“How can one define women?” This question was posed in an entry on “Woman” in the Encyclopédie, the most influential publication of the eighteenth-century philosophical movement, the Enlightenment. The impulse behind the question was typical of the Enlightenment’s revolutionary project to understand humanity and the world, based on reason and science. However, the question itself was a variation on the so-called “Woman Question” —an ongoing debate about women’s nature and their proper roles in society. A topic of acute interest in the Age of Reason (as it continues to be in our time), many Enlightenment authors assigned women to limited and secondary roles based on scientific beliefs of the day about female biology and what nature intended. Others insisted that the subordination of women had its basis only in social convention and not in any natural differences between men and women. According to this view, women (at least those of a certain class or race) could aspire to be something more than obedient daughters, beautiful wives, and virtuous mothers. 

Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment shows how visual artists explored all sides of this debate. Organized into nine thematic sections, the exhibition addresses fundamental questions about women’s lives in the eighteenth century.

The exhibition’s title evokes the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement in her 1949 book, The Second Sex, that “one is not born, but becomes a woman.” Following de Beauvoir, we understand ‘woman,’ like gender more generally, to be a culturally determined rather than a natural category. Whether in 1949, today, or three centuries ago, women have always been defined through cultural, social, and political norms.

France in this period produced some of the most deliciously elegant and sophisticated art ever made. Becoming a Woman presents superb examples of this art by leading artists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as by others less known, including a number of women artists. The works were selected from the Horvitz Collection, one of the most comprehensive private collections of its kind. We are deeply indebted to Jeffrey and Carol Horvitz for opening their remarkable collection to us, and for their enlightened generosity in making this exhibition possible.


Image: Claude Gillot. France, 1673–1722. Four Actresses. Pen with black ink, brush with red chalk wash, and gray-blue watercolor on cream antique laid paper, laid down on a tan card.