Corbaux, Marie-Francoise “Fanny” (1812-1883)

Corbaux, Marie-Francoise “Fanny” (1812-1883)

Fanny Corbaux was the foremost of her painterly sisters in watercolours in 19th-century Britain. In fact, she was also a great rival to the male artists of the Royal Academy despite never receiving formal training on account of her being a woman.

For Corbaux, art was as much about necessity as it was about passion. She was only 15 when her father became incapacitated by illness, and she had to carve a career for herself in order to survive. Her enjoyment of watercolour painting was suddenly a tool she could use to make a living. Corbaux tapped into the highly lucrative business of miniature portrait painting and illustration. Through studying the works of her predecessors and contemporaries in the galleries of London, and with her fine talents, Corbaux quickly won praise and custom.

‘Miss Corbaux is one of the first paintresses of the day,’ the press proclaimed. Her works were ‘exceedingly clever,’ art critics would complement, handled with the ‘utmost care.’

Her use of colour was celebrated as being ‘bold.’ Indeed, in her many drawings of graceful, elegant women Corbaux adds just enough tints of colour to add drama and depth. This eradicates any feeling of the work being trifling or overly adorned. Instead, they become sophisticated. She is able to portray the rich crush of velvet, the sleek structure of silk. In her depictions of nature, too, she is considerate and canny. She captures the roughness of bark through sleek strokes of paint, the delicate strength of foliage and fauna. Her composition was praised for being ‘skilfully arranged,’ her positioning of figures ‘admirably characterized.’

Even her earliest works, often copies of existing pieces, won her acclaim and prizes from the Royal Academy. Indeed, throughout her life Corbaux would often exhibit at the major galleries in London and become a member of several societies. Whilst unable to become a member or study formally at the Royal Academy, she made her presence known. In fact, in the 1850s she was part of a group of female artists who stormed a lecture room of the Royal Academy demanding women be accepted for study. This was an issue which would eventually go to the House of Commons. As a working artist, Corbaux surely understood how important it was women were offered the same opportunities as men.

Before his ill health struck, Corbaux’s father had been a mathematician and scientist. Corbaux must surely have inherited from him an interest in such matters, for, in 1839, she was part of a small group who invented the artistic process of whitewashing. Through a chemical reaction, this made paints more durable and easier to apply. It would be deceptive, as we have seen, to think of Corbaux’s works simply as pretty pictures of pretty women, and in the same vein, art was to her not just a passion, but a path of progress, too.

Corbaux shared her artistic vocation with her sister, Louisa. The two lived together in London, working out of their home. Louisa focussed on lithographic prints, and whilst not as highly praised as her sister, was certainly just as respected in her craft.

Corbaux was also passionately religious and away from her artistic accomplishments she also saw success as a biblical commentator. Such a passion can be seen in her later watercolours depicting women of the bible such as Ruth and Rachel. Indeed, this spiritual affinity secured her an annual pension which allowed her to live comfortably in her later years. But in terms of a legacy, it is her work as an artist which defines Corbaux.

Her works embody the height of Victorian watercolour in portraits and illustrations, and her efforts to improve the condition of the materials used are characteristic of one who had to strive to survive. Corbaux was not just an artist, but an innovator, too.


Born in Paris.


Awarded a silver medal by the Society of Arts.


Awarded a gold medal by the Society of Arts. Elected an honorary member of the Society of British Artists.


Became a member of the New Society of Water Colour Painters.


Works displayed at the Paris Universal Exhibition.


Awarded annual civil-list pension of £50. 


Died in Brighton.

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