Published: May 7, 2007
Even in today’s enlightened times, if you ask someone to name some painters from the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods, you are likely to get answers such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo or Caravaggio. All, of course, highly distinguished artists †and all men.
With a groundbreaking exhibition, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) emphatically expands the list of outstanding artists of that era by spotlighting highly accomplished women painters who were both professionally and commercially successful. “Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque,” the first comprehensive survey of paintings, drawings and prints by female artists of early modern Italy †roughly, the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries †is on view at the NMWA through July 15.
Co-curated by NMWA senior curator Jordana Pomeroy and University of Bologna professor of art history Vera Fortunati, the show includes 60 works by 15 major women artists, highlighted by paintings by Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana and Artemesia Gentileschi. An international exhibition of international stature, this is clearly the “eye opener” predicted by NMWA director Judy L. Larson. As Pomeroy observes, “Women artists from this period have never been presented together nor framed within their social and historical context.”
The organizers astutely utilized an interdisciplinary approach to explore major obstacles confronting women artists of the time: the cultural context in which women worked in Italy; the difficulties of acquiring education and training; and marketing strategies they employed to attract patrons. How these intrepid women overcame entrenched societal and cultural biases to succeed is a stirring story †and one the NMWA is uniquely qualified to tell as part of its 20th anniversary year.
The women featured in the show grew up and pursued careers at a time when the deck was decidedly stacked against them. They were denied educational opportunities in most fields. Some, like Fontana and Gentileschi, studied art in their fathers’ studios. Anguissola came from an upper-class family in which art instruction was part of her upbringing.
Restricted by societal mores dictating that they appear modest and chaste, these women could not be as aggressive as their male counterparts in the public marketplace, limiting their ability to seek patrons. Anguissola’s numerous self-portraits were distributed by her father among potential collectors as proof of her artistic gifts. Elisabetta Sirani’s engravings of the Holy Family served as private devotional images, as well as reminders of her talents. Women artists were often regarded as “marvels of nature,” a status that sometimes attracted clients to their work.
In the face of these challenges, the women in this exhibition succeeded admirably. They supported their families through astute management of their careers and intelligent brokering of financial arrangements. The Catholic Church, although often offering varied challenges, was generally “welcoming” of women artists, says Pomeroy. Talented nuns, for example, were encouraged to paint altarpieces and devotional works.
Finally, female artists of this period had to overcome societal biases that deemed women “timid by nature, soft, slow, and therefore more useful when they sit still and watch over our things,” as one male observer wrote in the Fifteenth Century. Since professional aspirations were regarded as unsuitable for women, they had to work primarily within the circumscribed circumstances of their family homes or royal courts.
Nevertheless, a number of gifted women painters managed to build public identities among noblemen who sought to advance their own standing by commissioning artwork. Portraits incorporating objects reflecting the sitter’s wealth and achievements became a staple of paintings by successful women artists. They also defined their public personas through self-portraiture, a means of demonstrating their artistic talents and professional qualifications.
The earliest star of the exhibition is Anguissola (circa 1535‱625), who was trained in Italy and created royal portraits while at the court of Spain. She specialized in realistic likenesses and self-portraits, as well as genre works.
In her “Self-Portrait at the Easel,” circa 1556, she presented herself as a serious young woman in simple garb, painting a Madonna and Child. In an early form of a conversation piece, “The Chess Game,” 1555, Anguissola expanded on portrait painting tradition by creating a lively narrative work depicting her well-dressed sisters playing chess under the watchful eye of their simply garbed servant. As art historian Ann Sutherland Harris notes in the exhibition catalog, “More than a portrait,&t celebrates the intellectual accomplishments of her sisters, carefully juxtaposed with the less aware, observing face of the illiterate servant.”
The superstar of the show, Fontana (1552‱614), was trained by her father, Prospero Fontana, a leading Bolognese artist. She pursued a successful, prolific career in Bologna and Rome as a painter of religious works and portraits. All this while bearing 11 children, only three of whom outlived her.
Fontana was sufficiently successful in her 20s to depict herself, in “Self-Portrait in a Studio,” 1579, as a successful, fashionably attired artist about to draw some archaeological objects. Painted two years after her marriage, Fontana comes across as a demure yet ambitious wife/artist, amid aristocratic trappings.
Two of the finest paintings on view, Fontana’s “Portrait of a Noblewoman,” circa 1580, and “Portrait of Costanza Alidosi Seated and Holding a Small Dog, a Still Life of a Vase of Flowers, and Jewelry on a Table Beside Her,” 1594, depict Bolognese noblewomen. Each is presented in beautifully painted, crisp detail against plain backgrounds that emphasize their regal bearing and lavish clothing and jewelry. The small dogs in each likeness †symbols of marital fidelity †are wonderfully painted and endearing.
