throat on 27 May 1821. Pierre, who was badly shaken due to this incident, completed her last works and mounted a retrospective at the Salon, in the following year. Yet he lived only for a short time, dying in 1823. Through the brief and troubling fears and life of Mayer, she made some fantastic sentimental artworks, which we see today.
Looking at the Constance Mayer Paintings.
Two of the most significant paintings from the early days of Constance Mayer are Self-Portrait of Citizeness Mayer Pointing to a Sketch for Her Mother and Self-Portrait with Artist’s Father: He Points to a Bust of Raphale, Inviting Her To Take This Celebrated Painter as a Model. Unlike other women artists of her time, Constance developed strategies for ensuring her work would be acceptable by masking her public self-assertion and professional ambition with an acceptance of parental protection and control within her image and submitting this work as the work of a pupil of Suvee and Greuze. In the first painting, Constance’s father has a book, which is a sign of knowledge and his finger points towards the bust of Raphael, which shows that his father presents a model for his daughter, and Constance is listening to him passively, showcasing his superiority. Here, she refers to the circumstances when majorly fathers played a significant role in the early training of women.
Constance Mayer painted The Dream of Happiness in 1819, which she made while collaborating with Prud’hon. Lit by the moon’s cool light, we see a boat gliding smoothly in the water. A female figure rests on her husband’s arm with her child over her breast. And another female figure, Fortuna, assisted by Cupid, sails the boat. One can witness that Mayer symbolically serves as Fortuna’s character in the painting of the life of Prud’hon and his family. Mayer displays a rolling moonlight over the man and woman while a casting shadow casts across the female rower. There is a presence of soft tones of colours and a darker background to exemplify the moonlight. Further, there is a use of an even tone and gentle brushstrokes, which displays the sentimental side well.
The artwork accompanies the text,
“Love and happiness navigate a boat over the river of life. A young man sits at the stern, holding his wife and sleeping child in his arms.”
The painting Sleep of Venus and Cupid, Disturbed by Zephyrs of Mayer, takes inspiration from The Torch of Venus by Pierre. Here, Venus is seen lying with her child, and a few other cupids fly towards her as a sign of compassion and fondness. There is a darker background from where Cupid reaches towards Venus, and she has a bright lit on her body. In addition, there is the presence of feelings of sentimental motherhood and affectionate children on the canvas. The painting was commissioned by Empress Josephine and exhibited in Salon of 1806.
The painting Unfortunate Mother conveys a sense of melancholia and sepulchral gloom that women artists, in general, used to portray the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. It shows a solitary figure in the soft moonlight with a cross-legged position in agony. In contrast, The Happy Mother depicts an imposing moonlit landscape with a mother and her child. Their bodies dazzle with the soft light, and Constance has beautifully used gentle brushstrokes to take care of this sentimental motherhood.
With The Unfortunate Family, Constance adopted a lugubrious theme with a melodramatic appeal, a theatricality, and an over-moralizing tone. It shows a rustic family with a sinister mood and a threat to happiness, but still, it does not preach filial duty. In its seriousness and inwardness, the work belongs to the early Romantic tradition of the 19th century.
Somewhere there is a restriction in her artwork that since she collaborated with Pierre, her many artworks are still unknown.
Though Constance Mayer had a tough life, she was one of the successful artists of the French Revolution. Known for her self-sacrifice and immense adoration for French artist Pierre, she still resides in our hearts due to her talent, loyalty and sentimental paintings.
1. Helen Weston, ‘The Case for Constance Mayer’.
2. Women Artists, 1550-1950 by Harris Sutherland Ann and Nochlin Linda.