Women and Art

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WOMEN AND ART. Although women certainly produced art in previous centuries, it is in the sixteenth century that we first find strong biographical information on female artists. In the second edition of his Lives of the Artists (1568), Giorgio Vasari mentions a number of Flemish and Italian female artists, including the Bolognese sculptor Properzia De' Rossi (c. 1490c. 1530), Sister Plautilla (15231588; prioress of the Florentine convent of Santa Caterina da Siena), a Madonna Lucrezia, wife of Count Clemente Pietra, and Sofonisba Anguissola (15271625). Nonetheless, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also witnessed a progressive exclusion of women from membership in guilds and the newly established art academies. The latter elevated painting, sculpture, and architecture above the status of craft by linking them to fields of knowledgemathematics, geometry, human anatomy and study from living models, as well as a deep understanding of classical literary and visual sourceslargely inaccessible to women.


Until the modern period women rarely achieved success in sculpture or architecture, although De' Rossi, who won a reputation for miniature curiosities comprising elaborate scenes carved on peach stones and later received public commissions in stone for the Church of San Petronio in Bologna, is a notable exception. Vasari emphasizes her accomplishment in household management and her physical beauty along with her artistry as a carver. According to Vasari, her relief of The Temptation of Joseph by Potiphar's Wife (c. 15261530), was "esteemed by all to be most beautiful," emphasizing that "the wife of the Pharao's Chamberlain" is seen stripping Joseph's garment from him "with a womanly grace that defies description."

Occasionally, educated aristocratic women achieved great success as courtiers and artists. The career of Sofonisba Anguissola is, in this regard, paradigmatic. She was the daughter of a noble family of Cremona. Her father, Amilcare Anguissola, educated all his seven children in music, painting, and Latin. He also sent Sofonisba, together with her sister Elena, to spend three years (15461549) in the household of the painter Bernardino Campi, and she subsequently studied with another Cremonese painter, Bernadino Gatti. Sofonisba, in turn, trained three of her sistersLucia, Europa, and Anna Mariato paint. Anguissola was celebrated for her informal portraits and self-portraits, singled out by Vasari as "breathing likenesses." An extraordinary painting depicting three of her sisters playing chess while a maid looks on (1555, The Chess Game ) stands out for its striking attention to detail and for its natural rendition of physiognomy and gestural expression. While still in her twenties, Anguissola was invited to join the retinue of Philip II in Madrid, where she resided for over ten years (15591573), working as court painter and lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabel of Valois and subsequently Queen Anne of Austria.

Although some aristocratic women, like Anguissola, received an education that prepared them to pursue a career in the arts, more often than not the women who achieved success as artists benefited from a relative in the trade. Antwerp artist Catharina van Hemessen (1527/28after 1566?), court painter to Mary of Hungary, came to be known for her small panels of religious subjects in the mode of her father, the artist Jan van Hemessen. Levina Teerlinc (c. 15101576) followed the profession of her father, the miniaturist Simon Bining (or Bennick), and was called to the court of Henry VIII. Barbara Longhi (15521638), painter of small-scale devotional images, was trained by her father, Luca, in Ravenna; similarly, Venetian Marietta Robusti (15601590) was a vital member of the workshop of her father, Jacopo Robusti (called Tintoretto, c. 15181594). The Bolognese artists Lavinia Fontana (15521614) and Elisabetta Sirani (16381665) were also taught by their fathers, Prospero and Giovanni Andrea, respectively. Bologna, in fact, appears to have been an environment marked by progressive attitudes toward women in general (its university admitted female students already in the thirteenth century) and by its relative openness to female professional artists: no fewer than twenty-three female painters are recorded as active in Bologna during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sirani even opened a school for female artists in her native Bologna, allowing the possibility for women of non-artistic families to pursue a career in the arts.


