Feature Archive

Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., through July 15, 2007
By Diane Apostolos-Cappadona
Giovanna Garzoni: Plate of Figs
Giovanna Garzoni
Plate of Figs
So some 30 years beyond the groundbreaking exhibition Women Artists, 1550-1950 co-curated by Anne Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, and after Nochlin's landmark essay "Why have there been no great women artists?", the National Museum of Women in the Arts celebrates its 20th anniversary with the special exhibition Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque on view through July 15, 2007. We need to ask ourselves "Have the intervening 30 years of research, scholarship, and collecting resulted in new questions, new discussions, new venues toward understanding women artists, their works, and their roles in Renaissance and Baroque culture, or for that matter, in any culture?"

This stimulating display of more than 60 works by 15 women artists span a variety of media from prints and drawings to paintings and sculptures. So while Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque presents us with the requisite images of still-lifes filled with fruits or flowers, for example Giovanna Garzoni's Plate of Figs, and of the Madonna in Elisabetta Sirani's Virgin and Child, our careful viewing of the displayed works provides new insights into the cultural milieu and ambience of discovery of these artists. The significance of this museum, this exhibition, and these artists is evidenced by the simple fact that almost three quarters of the displayed images, that is 45 works, are on loan from collections in Italy, Poland, Vienna, and London as well as from a variety of private collections.

Elisabetta Sirani: Virgin and Child
Elisabetta Sirani
Virgin and Child
The exhibition and its companion catalogue stimulate new paths to examine women artists and their works beyond the "tradition" of their status as second-class citizens. Rather the focus has turned to the myriad of possibilities by which women artists overcame "the conditions of their sex" to leave behind a fascinating visual legacy. Thereby, the current emphasis on the economics of art production, the role of fashion as both clothing and costume, the evolving history of women monastics, and the issues of patrons and patronage expands the parameters of earlier discussions. Further, women artists bore the additional restrictions wrought by the legal system including their rights to own and inherit property, thereby to economically control their own destinies.

Artemisia Gentileschi and Barbara Longhi have painted variations on the theme of the early 4th-century female saint, Catherine of Alexandria. While it was common for women artists to present or represent depictions of female heroes or saints as the focus of their works, the topos of Catherine of Alexandria and the similarities between the two paintings deserve comment. The saint's biography identified her as a feminine model of Christian virtue and of elegance and erudition. Catherine was a learned woman who entered into debate with the some thousand pagan philosophers. According to tradition, her cogent arguments and philosophical knowledge astounded all who heard her, and she won this great debate which resulted in the conversion of these pagan philosophers and their followers. Both artists depict her from a three-quarter view, standing with the spiked wheel of her martyrdom tucked under her left arm.

Artemisia Gentileschi: Judith Slaying Holofernes
Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith Slaying Holofernes
The more favored biblical female hero, Judith, is represented in three paintings: Fede Galizia Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Lavinia Fontana Judith with the Head of Holofernes, and Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes. These women artists portray the theme of a woman of accomplishment for as Catherine was famed for her scholarship and oratory, so Judith would be remembered for her deception and then decapitation of her enemy's general.

Galizia even goes so far in her identification with this active and brave woman that she signs her name and the date on the blade of Judith's sword. These Judiths are first and foremost renown for their beauty, courage, and devotion, and as such this subject was favored as a moral reference point by Baroque aristocrats. Artemisia's Judith is a shocking presentation. Even without knowing the artist's biography, viewers are immediately aware of her sense of violence and physical passion. The visually powerful interplay of the six arms and hands of these three figures is an extraordinary achievement. While Artemisia's Abra is a young, beautiful active agent in the death of Holofernes, her Judith is more simply dressed and clearly without jewelry -- perhaps she has taken off her "finery" in preparation of the bloody deed that needs to be done. Whatever the case, Artemisia's Judith is a woman of action.

Artists' self-portraits offer insights not only into self-identity but the cultural milieu. For example, Sofonisba Anguissola's 1554 version in which she is modestly dressed and neatly coiffed, holding a small book open to the viewer. A small book could either signify love poems and a cultivated education or a prayer book symbolic of a virtuous young woman. This one is open to a text which reads "Sofonisba Anguissola Virgo Seipsam fecit 1554" (Sofonisba Anguissola virgin made this in 1554). Lavinia Fontana's Self Portrait in a Studio depicts herself seated at her desk and surrounded by archaeological artifacts to highlight her own understanding of the parallels between art and intellect. She wears a cross around her neck as required by the dictates of the Counter-Reformation. Here then is a woman artist as humanist and a model of Tridentine piety. Her artistic activity, then, can be seen as a virtue and of moral value to herself and her world.

Sofonisba Anguissola: Self Portrait
Sofonisba Anguissola
Self Portrait
A second group of intriguing self portraits include others by Anguissola and Fontana who present themselves as "la virtuosa" as they sit at the spinet and play music. They are both, thereby, skilled beyond their artistic talents, their moral values, and their erudition as they also know music. The simpler composition of the two paintings, Anguissola's Self Portrait Playing the Spinet is also a tribute to the Flemish woman artist Caterina van Hemessen who may have created this portrait formula of the cultured and morally virtuous woman playing the spinet in 1548. Fontana's Self Portrait at the Spinet with a Maidservant is the more complex work in both the personal presentation of the artist with her refined garments and elegant jewelry, and in the coordination of painting with music. While we see Fontana seated at the spinet in the foreground, the tilt of her chair, the posture of her upper body, and the position of carefully coiffed head led the viewer's eye back toward the light coming from the window and hence to her painter's easel. She presents herself here, then, as the Renaissance ideal of a learned and honest woman -- characteristics which are found in both her music and her paintings as would be delineated in Paleotti's Discourse on Sacred and Profane Images (1582).

These two groups of self portraits, then, lead us to a recognition of the significance of the motifs of women of accomplishment in the oeuvre of women artists, from Judith to Catherine of Alexandria, among other female heroes. So, then, we can ask new questions about the psychology of women artists—how they come to be, to know who they are, and what are the messages within their canvases—beyond the psychological analyses of past studies emphasizing either the traumas and travails of their personal lives, or the intensity of the gaze either as directed to or by these female pioneers.

An educational highlight is the display and associated short documentary film of the conservation and restoration of Plautilla Nelli's Lamentation with Saints. Originally made for the refectory of her own Dominican convent, the painting was later moved to the Museo di San Marco in Florence, home to Fra Angelico's masterful frescoes. Once relocated, Nelli's masterpiece underwent minor conservation treatment before being displayed in the monastery's museum. More recently, the Florence Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts sponsored an extensive conservation of the painting, the results of which are evidenced in this display and companion film.

The heavily illustrated and thought-provoking exhibition catalogue is highlighted by Anne Sutherland Harris' "Sofonisba, Lavinia, Artemisia, and Elisabetta: Thirty Years after Women Artists, 1550-1950." This retrospective look at the study of women artists and of the exhibiting of women's art in the 30 years since her exhibition allows Harris the opportunity not only to review how the field has grown but also to propose the continuing need for healthy debate among and new modes of inquiry for scholars of women artists. Similarly, novelist Alexandria Lapierre's contribution, "The 'Woman Artist' in Literature: Fiction or Non-Fiction?", sets forth an illuminating analysis of the continuing literary, and more recently cinematic, fascination with the struggles and triumphs of women artists. Perhaps, then, in another 30 years, we can all affirm the correctness of George Sand's pronouncement "But genius has no sex."

Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque remains on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. until 15 July 2007. For further information, either call 202-783-500 or go to the museum's website.


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