“La femme modèle” from the first communicant to the affectionate mother: a dialogue between painting and moral discourse under the early Third Republic (1870-1900)
This PhD dissertation seeks to define the configuration and evolution of French women’s moral identity and social status, through works of art created during the first thirty years of the Third Republic (1870-1900). More specifically, my thesis investigates the artistic perception and visual recording of “traditional” female roles and analyses the socio-historical factors which contributed to the construction of the ideal woman. I focus on the representation of young girls’ education and First Communion and study the portrayal of maternity which was perceived both as a personal role and a republican ideal. Furthermore, I consider the institutions of marriage and family through portraits and scenes of everyday life. The woman’s relations to the Catholic Church within a secular state, as well as the notions of chastity and patriotism, are thoroughly explored. In my dissertation I prioritised nineteenth century texts, where French doctors, demographers and statesmen from different ideological backgrounds give moral guidelines concerning hygiene, breastfeeding and childcare, or analyse phenomena such as the birth rate decline. The writings of these authors who communicated major social anxieties served as an evaluative platform; more specifically, I ventured to see how French painters and illustrators participated to the most important debates of their time. Therefore, the criterion for the choice of images was not artistic excellence, but their engagement with the moral and social issues I decided to consider. Since in my thesis pictures are treated within a socio-historical context, I was challenged to achieve a balance between the visual and theoretical material, making them inter-relate effectively. Finally, my time-frame covers the three first decades of the French Third Republic and observes the succession of different governments. I investigate to what extent certain social attitudes which were developed during this period of thirty years shifted, and try to find out whether these alterations are conveyed in painting.