Woman Showing Her Portrait


Louis Léopold Boilly ( French, 1761 - 1845 )

About 1790
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General Description

In Louis Léopold Boilly’s “Woman Showing Her Portrait,” a woman displays a portrait of herself to an assembled company. She is twice represented as the object of their gaze and of ours: she appears as an actor in the scene and as her likeness in an oval painted portrait. The collective appreciation of the woman-as-art is enacted by a gentleman who peers at her up close with a pince-nez or a magnifying glass. For him the portrait is a pretext for connoisseurship of the real living beauty, the woman. In this way the painting seems to conform straightforwardly enough to a conventional representation of woman as the object of the (male) gaze. Yet Boilly’s scene is unusual because it puts a woman in charge of her own image: she holds her portrait and points to it, staging its presentation to her intimate circle. The fact that she physically handles the portrait is significant, since women were rarely shown holding artworks of any size, beyond a palm-size miniature. Boilly, an accomplished portraitist, often accorded portraits a narrative role in his scenes: delivered, returned, admired, hidden, and crushed, they suffer virtually the travails of his characters. As demonstrated by “Woman Showing Her Portrait,” Boilly’s paintings opened up the categories of portraiture and genre painting by mixing their themes and motifs, and crossing the boundaries and viewing protocols of each. Adapted from Susan L. Siegfried, “Louis-Léopold Boilly: Between Genre and Portraiture," in “French Art of the Eighteenth Century: The Michael L. Rosenberg Lecture Series at the Dallas Museum of Art,” ed. Heather MacDonald (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art and the Michael L. Rosenberg Foundation, 2016), 157–70.