When you hear the term
"Old Master," you think of men: as if women
of long ago didn’t paint and sculpt, as if making art
was a guy thing. To evoke women of centuries past is to
picture them self-contained as eggs, with tight faces
drained of color under sternly coiffed hair.
It’s not your fault. Historians
put that picture into your mind. In his treatise Women
and Art, Karl Scheffler said, "In an Amazonian
state, there would be neither culture, history nor art."
He went on to fault women’s inability to gain spiritual
insight. Some male artists also sneered at their female
colleagues. Edgar Degas, a known male supremacist, saw
women as "animals" with an "absence of all feeling in
the presence of art." Thomas Hart Benton believed that
"an art school is a place for young girls to pass
the time between high school and marriage."
Not that male artists and
their chroniclers are the only bad guys in this story.
Female historians also have kept their gender down on
the farm, so to say. Before I give the bad guys any more
space, though, the female artists—known in their day and
unknown in ours—should come first.
And while their accomplishments
are no joke, I offer this punchline to their story ahead
of telling it: I was an art major in undergraduate and
graduate schools in the early ‘60s, and never heard of
these women there until the likes of Linda Nochlin, Whitney
Chadwick and Nancy G. Heller began recording their achievements
in the 1980‘s and 1990‘s. Here’s a sampler, in no particular
Fede Galizia, a 17th-century
painter, was celebrated for rendering fruit so vividly
that her patrons thought they could feel the skins, as
in the fuzz of the peaches in her "Still Life with
Peaches in a Porcelain Bowl." She became known for
her skill at age 12.
Peeters was another 17th-century painter of still lifes.
Hers had to do with human mortality. Peeters suggested the
fleetingness of life with imagery of dead leaves, dead chickens
and dried out orange slices.
Still-Life With Cherries, Strawberries and Gooseberries
Louise Moillon also was
a 17th-century still life painter (I’ll get to why women
painted so many still lifes in a moment), who began selling
her art at age 10. Her skill at capturing the texture
of water droplets and the texture of woven baskets earned
her acceptance into the French Royal Academy of Painting
and Sculpture. This, even though the Academy decreed still
life painting unimportant.
Judith Leyster, a 17th-century
artist and mother of 15, was known for large-scale figure
painting. Like Moillon, she was inducted into an all-male
Joseph and Potiphar's Wife (ca. 1520)
Properzia di Rossi was
a 16th-century sculptor famed for carving complex compositions,
such as entire crucifixions, on the pits of apricots and
cherries. She won out over male competitors in a contest
for a marblework in a Bologna church.
Rachel Ruysch, mother of
10, began painting in the 17th century and worked into
her ‘80s in the following century. She portrayed still
lifes of flowers as if they were still alive—twisting
Francoise Duparc, an 18th-century
artist, painted portraits of working class people, and
was kept out of the French art world for that reason.
She gained her celebrity after the French Revolution.
Lavinia Fontana painted
thoughtful portraits between the 16th and 17th centuries
that were recognized for showing the sitters’ personality,
not to mention their clothing and jewelry.
Anne Seymour Damer, a 19th-century
portrait sculptor, received commissions from King George
III and Napoleon. She was so serious about her work, she
asked to be buried with her sculpting tools.
Mrs. Charles Ridgely Carroll (ca. 1822)
Sarah Miriam Peale, a 19th-century
portrait painter, executed likenesses of the then Secretary
of State Daniel Webster, numerous congressmen and foreign
another 19th-century portrait painter (coming up is why
women painted so many portraits, as soon as I get to why
they painted so many still lifes), specialized in socially
prominent women and their children.
Vigee-LeBrun, an 18th- to 19th-century portrait painter,
earned enough money at her art to support herself, her
widowed mother, and her younger brother.
Sofonisba Anguissola, a 16th-century portraitist, was
in demand for her crisp detailing, warm colors and expressive
eyes. Michelangelo sent her his drawings to copy and critiqued
an 18th-century still life painter whose chief patron
was Marie Antoinette. The French queen gave her an apartment
in the royal palace. Her pictures were so popular, even
after the Revolution, they continued to sell.
Angelica Kauffmann, an
18th- to 19th-century painter of ancient history, received
her first commission before she was a teenager. She founded
the British Royal Academy with fellow painter Mary Moser.
