WASHINGTON DC — Women artists don’t have a disproportionate love of lemons and ladies in gowns— there’s a very real-world reason why they painted mostly still lifes and portraits up until the 20th century. It was easier to excel at these genres from the domestic confines of a kitchen or living room — all without hiring professional models, renting a studio, or venturing outdoors. Landscapes required leaving home, and in Europe the out-of-doors realm was typically off limits to unchaperoned women.
Even during the height of Impressionism, a fairly recent movement that celebrated painting en plein air, it was uncouth for reputable women to be outside by themselves. Mary Cassatt barely worked on landscapes, and Berthe Morisot’s few outdoor canvases were painted on private property. “Morisot isn’t going out with all of her paint tools, like everybody else, and setting up along the river and painting all day,” says Mary Morton, curator of a recently opened exhibition at Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art, True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1870. “That’s absolutely because of the limitations of her gender and her class. She’s a nice upper middle-class French woman, and it’s just not seemly. In the end, her most accomplished pictures tend to be things she can do indoors.”
The most thoroughly represented artist in True to Nature isn’t a man, though, as you might expect. French, 19th century painter Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont — the rare female artist who created open-air landscapes — is represented by four paintings (and is, tellingly of the period, the only female artist besides Rosa Bonheur).
Despite her prominence in the show, very little is known about Sarazin de Belmont. Her career is still being pieced together through a few surviving materials: records related to her art teacher, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, her auction sale records, and the paintings she donated to museums during her lifetime.
Born in Versailles in 1790, Sarazin de Belmont wasn’t allowed to attend the École des Beaux-Arts so she studied under Valenciennes, a private teacher committed to elevating the status of landscape painting. Once she completed her training, she set out to put her landscape skills to work in southern Italy and the French Pyrenees — paying for her travel expenses by selling her work back in Paris, and also exhibiting her work in the Paris Salon.
“The fact that this woman is traipsing up and down the Italian peninsula and beyond, over decades, and living in Italy for — on and off — for ten or twenty years, is incredible,” Morton notes. “And these landscapes that she’s doing are out in the field. I mean, she’s out there. But there are no answers – how did she pull that off? She was intrepid, obviously. She was a very intense careerist, so she’s funding her way.”
Sarazin de Belmont lived in Italy between 1841 and 1865, and painted landscapes along the peninsula. She was especially drawn to dramatic topography, strong light, and impressive natural settings that she could use as backdrops for miniature classical figures.
She didn’t have any benefactors funding her directly, so she used auction sales to support herself. Sarazin de Belmont was the first female artist to offer her works in a solo auction — and she held three major auctions, starting in 1829. Over the course of these auctions she presented over 400 paintings and lithographs, selling every item offered, and earning thousands of francs. She made sure to offer a range of price points too, selling both oil paintings and lithographs that she made based on her own landscapes (so that her work would be affordable to a larger audience).
“There aren’t that many artists who were doing quite so well, professionally, off their own work,” Morton adds. “So she’s really a phenomenon.”
Sarazin de Belmont didn’t sell all of her landscapes, though. She made sure to gift nine paintings to French museums during the last four decades of her life, starting in 1850. (Since then, her landscapes have entered the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library & Museum, RISD Museum, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper, among others.) The museums she originally donated her paintings to still have her work.
“That was super smart, just so that she would be part of the story, get in the annals of art history,” Morton says. Sarazin de Belmont’s work has been preserved, but there’s still lots of research to be done on this outlier artist. “She’s really a one-off.”
True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe, 1780-1870 continues at the National Gallery of Art (6th and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC) through May 3. It was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington; the Fondation Custodia–Collection Frits Lugt, Paris; and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The exhibition is curated by Mary Morton, Ger Luijten, and Jane Munro.