These forms of alternative education became more widespread in the following centuries. Yet with the powerful presence of the art academy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the limitations placed on female admissions, it was still very difficult for women to study art and therefore to become professional artists. Women could hardly aspire to produce the highest genre within the academic hierarchy, history painting, since they were barred from the life classes where the nude (and especially the male body) could be studied. This form of study was perceived as a prerequisite for the complex figurative compositions that history painting demanded. One way to circumvent this limitation was by copying from casts, statues, and skeletons, with which most studios were equipped. In a striking self-portrait of 1579, Lavinia Fontana shows herself seated with an air of intellectual seriousness at her desk, surrounded by a small nude figure and casts of body parts. Fontana, who in her lifetime amassed an impressive collection of antiques, gained success as a portraitist but also became known for her many ambitious religious and mythological scenes. Her marriage and eleven children did not hinder her career; she became official painter at the court of Clement VII and was elected to the Roman Academy. Her history paintings include a large-scale altarpiece of the Consecration of the Virgin (1599) and the full-length nude depiction of Minerva Dressing Herself (1613) commissioned by the major Roman art collector Cardinal Scipione Borghese. This image of the goddess-warrior and patron of thearts is the first documented single-figure painting of a female nude by a female artist.

Another female artist who managed to produce a large body of work, including history paintings, was Artemisia Gentileschi (c. 1597after 1651). Trained in the style of Caravaggio by her father, Orazio Gentileschi (c. 1562c. 1647), and by Agostino Tassi, Gentileschi produced a great number of mythological and biblical scenes for patrons in Florence, Rome, Naples, and London. Productsofoneof the most powerful of female artists, Gentileschi's impressive heroines have been linked to her own biography, particularly with regard to the assault she suffered at the hands of her teacher Tassi. Her Judith Decapitating Holofernes (16151620; Pitti Palace, Florence) shows a dramatic nocturnal scene: the Old Testament heroine Judith has secretly entered the enemy camp and, with the help of her maid, cuts the throat of the Assyrian general. Although this iconography was painted by many of Gentileschi's contemporariesincluding Caravaggio, Sirani, and her own fatherno other artist achieved such a convincing rendition of sheer bodily force and psychological tension. We know from surviving letters that Gentileschi privately hired female models. The first extant studies of a male nude by a female artist are, however, a series of exquisite drawings by the Venetian painter Giulia Lama (16811747) and the roughly contemporary life studies by Susanna Maria von Sandrart (16581716), a graphic artist from Nuremberg.

Female artists often turned their attention to the mimetic genres of portraiture and still life painting, where academic training mattered less and which permitted women to work in the privacy of their own homes. In these fields, female artists were often highly innovative. Dutch artists such as Clara Peeters (1594after 1657) and Rachel Ruysch (16641750) specialized in still life painting. Ruysch's marvelous, minutely rendered flower pictures were much sought after and fetched more than double the price of what Rembrandt could ask for his canvases. With her meticulous and painstakingly detailed renditions of insect specimens and plants in watercolor on vellum, the German-born Maria Sibylla Merian (16471717) contributed fundamentally to the fields of entomology and botany. Born in Frankfurt am Main and living much of her adult life in the Netherlands, Merian spent two years with her sister in the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America, where she catalogued indigenous insects, plants, and animals. Other female baroque still life painters include the Italian Giovanna Garzoni (16001670), who became a member of the Academy of Saint Luke in Rome, Josefa de Obidos (16301684) in Portugal, and the Parisian child prodigy Louise Moillon (1615/16after 1674), known for her originative combining of genre and still life scenes.

As a painter of intimate domestic genre scenes, Judith Leyster (16091660) deserves special mention. She presumably studied painting in the workshop of Frans Pietersz de Grebber, a renowned portrait painter in Haarlem, before becoming a member of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke in 1633. The membership in the painters' guild enabled Leyster to establish her own studio, to which she also admitted a number of male students. Her paintings have often been confused with those of her contemporary Frans Hals. Leyster's successful career ended when she married an artist colleague and became a mother.


The belief that women's ability to bear children paralleled their ability to reproduce nature mimetically bears upon the products of women artists throughout early modernity. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, female artists were particularly prized as portraitists. Mary Beale (16331699), England's first documented professional female artist, made a name for herself as a prolific painter of clerical portraits in the London of Charles II, competing with Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller. A generation later, the Venetian Rosalba Carriera (16751757), who began her career illustrating snuff boxes, won international repute for her skillful portraits in pastels. Her light and effervescent manner not only helped raise pastel to a fine art, butfollowing her visit to Paris in 17201721 (on the invitation of the important patron Pierre Crozat)her technique and style also had a decisive impact on the development of the rococo. Carriera captured her sitters in flattering portraits of brilliant luminous color and introduced a degree of informality that suited the taste of her international clientele and was quickly emulated by other artists throughout Europe. She became the first foreign woman to be elected to the French Academy of Fine Arts. Felicità Sartori, Carriera's best student, also won international acclaim; she worked for August III, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, at his court in Dresden. In France, many female artists achieved success in and around the Bourbon court and in the Paris salons, including Anne Vallayer-Coster (17441818), Adélaïde Labille-Guïard (17491803), Marie Gabrielle Capet (17611818), the sculptor Marie-Anne Collot (student of M. E. Falconet), and the German painter Anna Dorothea Lisiewska-Therbusch (17211782).

