Appel à contribution : « Figures of Widows », Paris, INHA, 15 juin 2021, date limite le 15 mars 2021

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, La veuve et son prêtre (détail), 1784. Huile sur toile, 128 × 161 cm. Saint-Pétersbourg, musée de l’Ermitage.

Woman and widow under the Ancien Régime? The images defining a woman abound, should they describe a seductive woman, an influential or a common one. However, the images that could characterize the widow remain vague. As a matter of fact, the widow is defined essentially in negative terms; a widow is ‘the one who has lost her husband’ [1]. The social status imposed by widowhood is considered less favorable than that of a married woman, the Dictionnaire de Trévoux specifying that ‘a widow mourns her husband, not so much for her loss, but mostly because she is deprived of the rank she held and the consideration she benefited from’ [2]. This could lead her to condemnable behaviors: ‘The widow often subtracts and conceals her husband’s most beautiful furniture’ [3]. Opposite to this unattractive vision, however, widowhood seems then to offer to women a freedom that neither daughters nor wives experienced [4].

Several images arise from this contrasting portrait. The first one to appear is the widow seen through a state policy point of view such as Marie de Medici as regent by Frans Pourbus (1613), Anne of Austria in mourning clothes with her Children by Philippe de Champaigne (1643) or Marie-Antoinette in the Conciergerie Prison by Alexandre Kucharski (1793). These portraits evoke in turn the woman in position of power, the patron, the arts and letters’ amateur, but also the grieving, lonely, old and fallen woman.

The widow can be portrayed in many other ways. Like Madame Godefroid, Keeper of the King’s Paintings by Jean Valade (1755), she could hold a position by succession to her late husband. She could also be the spokesperson for various passions highlighted by bourgeois drama: the sadness of Greuze’s Inconsolable Widow (1762), the melancholy of Reynolds’s Countess of Lincoln (1781), or the moral probity of Greuze’s Widow Receiving her Priest Surrounded by her Children (1782). These different aspects of widowhood revealed by the artists enable to question all the statutory references that define the widow: her mourning clothes, her attributes such as the faithful dog and her psychological characteristics which give great importance to sentimentality. The absence of some of these visual codes allows to question other widow figures for the young widow rarely remains inconsolable, as La Fontaine’s fable reminds us [5]. Under Choderlos de Laclos’ pen, the Marquise de Merteuil became even a manipulative libertine, taking full advantage of the financial autonomy and independence of mind that the widowhood offered her.

This brief panorama would be incomplete without mentioning the widow in religious paintings such as The Raising of the Son of the Widow of Naim, The Raising of Lazarus, or Agrippina Landing at Brindisi with the Ashes of Germanicus. The image of the widow is also endowed with a strong allegorical power that makes her one of the first figures in war memorials, such as the Monument for the Heart of Victor Thérèse Charpentier, Count of Ennery(1777–81).

This study day aims to question the identity of these widows—famous or unknown—in order to better understand their intellectual, political, and social influence, by finding out whether their widowhood proved to be an asset or a weakness. How did the image of the widowed woman develop during the 17th and 18th centuries? And how did it deal with the particular 18th-century rising value shaped by Rousseau’s representation of a woman as a mother dedicated to both her home and the education of her children?

This study day proposes several topics in order to better define and understand the image of the widow in the arts, not only in France but also in Europe:

  • The image of the widow through her various portraits, emphasizing her political, economic, intellectual, and moral power. Were such portraits reserved only for influential women or for those who had famous husbands? Or, could they also depict women belonging to different social classes?
  • The representation of the widow in history and genre painting: is she the main figure in these paintings or secondary one? In these paintings, which psychological characteristics are most often solicited? Do these descriptions reflect a widow’s specific identity?
  • The destination of the image of the widow in the arts of the Ancien Régime. Are these representations kept within family confines or are they disseminated in a wider environment? If so, which are the reasons behind?
  • Beyond the specific matter of representation, particular attention will be paid to widows who are also artists as well as artists’ widows. What is their place in society? What role do they play in the preservation of their husband’s artistic heritage?
  • Finally, considering also the material culture, do external signs of mourning worn by widows—clothes and accessories—act as a testimony of constant imposed codes or, conversely, bear witness of an evolution, not only in fashion, but also in the way in which widows are represented?

We welcome proposals in French or English, of about 500 words, for papers addressing either broader analyses or specific case studies. Candidates are invited to attach a curriculum vitae. Submission and contact:

This study day is organized by GRHAM with the support of the Doctoral School of Art History of the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne (ED 441) and the HiCSA (EA 4100).

[1] Antoine FURETIÈRE, Dictionnaire universel contenant généralement tous les mots françois tant vieux que modernes, & les Termes des Sciences & des Arts (La Haye, Rotterdam, Arnoud & Reinier Leers, 1701), III, See «Veuf, Veuve».
[2] Dictionnaire universel François et latin, vulgairement appelé Dictionnaire de Trévoux (Paris, Delaune, 1743), VI, See «Veuf, Veuve».
[3] FURETIÈRE, Dictionnaire, op. cit., See ‘Soustraire’.
[4] Françoise FORTUNET, «Veuves de guerre à l’époque révolutionnaire», PELLEGRIN, Nicole, WINN, Colette H. (dir.), Veufs, veuves et veuvage dans la France d’Ancien Régime (Paris, Champion, 2004), 138–39: ‘It has long been noted that widowhood was the most favorable status that a woman could have had in our old society, for it gave her a freedom ignored by daughters and wives. In theory it was known, but living examples are stronger proof’ (translated from French).
[5] Jean de LA FONTAINE, Fables choisies mises en vers (Lyon, Sarrazin, 1696, 1668), 140, CXXIV: «La perte d’un époux ne va point sans soupirs//On fait beaucoup de bruit, et puis on se console».

Call for Paper by GRHAM (Research Group in Modern art History) / Appel diffusé par les membres du bureau du GRHAM (Groupe de Recherche en Histoire de l’Art Moderne): Florence Fesneau (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) ; Barbara Jouves-Hann (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne/ENS Paris-Saclay) ; Maxime Georges Métraux (Université Paris-Sorbonne) ; Alice Ottazzi (Université Franche-Comté) ; Marine Roberton (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) ; Maël Tauziède-Espariat (Université de Bourgogne) ; Marianne Volle (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne et York University).


Citer ce billet
Florence Larcher (2021, 20 février). Appel à contribution : « Figures of Widows », Paris, INHA, 15 juin 2021, date limite le 15 mars 2021. Collectif d'Historiens de l'Art de la Renaissance. Consulté le 20 juin 2024, à l’adresse

Florence Larcher

Florence Larcher est doctorante à l'Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Ses recherches sur les images de saint Roch en Italie de 1350 à 1680 l'amènent à étudier la peinture murale, la sérialité et l'itinérance des peintres.

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