Caricatures of Marriage in 19th Century France: Impact of Social Upheaval on Gender Roles

At the Women’s Studies Conference on Marriage and Family, Patricia Mainardi, professor of art history and Women’s Studies at The Graduate Center of City University of New York, presented on caricatures of marriage in 18th and 19th century French art and how they enhance understanding of the cultural climate of France during a rapidly shifting historical period.

PROVO, Utah (Nov. 6, 2014)—What can 18th and 19th century French caricatures teach us about the importance of loving marriages? At the Women’s Studies Conference on Marriage and Family, Patricia Mainardi, art history professor from City University of New York, discussed what comparisons of 18th and 19th century caricatures of marriage really reveal about French history.

“We often assume that things that are continuous in art and literature have no specific historical significance, but I disagree,” said Mainardi. “I believe that we must assume that the continuation of a theme represents the continuation of the concerns that theme represents, just as the invention or disappearance of a theme represents a shift to new issues, or less interest in older ones.”

Mainardi argued that caricatures of marriage in late 18th and early 19th century France revealed the changing societal concerns of the period. As political caricatures began to flourish in France with the onset of the 1789 French Revolution, Mainardi observed that caricatures of love and marriage became equally important in the wake of significant societal upheaval.

Mainardi illustrated how these caricatures reflected the changing social environment under Napolean’s Civil Code of 1804, a code of laws that replaced laws from the Old Regime of France.

“In 18th century culture, the preferred gender theme was illicit sexual liaison,” said Mainardi. “At that time, to judge by the quantities of such imagery, safeguarding a daughter’s virtue seems to be much more important than safeguarding a wife’s virtue.”

She continued, “The stern, some would say hypocritical, public morality that followed the 1789 revolution resulted from the widespread belief that the revolution had been caused by the immorality of the aristocracy.”

Mainardi explained that the strict sense of public morality at the end of the 18th century ushered in a new theme in caricature that she described as “spying and catching.”

“The earlier idealistic concern for a moral society has been replaced by a material concern for inheritance, a concern exacerbated by the Civil Code which ended primogeniture, the traditional practice of willing one’s entire estate to the first-born son,” said Mainardi. This meant all children of the wife would now inherit equally, so a wife’s infidelity would have economic consequences on the husband’s estate. “Perhaps that is one reason why 19th century husbands are awake, aware, angry and primed for revenge.”

Mainardi contrasted 19th century depictions of vengeful, spying husbands with 18th century ideals of devoted fathers that had been promoted by Enlightenment philosophers. Enlightenment philosophers argued that fathers should be affectionate toward their children and raise them alongside their wives. Yet by the 19th century, the image of fatherhood had almost disappeared.

IMG_0448“In less than a century, fatherhood had gone from an absurd concept, to a cherished ideal, and then returned to ridicule,” Mainardi said. “Fatherhood was now invoked only to define by default the new social discourse of a woman’s role. Paternal love, so eulogized by Enlightenment philosophers, had in fact virtually disappeared from public discourse and most likely from public view as well.”

Mainardi explained that by the 19th century, gender roles had become so rigidly defined that images of intellectual mothers were widely condemned, and images of nurturing fathers were mocked.

Despite negative caricatures of parenthood and marriage, Mainardi also identified a positive visual theme arising in 19th century caricature. Because 18th century philosophers and revolutionaries observed that the prevalence of adultery resulted directly from arranged marriages, they argued that if men and women were allowed to choose their marriage partner, infidelity and adulterous births would no longer be an issue.

Mainardi concluded, “There are dozens of this theme, non-existent in Old Regime France, but widespread in the early decades of the 19th century. They all propose clearly that love and marriage are compatible after all, and perhaps that is the great discovery of the modern period.”

For more information about Patricia Mainardi, visit her university webpage.

Sylvia Cutler (BA English ’17)