But the most successful female French artist of the late eighteenth century was undoubtedly Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (17551842). One of the fore-most painters of her time and court painter to Queen Marie Antoinette, she is remembered for her animated portraits and her equally lively autobiographical Souvenirs (18351837), which describe her coming of age in the ancien régime, her European travels, and her life in Napoleonic Paris. In this book, Vigée-Lebrun records her awareness of female artists both past and present: she notes studying works by Carriera in Venice and expresses pride at seeing the Self-Portrait of Angelica Kauffmann (17411807) in the Uffizi gallery. Indeed, during the second half of the eighteenth century Vigée-Lebrun's fame was matched only by the Swiss-born Kauffmann, who lived most of her life in Italy, but who spent a productive decade and a half in London. In 1768 Kauffmann became one of only two female founding members of the British Royal Academy, along with Mary Moser (17441819), a flower and subject painter. Kauffmann was enormously successful as a history painter of ambitious ancient and modern themes, while many of her smaller allegorical and mythological subjects were picked up by the print trade and reproduced on furniture, wall panels, and fabrics, causing one critic to exclaim that "the whole world is Angelicamad." It was, however, through her portraits that Kauffmann, like Vigée-Lebrun and Carriera, secured an international clientele. Capitalizing on contemporary notions that promoted women's "sensibility," Kauffmann's portraits came to be seen as particularly profound comments on the sitters' interior states.

Given that female artists had to negotiate their identities in a profession that for the most part shunned them, it is perhaps not surprising that as a group they produced such a large number of self-portraits. One of the earliest known self-portraits by a female artist is that by a young Dutch woman, who emerges from a dark background holding a thin brush in her hand. The painting is inscribed "I, Catharina van Hemessen, painted myself in 1548 at the age of 20." Sofonisba Anguissola's father sent out some of his daughter's many self-portraits to patrons as advertisements of her beauty and her talent, and Clara Peeters sometimes captured multiple self-reflections, holding brush and palette, in the surface of shiny objects in her meticulous still lifes. With the advent of the public art market and the unavoidable visibility of artists in the competitive annual academy exhibitions, self-portraiture had, by the eighteenth century, become a vital genre for female artists. It allowed them to craft public personae in a time when invisibility and private virtues (associated with modesty and domesticity) constituted ideal femininity. In the year that Vigée-Lebrun exhibited her monumental portrait of Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787), an effort to counter the slander identifying the queen as a "bad mother," the artist also showed her own Self-Portrait with Daughter Julie. Emulating a Madonna painting by Raphael, Vigée-Lebrun advertises her role as mother while simultaneously competing artistically with her celebrated male predecessor.

It also became a matter of prideand self-advertisementfor professional women to show themselves with their female students, as in Carriera's Self-Portrait in which the artist works on a pastel portrait of her sister, whom Carriera had trained as her assistant. The accomplished painting by Marie-Victoire Lemoine (17541820), Atelier of a Painter, Probably Mme Vigée Le Brun and Her Pupil (1796), shows the artist as a student, learning to draw under the guidance of her celebrated teacher. After 1780, Vigée-Lebrun's chief female competitor and co-academician in Paris, Adélaïde Labille-Guïard, ran a private studio for women and in September 1790 approached the academy to raise the established quota of four female academicians. In her celebrated painting Self-Portrait with Two Tulips, Labille-Guïard depicts herself life-size in a dazzling dress at work on a monumental canvas, framed by attentive pupils Marie Gabrielle Capet(d. 1818) and Garreaux de Rosemond (d. 1788).