Anna Hyatt Huntington,
a 20th-century sculptor, was best known for carving life-size
images of horses out of marble, complete with flaring
nostrils and tousled manes.
a 17th-century painter famed for anatomy and dramatic
effect, brought her art teacher to trial for rape, submitting
to torture (thumbscrews) in order to be believed. The
teacher was jailed for eight months.
This is a good place to show how history can get a determined
woman artist wrong, and by that error, reduce her to someone
pathetically girlish. A movie bio of Gentileschi called
Artemisia, which came out three years ago, showed
her as a central-casting lovesick girl and the sex between
teacher and student as consensual. The irony here is that
the filmmaker was a woman.
Another contemporary woman
who has disregarded female artists is historian Sister
Wendy Beckett. In The Story of Painting, published
last year, she failed to note that Kauffmann and Moser
studied life-drawing at the British Royal Academy, along
with English greats William Blake, J.M.W. Turner and Joshua
Do I hear a "so what"?
Here's what, and also why
so many women painted still lifes and portraits: Between
the Renaissance and the start of the 20th century, women
weren’t permitted to draw from life (nude models). They
couldn’t go to schools that offered life-drawing. The
nude, you see, was the main subject of art from ancient
times to those of Renoir and Rodin. Yet the students in
a women's modeling class at the Pennsylvania Academy in
1893 were forced to use a cow as their model.
But, here were Kauffmann
and Moser studying the human form in an academic setting
for the first time, and Sister Wendy's exhaustive 721-page
history goes blank on the subject. She cites a friendship
between Kauffmann and Reynolds, but that's about it. And
she doesn’t even mention that Reynolds was a great admirer
of Kauffmann’s work. Sister Wendy barely notes the work,
citing only a small portrait painted on a vase, completely
overlooking Kauffmann’s history paintings.
Portrait of a Woman Dressed as Vestal Virgin
Do I hear another "so
what"? Traditionally, commissions for history paintings
went to men, not women, that‘s what.
Sister Wendy is certainly
not the only female historian to forget to give Kauffmann
and Moser their due. Helen Gardner, who wrote Art Through
the Ages in 1926—which went on to become a standard
college text—didn't tell the Kauffmann/Moser story, either;
although even in their own time at the Royal Academy,
these artists experienced disregard. In a portrait of
the first class studying a nude—"The Academicians of the
Royal Academy" by Johann Zoffany—everyone is shown at
work except Kauffmann and Moser. Zoffany put their faces
in small portraits on the studio wall.
And remember, from some
paragraphs back, the name Anna Hyatt Huntington? Despite
being a 20th century artist, when she won first place
in a Paris competition for her life-size equestrian statue
of Joan of Arc in 1910, the judges took back the prize
when they discovered she was female.
The hits kept coming, even
later in the 20th century. Coming to mind is a humiliation
that Georgia O‘Keeffe suffered. Despite her protestations,
male critics insisted on seeing female genitalia in her
flower paintings. O’Keeffe was so embarrassed by the comparison
that she told New York art critic Emily Genauer, "I
hate flowers. I paint them because they’re cheaper than
models and they don’t move."
O'Keeffe, Light Iris (1924)
Once, she tried to stand
up to those who called her work "shameless"
by explaining her paintings: "Everything was going
so fast. Nobody has time to reflect... There was a flower.
It was perfectly beautiful, but it was so small, you really
could not appreciate it. So I thought to make it like
a huge building going up. If I could paint that flower
on a huge scale, then you could not ignore its beauty.
People would be startled. They’d have to look at it."
They did and they saw vulvas.
O’Keeffe was outraged to
the point of dysfunction, unable to paint at one point,
because of what most critics saw in her work. She went
back to it eventually.
Beyond women’s artmaking,
then, was their drive. You might even say their heroics.
Consider this accepted book of rules for women in the
18th century, called "Domestic Guide":
"To be able to do
a great many things tolerably well is of infinitely more
value to a woman than to be able to excel in any one...
All that would involve her in the mazes of flattery and
admiration, all that would tend to draw away her thoughts
from others and fix them on herself ought to be avoided
as an evil to her, however brilliant or attractive it
may be in itself."
The admonition didn’t end
in the 18th century. When 19th century animal sculptor
Rosa Bonheur sought to get animal anatomy just right by
visiting slaughterhouses in trousers, she needed a police
permit to wear the trousers. The permit needed renewing
every six months. She made the effort.
Heroes, all, don‘t you
and Art: An interview with Judy Chicago
By John W. Whitehead