Self-portrait of a woman in a straw hat, holding a palette and paintbrushes. i Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portait in a Straw Hat, after 1782, detail, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Women Artists in France, 1770-1914


Dr Lois Oliver

10 pre-recorded lectures with 5 live Zoom seminars over 5 weeks from Wednesday 1 November to Wednesday 29 November 2023, with an optional visit on Saturday 18 November 2023
£395 or £445 with visit

Please note that this course is at now capacity for discussions on Wednesdays. A second group can happen for those willing and able to do 3 Wednesday discussions and two Thursdays (16, 23 Nov).

Course description

Women artists in France created astonishingly rich oeuvres, despite considerable professional obstacles. Excluded from the official École des Beaux-Arts until 1897, they also faced prejudice from art critics and dealers who regarded genius as a male attribute.

This course offers the opportunity to explore the achievements of a range of extraordinary individuals. They include the rival portraitists Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, whose glittering careers at the royal court were interrupted by the 1789 Revolution but who subsequently reinvented themselves; animal painter Rosa Bonheur, famed across Europe and America, who became the first woman to be awarded the Légion d’honneur; Impressionist innovators Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt; and an artist who defied all convention, the model-turned-artist Suzanne Valadon.

While the geographical focus is France, the cast of artists is international. We shall explore the achievements of Americans in Paris, attracted by tuition at the Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi, and the numerous Nordic visitors who not only studied in the capital but also visited artist colonies on the coast, establishing links with similar communities in Scandinavia.

The course combines in-depth lectures on individual artists and groups of artists with thematic sessions on topics such as artistic training; exhibition opportunities; the (often gendered) language of art criticism; artists as models; and self-representation.

Lecturer's biography

Dr Lois Oliver studied English Literature at Cambridge University, and History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, completing an MA in Venetian Renaissance Art and writing her doctoral thesis on The Image of the Artist, Paris 1815-1855. She worked at the Harvard Art Museums before joining the curatorial team at the V&A and then the National Gallery, where she co-curated the major exhibition Rebels and Martyrs: the Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century (2006) and a series of touring exhibitions. As Curator at the Royal Academy she recently curated Explorations in Paint (2021) Jock McFadyen: Tourist without a Guidebook (2022), and a complete rehang of the John Madejski Fine Rooms (2023). Currently Professor in History of Art at the University of Notre Dame in London, and a Visiting Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute, Lois curated this year’s critically acclaimed exhibition Berthe Morisot: Shaping Impressionism for Dulwich Picture Gallery, in collaboration with the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. She has written audio and multimedia tours for clients including the National Gallery, Royal Academy, Royal Collection, and Tate, and has appeared on BBC Radio and TV.