In 1791, Marie-Guillemine Benoist became the first woman to show a history painting at the prestigious Paris Salon with Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell, a masterwork of the genre that was squirreled away for centuries after its creation—until now.
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco has announced the acquisition of the Benoist work, making it just one of three paintings by the artist currently held in U.S. collections. It will be exhibited for the first time since the 1791 exhibition starting tomorrow.
“Having remained with the descendants of its first owner for over 200 years, the painting is magnificently preserved, allowing us to appreciate Benoist’s exquisite attention to detail,” Emily Beeny, the curator of European paintings, said in statement. “Note the tears that glisten on the queen’s cheek, the gleaming tendrils of Psyche’s hair, the flutter and weight of her draperies, the glow of pearls against flesh.”
Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell was acquired with the help of museum donors for an unknown sum, though it last sold at auction in France for €292,000 ($328,500) in 2020. It will be displayed in San Francisco beside works by Benoist’s teachers, the painters Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, one of the few female members of the Royal Academy, and Jacques-Louis David.
A rare work from Benoist’s early Neoclassical period, the painting depicts the mournful parting of the Greek mythological princess Psyche as she prepares to be sacrificed to a terrible beast to save her father’s kingdom. Dressed in a sinuous white gown, she’s caught breaking an embrace with her mother before the bereaved group. On the horizon, golden light slips through the clouded sky.
The year 1791 marked the first time the biannual salon in Paris was open to non-members. The 23-year-old Benoist made a splash with Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell, one of three history of her paintings accepted to the exhibition.
Created at the dawn of the French Revolution, the painting captured the possibility such upheaval promised for French female artists, who were undervalued by the male-dominated arts administration. Tragically, the promise would go unfulfilled for Benoist. Despite her popularity, Benoist’s career was cut short by 1793 when her husband fell out of favor with the ruling Jacobins, and the couple fled Paris at risk of arrest. By the time they were allowed to reenter European society, Benoist, now the sole bread winner, was forced to put her radical history paintings aside in favor of portraits with mass appeal.
Her husband’s standing was eventually restored to the detriment of her ambitions. He was reinstated to a high-ranking position in the government following the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, and Benoist was told painting is not fitting a woman of her station.