In 1791 artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist set out to defy expectations, to prove to all of Paris that a woman could indeed “compose history paintings.” Exhibiting Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell at that year’s Salon, the official exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, she became the first woman to show a history painting—that is, a scene from literature, mythology, history, or the Bible—in the great exhibition, marking the recognition of artists among their peers. La Béquille de Voltaire au Salon*, 1791 states: “I thought that women were hardly capable of composing history paintings, above all to this degree of perfection”.
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco has acquired Benoist’s groundbreaking work, a rare painting still in existence from her early Neoclassical period—one of just three paintings by the artist held in US public collections today. Hidden away for centuries in a private collection, this painting is now exhibited in public for the first time since the Salon of 1791 at the Legion of Honor.
“We are delighted to have acquired this outstanding and historically significant work by the path-breaking female artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist for our collection of European paintings,” states Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “We extend our gratitude to the group of patrons who stepped forward to enable this acquisition, which will substantially enrich the story that we tell about the Neoclassical movement and the Revolutionary period in our galleries, where it will join paintings by Benoist’s mentors Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun and Jacques-Louis David.”
Providing a fresh perspective on a time-honored tale, Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell offers a glimpse of the utopian possibilities that the French Revolution promised—but would not quite deliver—for women artists. While the romance of Cupid and Psyche offered Benoist’s male contemporaries a pretext to paint graceful, ephebic nudes, she herself selected an earlier and more unusual chapter from the same story: a wrenching family drama in which the princess Psyche, dressed in white, embraces her mother before her parents abandon her on a desolate rock. According to prophecy, the princess is doomed to marry a creature of immeasurable destructive power, and so, to save her father’s kingdom, she must be sacrificed to the monster. Drawn from the second-century Roman writer Apuleius, by way of the eighteenth-century French poet Charles Demoustier, the episode illustrates personal and familial sacrifice for the public good: an apposite theme in the Revolutionary era.
“Having remained with the descendants of its first owner for over 200 years, the painting is magnificently preserved, allowing us to appreciate Benoist’s exquisite attention to detail. Note the tears that glisten on the queen’s cheek, the gleaming tendrils of Psyche’s hair, the flutter and weight of her draperies, the glow of pearls against flesh,” adds Emily Beeny, Curator in Charge of European Paintings.
According to the Royal Academy, whose members had been the only artists permitted to exhibit at the Salon since its founding over a century before, women might aspire to join the Academy and exhibit at the Salon solely as painters of still life or portraits—genres regarded as essentially imitative and therefore intellectually inferior. But history painting was considered the preserve of men: a genre intended to commemorate heroic deeds and showcase the artist’s powers of invention. In 1791, the Revolution flung open the doors of the Salon to artists unaffiliated with the Academy, making it possible for Benoist to submit her work.
Born Marie-Guillemine La Ville Leroulx, Benoist received her early training in the studio of Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, a successful portraitist and a rare female member of the Royal Academy. But when Vigée-Le Brun closed her teaching studio, Benoist switched to that of Jacques-Louis David, then emerging as the greatest history painter of the age and the teacher of a whole Neoclassical generation (including Girodet, Gérard, Gros, and Ingres). One of just three female pupils in David’s studio, Benoist quickly adopted her teacher’s tight, hard facture and taste for classical antiquity, as her Psyche demonstrates, with its mythological subject, antique dress, and austere, sculptural frieze of figures.
Benoist would exhibit only a tiny handful of history paintings at the Salon, however. The need to support her family forced the artist to go on to paint almost solely commissioned portraits. An important commission for a full-length portrait of Napoléon Bonaparte was awarded to her in 1803. Other honors included a Gold Medal in the Salon of 1804, and a governmental allowance. In the early 19th century, she opened an atelier for the artistic training of women, but a decade later when her husband ascended to high office in the Restoration government, Benoist was forced to give up her artistic career entirely.
Only a handful of Benoist’s works are known today, most of them portraits. The most important of these is the Portrait of Madeleine, 1800, acquired by the Musée du Louvre in 1818. Other examples of her work in the United States are the Portrait of Madame Philippe Panon Desbassayns de Richemont and Her Son Eugène 1802, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Portrait of a Lady, at the San Diego Museum of Art. Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell is the only history painting by Benoist in a US public collection.