Since the appearance of Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier (1528), the idea of art as a component of ideal feminine comportment had become widespread, reaching its greatest extent in the eighteenth century when the status of the amateur artist became broadly accepted as a norm. It was common practice for female artists to instruct aristocratic pupils, thereby cultivating a network of female patrons. Indeed, many female artists found particular success with powerful female patrons. This was certainly true for Vigée-Lebrun, Kauffmann, and Labille-Guïard, all of whom prospered from female protectors. There was, in fact, a long tradition of female aristocratic patronage, from the voracious collector and patron Isabella d'Este in sixteenth-century Ferrara to Rubens's great patron, Marie de Médicis, in seventeenth-century Paris. It was, however, in the eighteenth century that female patrons emerged as a powerful force in determining the development of art. For example, the extensive patronage of Catherine II the Great of Russia (ruled 17621796) helped transform St. Petersburg into a European city. In France, the sociable patronage of Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Dame Le Normant d'Étioles, Marquise de Pompadour (17211764) deserves mention. The mistress of Louis XV, Pompadour shaped the cultural life of France between 1744 and her death in 1764. She collected art, commissioned paintings, and influenced the king's architectural patronage. By promoting certain artists, notably François Boucher, Pompadour supported the novel rococo forms, which defined the art of her age. Pompadour was also at the vanguard of what was to become the public expression of the new theory of aesthetics: the private salon. In line with contemporary notions privileging the cultivation of taste, salons were social gatherings staged for the polite cultured exchange that was increasingly thought to represent the foundation of civilized society. Women, long associated with the private sphere, played a major role in this development. Important salons were held by Marie de Rabutin-Chantal Marquise de Sévigné, Marie-Madeleine Marquise de La Fayette, Anne (called Ninon) de Lenclos, Claudine Alexandrine Guérin de Tencin, and Jeanne Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier. Germany lacked the cultural and social climate of France but similar attempts to institute salons were made by Dorthea Caroline Albertine von Schelling (later Schlegel) and Henriette Julie Herz. These informal social gatherings also often provided the space for artistic expression by women; for example, Emma Hart (later Lady Hamilton) became famous throughout Europe for her performance of "attitudes," a series of poses emulating different ancient works of art.

When the female body entered representation in the early modern era, it often negotiated a long tradition of accepted figural, social, and moral models. Given prevailing Christian conceptions of female virtue and vice in representation women were often seen to embody the virginal/maternal qualities of Mary or the seductive worldliness of Eve. Early modern portraits of female sittersalmost always patrician or aristocraticshift between these two poles, with images of courtesans enticing assumed male spectators on the one hand, or, on the other, enacting the roles of "happy mothers" who appear to embrace a domestic ideal. This ambivalence runs through all genres and media. It is made more complex by the enduring fascination with Greco-Roman mythology. The reclining female nude, a staple of Renaissance, baroque, rococo, and neoclassical art, produced an alternate moral axis. For while the woman represented might be a courtesan elevated to the status of Venus, the mythological guise could also be donned by aristocratic womenbut referring only to their beauty, not to their moral state. In fact, given the ease with which the female body could pass into abstraction, many representations of women in early modernity tend to fluctuate between fixed reference to a particular individual and/or character, and an embodiment of an abstract principle. This is perhaps most evident in the baroque art associated with the courts of Rome and Paris in the seventeenth century, but it also can be seen in contemporary Dutch paintings of domestic scenes. The women represented within the apparently unpretentious Netherlandish interiors are taken by some scholars as images of actual women, while other scholars insist that these women are types, operating within various moralizing tales.

Although often hindered by misogynistic opinions and obstacles, women in early modern Europe were active as artists and patrons, contributing decisively to the development of major artistic movements. The work they produced is, in fact, intriguing in part on account of the manner in which these women responded to the complex restrictions they faced.

See also Anguissola, Sofonisba ; Art: The Conception and Status of the Artist ; Art: Artistic Patronage ; Art: The Art Market and Collecting ; Baroque ; Carriera, Rosalba ; Early Modern Period: Art Historical Interpretations ; Gender ; Gentileschi, Artemisia ; Kauffmann, Angelica ; Merian, Maria Sibylla ; Painting ; Ruysch, Rachel ; Salons ; Vigée-Lebrun, Elisabeth ; Women .


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Angela H. Rosenthal

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Women and Art