Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes (circa 1612-21)
Old Masters: Overlooked Women Artists
By Joan Altabe


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 order:

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.

Louise Moillon, Still-Life With Cherries, Strawberries and Gooseberries (ca. 1630)
Clara 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.

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 painters guild.

Properzia di Rossi, 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 with energy.

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.

Sarah Miriam Peale, 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 dignitaries.

Marie-Eleonore Godfroid, 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.

Marie-Louise-Elisabeth 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 the result.

Ann-Vallayer-Coster was 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, Workhorse (1963)

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.

Artemisia Gentileschi, 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 Reynolds.

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.

Angelica Kauffmann, 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."

Georgia 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 think?

Related Story:
Women and Art: An interview with Judy Chicago
By John W. Whitehead