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Mayer, Constance (c. 1778–1821)

French painter of the First Republic era . Name variations: Marie Françoise Constance Mayer; Marie-F-Constance Mayer Lamartiniere. Born in 1775 or 1778, in Paris, France; committed suicide on May 27, 1821; daughter of a customs official; studied art privately in Paris.

Selected works:

Portrait of a Father and Daughter (1801); The Sleep of Psyche (1806); The Torch of Venus (1808); The Dream of Happiness (1819); Portrait of Mlle. Tretzel (exhibited in 1822); Young Girl with a Cat (exhibited in 1822).

Born in Paris in the late 1770s, Constance Mayer lived and painted during a heady time in European history, executing the domestic scenes, allegories, and portraits that were popular in the years following the French Revolution and during the reign of Napoleon I. As the daughter of a customs officer, she probably witnessed much of the violence and social upheaval that came with the French Revolution of 1789 and the ensuing Reign of Terror. Her first painting teacher, J.B. Suvee, was imprisoned during the latter episode. She then studied art alongside her best friend, Jeanne Philiberte Ledoux , at the studio of Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and began to achieve a small measure of recognition for her work. Mayer exhibited in the Salons beginning in 1796, and was then invited by the painter Pierre-Paul Prud'hon to work in his atelier. (Prud'hon would later work as a drawing instructor to Napoleon's empresses, Josephine and Marie Louise of Austria ). From 1802 onward, Mayer both assisted Prud'hon and executed her own paintings; her hand is evident in several of works signed by Prud'hon, including Innocence Seduced by Love and The Dying Laborer.

Mayer was evidently close to her father, a tie that is apparent in her Portrait of a Father and Daughter (exhibited in the Salon of 1801), in which he is showing her a bust of Raphael. Although her paintings belonged to the traditional genre that was expected in the Salons during this era, Mayer exhibited a distinctive talent for conveying animated personalities and lively scenes on her canvases. In some cases, her works depict idyllic families, most often mothers and children. Empress Josephine commissioned her to paint The Sleep of Psyche, exhibited at the 1806 Salon under the title The Sleeping Venus with Cupid Caressed and Wakened by Zephyrs, but the painting's reception was representative of one of the obstacles faced by women artists: it was first shown and sold under her name; then, under Prud'hon's name, it was sold again for a higher price.

In 1810, Mayer's father died, and she accepted Prud'hon's invitation to live next to him in a designated artists' quarter near the Sorbonne. Although he was married, they worked closely and ate meals together, and are described by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin as "shar[ing] a strong emotional and professional dependency." Constance Mayer continued to paint and exhibit, at times weathering criticism that her work too closely resembled that of her mentor. Around 1818, she began to be plagued by bouts of melancholy and anxiety. Three years later, upon her return from a holiday with Prud'hon, they learned that they both were being evicted; Mayer may have had nowhere else to live. Prud'hon—who had five children whom Mayer sometimes cared for, a brood that was said to treat her derisively—had repeatedly stated his intentions to remain single if his wife were to die. Constance Mayer was found dead on May 27, 1821, having slashed her throat with his razor.

sources:

Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Heller, Nancy G. Women Artists: An Illustrated History. NY: Abbeville Press, 1987.

collections:

Mayer's paintings are held in private collections and in the collections of the Louvre in Paris, the Wallace Collection in London, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the museums of Dijon and Nancy, France, among others.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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Mayer, Constance (c. 1778–1821)

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