This was the original exhibition essay printed in the trifold handout at Ailene deVries
2019 exhibition at the Ryerson Artspace in Toronto, ON. This essay was updated in
2021 after the Portrait de Madeleine was renamed.
One might stumble upon Ailene deVries’ collection of pressed flora flipping through the pages of a forgotten art tome pulled from her shelf or between pages of an old daily planner. An assemblage of perennial flowers and plants plucked from lawns and gardens, and cut flowers gifted to her by others, are kept not only because of their beauty but to preserve a memory. A decade into deVries’ process of collecting and pressing, she used The Louvre (2000), a book of the museum’s masterpieces from all of its seven departments compiled by Alexandra Bonsante-Warren, to preserve a bouquet of peonies given to her by a loved one. Unbeknownst to deVries, the peonies—trapped snuggly within this book—moulded and bound themselves to three portraits of women. Six months later, she opened the book to find that the flowers had covered Elisabeth of Austria painted by Francois Clouet and Eve/Pandora painted by Jean Cousin le Vieux, and clothed Madeleine’s portrait painted by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. This phenomenon forms the basis of deVries’ Perennials (2018). After recognizing the importance of her inadvertent interventions with canonical paintings from art history, she created new works by intentionally repeating the process. Through a series of small serendipities, deVries’ Perennials II (2019), a continuation of her undergraduate thesis, subverts classical interpretations of art history and reflects on the lasting effects of the traditional male gaze.
The artworks that inform Perennials II (2019) were all painted between the 14th and 19th centuries; the paintings span the Renaissance and Baroque periods, Neoclassicism, and the very early stages of Romanticism. During these centuries, the pictorial subject matter is influenced by a heightened emphasis on Catholicism, passions and emotions, the wealthy, and those privileged enough to benefit from an arts education. The book The Louvre compiles the most important and recognized works from the Museum’s collection. It is these types of books, and associated institutions, that create and contribute to the canon.
The Triumph of Venus Venerated by Six Legendary Lovers, Saint Martin Dividing and The Fall of the Rebel Angels (two sides), and Eva Prima Pandora by Jean Cousin le Vieux are indicative of Catholic revival. A re-establishment that gave motherhood an exalted status and largely developed the trope of the woman as “temptress,” through the role of Eve and other biblical stories. The paintings, though depicting different individuals and stories, reinforce a hierarchical system wherein men are the ultimate saviour, and women are the fertile and the beautiful. A clear distinction between the role of women and men is an underlying mindset in all three of these works.
Elisabeth of Austria, Queen of France by Francois Clouet, Lady Alston by Thomas Gainsborough, Magdalene with the Smoking Flame by Georges de La Tour, and The Countess del Carpio by Francisco de Goya are paintings that largely reflect the wealthy and the privileged. During this period, portraits were commissioned by wealthy patrons and these four paintings are not exempt. However, the identity of each of the female subjects within these works are removed as the need to define them by a location or by a husband supersedes the use of their name. Such anonymity is another consequence of cultural conditions that limit the awareness and acceptance of women artists; as a result, the museum’s collection and the circulation of works are not exempt from this exclusionary practice.
Similar conclusions can be drawn from the Portrait de Madeleine by Marie-Guillemine Benoist, although the circumstances surrounding its creation prove that this painting is different from the others. Painted during a time of black slavery and of very few white women painters, this portrait stands out in The Louvre as the only one of its kind. Madeleine, who was likely enslaved by Benoist’s brother, is pictured in an upper-class domestic space, as indicated by the chair she is sitting on and the cloth draped over her. Benoist painted this portrait in 1800, four years after the emancipation decree of 1794 and two years before the reinstatement of colonial slavery by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1802. It has therefore been suggested that the portrait was executed as a tribute to slave liberation, during the rise of a short-lived feminist movement in France. Madeleine’s pose further supports this analysis. Instead of being depicted as a servant, Madeleine is posed in popular form, similar to a commissioned portrait; a pose often attributed to a white woman subject. It is likely, however, that this particular image was not commissioned but was painted on the artist’s own initiative; as a result, it is not exempt from the privileged position of the white perspective in the historical art canon. In addition, it is plausible that Benoist turned the Portrait de Madeleine into an allegory of her own subservience to the patriarchy, after the appearance of the Code Napoléon in 1804. Considering historical circumstance and perceived intention, this painting largely emphasises the experience of the wealthy and privileged commonly associated with the traditional art canon.
For deVries’ creations, the stylized representation of women is muted as the flowers bound atop the images seemingly elevate their marginalised voices and experiences. Through the use of the traditional symbol of the flower—often used by and about women, deVries emphasizes the egregious impact of the traditional art canon; impaling it upon its own sword. The interventions guide the viewer to the fallacy of intention: in each image, one comes to realise that the author’s intention did not prevent the suppression and obliteration of the marginalised voice. Instead, the anonymous voice assigned to the subjects within the series escalates one’s understanding of the author’s intention to fetishise. Ailene deVries uses the floral photographs in Perennials II (2019) to extract moments from art history and to recognise the space women occupied and owned. The viewer is encouraged to delve deeper into artworks created under an anonymous persona and the crafts created by women, as many abandoned their artistic aspirations to fulfill a domestic responsibility, whether it was enforced or voluntary.
Perennials II (2019) is a representation of the endless search for the marginalised voices in art history and the necessity to find and share their overlooked experience. The flowers, bound to each painting by mould and decay, impress upon the viewer the strife of women for inclusion; the quiet fight wherein women’s role within the arts gradually changed from subject, to craftsperson, to collector, and then to an artist. As seen within the progression of this series, deVries started crafting as an infant, collecting at the age of 11, and creating artworks more than a decade later. Extending further through the contextual narrative beneath certain photographs, the viewer is reminded of the tired rhetoric of critiquing, contextualising, and ultimately thinking about art. The series culminates in the five independent floral impressions, so clearly presented to the viewer on an empty background. The stained and moulding impressions represent women’s work that went unnoticed and unseen—the pressed flowers echo their every endeavor: a mere shadow of something long forgotten. The imprints answer the pressed paintings, encouraging the viewer to thoughtfully consider the impact women might have had in the process of creating when they are depicted as the subject in the painting and otherwise. Going even further, the five abstract images reference the women who were fortunate enough to make paintings in the 17th-19th centuries, having often painted flowers, their works were not seen as serious or important additions to the annals of art history. Perennials II (2019) serves as a reminder to question the soil wherein history’s exclusive ideologies take root, as nothing new or different will grow amongst all the weeds; and despite this, to honour the few women who—at the very outskirts of the art world—were able to create something beautiful from nothing. This is the reality with which deVries contends.