Sign of the times: 5 women artists who challenged traditions

A collection of works that show how women artists used their signatures to express their creativity is coming to auction this month

Women-In-Art-Paris-Adélaïde-Labille-Guiard

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Madame Charles Mitoire, née Christine-Geneviève Bron (1760-1842), avec ses enfants, allaitant l’un d’eux, 1783

As Christie’s hosts its first auction dedicated to female artists throughout history, it hopes to bring works that have often been kept in the shadows into the light.

‘In the market in general, women artists are obviously less offered and less valued than male artists,’ says Alice Chevrier, the head of sale for Women in Art , coming to Christie’s Paris on 16 June. ‘If you don’t offer an artist because they are not valued, you will not offer them later. It’s a cycle and, with this auction, we break that cycle.’

One way that female artists fought against forms of oppression was to use their signature in a somewhat political way. By branding their work with their full names or by playing with the form of their signature, artists were able to mark their individuality — and these five women painters did just that.

Louyse Moillon Still life with peaches and grapes

Louyse Moillon (1610–1696), Still life with peaches and grapes, 1636. Oil on canvas. 26 x 39 1/16 in (66 x 99.5 cm). Estimate: €300,000-500,000. Offered in Women in Art on 16 June 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le BrunPortrait d’Alexis-Féréol Perrin de Sanson (1733-1820)

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), Portrait d’Alexis-Féréol Perrin de Sanson (1733–1820), 1772. Pastel on paper. 21⅞ x 18¼ in (55.6 x 46.5 cm). Estimate: €50,000-70,000. Offered in Women in Art on 16 June 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

Marie Antoinette’s favourite painter, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was accepted into the Académie royale de Peinture et Sculpture in 1783, at a time when it accepted a maximum of only four women.

‘Vigée Le Brun’s life is really the life of a free woman, of an independent woman,’ says Chevrier, and the painter used her signature to express this. As a young woman she would sign her name as ‘Mademoiselle Vigée’ to separate herself from her family name.

After her marriage to the successful art dealer, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, she would continue to use her maiden name alongside her married name in order to retain her individuality.

Adélaïde Labille-GuiardMadame Charles Mitoire, née Christine-Geneviève Bron (1760-1842), avec ses enfants, allaitant l’un d’eux

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803), Madame Charles Mitoire, née Christine-Geneviève Bron (1760–1842), avec ses enfants, allaitant l’un d’eux, 1783. Pastel on paper laid down on canvas. 36¼ x 25½ in (92 x 72.5 cm). Estimate: €100,000-150,000. Offered in Women in Art on 16 June 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

Labille-Guiard, who also signed both her maiden and married names, joined the Académie royale de Peinture et Sculpture alongside Vigée Le Brun in 1783.

While the 18th century was actually more tolerant towards female artists than the 19th century, they still faced restrictions and challenges. ‘It’s a question of tolerance, I think,’ says Chevrier. ‘They were accepted, but not really.’

The pastel itself was also controversial. While nursing one's own child had gained popularity among upper-class women after the publication of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 1762 bestseller Émile, ou De l’éducation, only a few artworks from that time had actually depicted such a scene, and in a so direct way.

Louise BourgeoisThe cross-eyed woman I

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), The cross-eyed woman I, 2004. Drypoint printed on fabric. 15⅛ x 17¼ in (38.4 x 43.8 cm). Estimate: €6,000-8,000. Offered in Women in Art on 16 June 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

The cross-eyed woman I  is likely a comical self-portrait of Louise Bourgeois herself, whose initials are embroidered towards the bottom right of the fabric.

The use of embroidery for her signature is a carefully selected and meaningful choice on behalf of the artist. By reappropriating an art form that has been labelled as domestic, Bourgeois has subverted the needle and thread into, as art historian Rozsika Parker noted in her book The Subversive Stitch, ‘a weapon of resistance to the painful constraints of femininity.’

Yayoi KusamaPumpkin

Yayoi Kusama (b.1929), Pumpkin, 1980. Watercolour on cardboard. 9.5/7 x 10¾ in (24.3 x 27.3 cm). Estimate: €30,000-50,000. Offered in Women in Art on 16 June 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

The Japanese stamp is usually used in place of a written signature and so for Yayoi Kusama to use both is uncommon.

This unusual signature makes the artist stand out in the world of international art by merging a Japanese tradition with a western autograph. As Chevrier says: ‘It shows her trajectory as an artist starting from Japan and actually growing worldwide.’

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