You – an exhibition by Agnès Thurnauer.

For Manet, these women were not only models but colleagues and working women.

Agnès Thurnauer

Jesus College has replaced three male portraits with the work of French artist Agnès Thurnauer, portraying defiant images of women as part of a ground-breaking exhibition.

The portraits, which appropriate Manet’s striking images of female characters, will hang in the College’s dining hall where its formal dinners are held. For seven weeks they will replace notable past Jesuans Matthew Hutton, Denys Page and Eustace Tillyard.

Dr Rod Mengham, curator of the College’s Works of Arts Committee, said: “Placing the three female portraits in Hall is making quite a big statement about female self-definition in an institution which encourages women to realise their true potential but which - like other colleges - surrounds them with images of male pre-eminence. It's time our representations of ourselves and what we do were put in perspective.

“One really interesting thing about Agnès’ work is the way it magnifies a crucial characteristic of those paintings by Manet it is referencing. Manet's representations of women refuse to make them the objects of a male gaze caught in the act of consumption or control. These women stare back at the viewer in a way that is difficult to read - they hold their ground and refuse to comply with what is expected of them. Agnès puts this self-possession and readiness for self-definition right at the centre of her practice as a painter.

“Although it was random which paintings we would remove from the Hall it was almost inevitable it would be three portraits of men, as there is usually only one female portrait in here, a tiny one of Mary Queen of Scots.”

The exhibition will be the first time any of Thurnauer’s work has been shown in the UK.

Jesus College has a long history, steeped in links with strong women. Founded 1496-1516, it was created on the site of the 12th century Benedictine nunnery of St Mary and St Radegund. Its ruinous buildings, which included a huge church, were adapted to house the College.

Despite its foundation’s connection to the nuns and their female saints the College did not admit female students to its ranks until 1979 and many of its portraits, especially in the Hall, are of male figures.

Mengham added: “The College has a tradition of pushing for gender equality but Jesus, like many educational institutions across the world, cannot avoid its history, some of which has reflected a less than gender-equal society. Art can help us examine our assumptions and confront aspects of our culture we might not otherwise be comfortable with.”

The works by Thurnauer, a distinguished artist whose paintings and sculptures have been shown at several venues in Paris including the Pompidou Centre, are being displayed around the College with the three head-and-shoulder portraits, done in crayon, being displayed on the South Wall of the College’s Hall.

The Tryptic, called You, reflects three sides to the women - emotion, seductiveness and intellectualism. Thurnauer hopes the images will connect with viewers personally.

“When you stop in front of the painting it is for you only,” she explained. “When you see their faces appearing so large in the Hall it is striking, especially next to the male portraits. This space is a wonderful location. I don’t know how people will react to all three of them hanging here, but I think it will be astonishing,” said Thurnauer.

“I was working on the idea that, for Manet, these women were not only models but colleagues and working women. Victorine Meurent, who is featured in two of the three, was a model but also an artist - Manet was a pioneer working closely with his models. He was not using them, but having a conversation with them. They were working women and I think that is important.”

“Manet changed art history. You used to have the models ‘looking around’ or at something in the painting, but not directly at you. I think he insisted that the painting and model are not just here for you to consider, but for you to engage with and for them to engage with you. Now that I see them in place here myself, I can see how strong these women’s appearance is – you can feel their gaze.”

The Hall, built in 1703, contains several portraits of important College figures, and is where formal dinners are held for students and fellows.

The College has shown a support for the visual arts in recent years and its collection includes works by Antony Gormley, Eduardo Paolozzi and Barry Flanagan.

The exhibition, arranged by the College’s Works of Arts Committee, will run to March 8.

It will include other works by Thurnauer exhibited around the College:

  • In Upper Hall, there will be a full length portrait Virginia, based on another female figure by Manet.
  • Over the stairs up to Hall, there will be a Grande Predelle depicting a row of three avian wings.
  • In the Parlour (not available to the public), there will the small painting Passenger.
  • In the Chapter House (not available to the public), there will be two paintings Autoportraits.

Not all aspects of the exhibition will be open to the public. For details and opening times call the College on 01223 339339.

Further information

Agnès Thurnauer is a critically acclaimed artist whose work is represented in a wide range of European collections. Her paintings and sculptures have been shown at several venues in Paris, including the Pompidou Centre, the Musee Nationale de l’Art Moderne and the Palais de Tokyo, as well as in numerous galleries in France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Brazil and Russia.

Matthew Hutton studied at Jesus College before becoming Archibishop of York and then the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Denys Page was a classicist at Cambridge and was Master of Jesus College from 1959–73.

Eustace Tillyard was a British classical and literary scholar. He was a Fellow in English at Jesus College and later became its Master (1945–1959).

The three women pictured in You are from Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, The Railway and the portrait of Victorine Louise Meurent.

The exhibition opened this week and runs until March 8.

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