Fontana’s ability to create insightful male likenesses is demonstrated by “Portrait of a Notary,” 1583, depicting a gentleman whose evident self-confidence and sober mien suggest someone used to exercising authority. Another masterpiece, her large (nearly 100 by 75 inches) “Portrait of the Gozzadini Family,” 1584, showcases the sumptuously garbed members of the aristocratic clan, living and dead when the painting was executed, gathered around a table adorned with an adorable, tiny dog. It is a splendid example of Fontana’s painting and compositional skills.
In the theatrically lit “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” 1600, Fontana precisely delineates the energetic heroine, in a bright red gown, in the act of depositing the decapitated head of the Assyrian soldier in a basket held by her maid. The artist’s customary attention to detail animates her version of this popular, dramatic subject.
In one of her last works, “Minerva Dressing,” 1612‱3, Fontana featured her curvy subject in the role of a warrior goddess displaying her armor. It is a striking image that combines sensuality with emblems of courage.
Working with her artist father and brother in the family workshop in Ravenna, Barbara Longhi (1552‱638) created numerous religious works. Her “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” may be a self-portrait presented in the guise of the educated, aristocratic saint in order to avoid charges of personal vanity.
Trained by her father in Milan, Fede Galizia (circa 1574irca 1630) became an established portraitist as a teenager. Her clear, perceptive “Portrait of a Man (Nunzio Galizia?),” circa 1590s, thought to depict her father, has a clarity and directness worthy of a Dutch Master. She essayed many versions of “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” including one in the exhibition dated 1596 that shows the elegantly dressed, triumphant heroine, still holding the sword, placing the severed head on a dish held by her aged maidservant.
Galizia is best-known today for her pioneering still-life paintings †simple, elegant compositions featuring form and color rather than showy displays of wealth. Her small but compelling “Cherries in a Silver Compote with Crabapples on a Stone Ledge and Fritallary Butterfly,” featuring precisely delineated, glistening fruit in a silver dish, is a beautiful work by an artist we should know more about.
One of the most fascinating works on view, “Portrait of a Lady (Pantasilea Dotto Caoidilista?),” 1630s, was painted by Chiara Varotari (1584fter 1663), who was trained by her artist-father in Padua and made most of her career in Venice. Her ability to create flattering likenesses of Italian aristocrats is epitomized by this canvas, in which the regal pose, jewelry and magnificent, decorative gown convey the noblewoman’s exalted social status.
By far the most riveting image displayed, “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” circa 1612‱3, was painted by the exhibition’s most famous artist, Gentileschi (1593‱654?). Trained by her father, Orazio †a follower of Caravaggio †in his studio in Rome, she employed a forceful style throughout a brilliant career in Italy and England.
After being raped by a teacher in 1611, Gentileschi won a celebrated trial against the rapist. Linked to sex and scandal to this day, her reputation has colored interpretations of her gruesome painting by feminist scholars and others. It shows the muscular biblical heroine Judith, in mid-decapitation, as the sword slices through the neck of the drunken Assyrian general and blood spatters on the bedsheet. Bold, violent and graphic, this is surely the greatest of the many paintings of this gory episode †and one of the most unforgettable artistic images of all time.
Gentileschi’s varied gifts are reflected in two quite different canvases thought to have been painted around the same time as “Judith” †a soulful image of the patron saint of musicians, “Woman Playing a Lute (Saint Cecelia),” circa 1612, and the erotic, daringly posed nude, “Danae,” circa 1612. “Portrait of a Gonfaloniere,” 1622, is a beautifully brushed, full-length, realistic likeness of a nobleman, resplendent in parade armor with a prominent cross, a sword and starched ruff and cuffs.
Trained as a miniaturist, the well-traveled Giovanna Garzoni (1600‱670) made her mark with astutely composed, decoratively arranged still lifes of natural objects, highlighted by “Plate of Figs,” circa 1661‶2, and “Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, a Vase with Carnations, and Shells on a Table.”
The youngest artist in the show, Sirani (1638‱665), was trained by her father in Bologna. She created devotional pictures for private dwellings, such as the naturalistic etching, “The Holy Family with St Elizabeth and St John the Baptist.” Her down-to-earth oil, “Virgin and Child,” 1663, features a plump baby wriggling on the lap of a realistic, young Italian woman wearing a Bolognese turban.
This outstanding exhibition dramatically documents the quality of the art produced by early Italian women artists who overcame innumerable obstacles to achieve their goals. The 271-page exhibition catalog, with useful commentary on each artist and her works, and essays by Pomeroy, Fortunati and other experts in the field, is published by the Women’s Museum and Skira and sells for $42, softcover. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is at 1250 New York Avenue NW. For information, 202-783-5000 or www.nmwa.org .
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