Anne Higonnet, AIC, Sept 22, 2012
Social Justice Theorist: The art of drawing and drinking tea
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
~Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
Using rich poetic prose to caress Marie-Denise Villers’ 1801 Young Woman Drawing, Anne Higonnet revisits a canvas, which, she discloses, has fascinated her throughout her professional career.
“She watches you seeing her work. Drawing material in hand, a young woman dressed in white sits in front of a broken window through which a small scene appears in the distance.”
Higonnet during her recent lecture at the Art Institute in Chicago delivered her recent work, which she explained to me before her lecture, will serve as the springboard for what is soon to be her sixth book. The painting by Parisian artist Villers was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1917 and was originally attributed to Jacques-Louis David. The museum discovered in 1951 that it was not, after all, a piece by the Master, but instead a work attributed to a woman. Higonnet describes that in the 1970’s, feminist critics lifted it up as a parable of sexism, pointing out that the feminists asked, “How…could the same scholars and audiences who had loved the painting when it was believed to be a painting by David denigrate it when they believed it was by a woman?”
The canvas, when viewed through Higonnet’s close scrutiny, is brought to life as a polyphonic symphony of women’s strength in their persistent, yet beautiful search for liberte et egalite within a world dominated by fraternite. Higonnet has written five books on art, childhood and collecting, concentrating on artists including Berthe Morisot and Lewis Carroll, continuing a tradition of criticism which she inherited from the generation of the feminists who had first brought the canvas and its fall from favor under scrutiny.
When she first began her Master’s thesis, Anne was an intern for an author who wanted her to travel to Paris with the intent, as she explained last spring at CU, “to dig up dirt” regarding Edouard Manet’s relationship with Berthe Morisot. She found none, but instead discovered and brought to the forefront the works of the gifted female artist.
On Thursday, Anne explained that she had originally longed to discuss Viller’s painting in her dissertation, but after being embraced by Morisot’s family during her period of intense study, she went in different direction instead. Last year, she was inextricably drawn back toward the young artist in white sitting in front of the broken window.
With Boulder’s remarkably vivid Dushanbe’s Tea House as a backdrop, as she and I leisurely sipped tea last spring. Rather than discussing her specialty, 19th century art, we found ourselves visiting with one another about our families. Every time I posed a question about art, we eventually circled back to the subject of domesticity instead.
Her children are a few years younger than mine, undergoing the process of applying for college. “How,” she asked me, “did you balance between nagging about grades, application deadlines, and essay responses and allowed your children to take responsibility for their future?” Eventually, my questions regarding art faded into the background, and we spent a few hours visiting with one another, our professions and our family serving as material that began to blur the lines between student/mentor relationship into shades of blooming friendship.
In her Lifton Family lecture, Higonnet notes that behind Viller’s shoulder is the artist’s home, painted, she discovered, from the studio she and other female artists occupied in the basement of the Louvre. The wall, which fills the middle ground, is the wall embanking the Seine.
The woman on the canvas was Viller’s student, a fellow artist and friend. She wears a white robe, fashionable attire for women in Paris during the short period of freedom in which the women were able to escape society’s usual expectations of modest decorum. Higonnet explains that during a brief period following the French Revolution, women were seen in the streets of Paris draped in simple cotton gowns, sometimes even wetting their garment (worn without corset or petticoat) to achieve the “wet drapery” look of Greek statues.
The subject is a symbol of feminine freedom. Her hair, a blonde halo arranged to imitate perceived Greek or Roman style, is a nod to England’s ideal woman of the time, the “angel of the house.” For twelve years following the Revolution, Higonnet explains, women were free to be artists and authors, writing their own stories, painting their own lives, yet freely embracing their domestic roles as well: the epitome of modern feminist ideology.
At the close of her lecture, which she had edited from her 90 page text to fit the limitations of the Lifton Family’s allotted time slot, one man asked, with an underlying hint of sexual innuendo, “Have you explored the possible relationship the women may have had?” She looked at me, smiled wryly, knowing that I know her disdain for digging up dirt, and responded, “They were good friends who just happened to share a very strong bond in the arts.”
After the lecture, I hugged her and she whispered into my ear, “Go home and enjoy a cup of our tea in remembrance of me.“
Photo Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed on 26/10/2011; http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/17.120.204