The Story of Women & Art

The Story of Women & Art has long been banished to archives and basements, or dusty museum corners while their male Great Master counterparts dominate the better lit walls.  On Friday 16th May Professor Amanda Vickery presented the first programme by the BBC into the female gaze taking us from the works by Italian sculptress Properzia di Rossi (1490 – 1430) and the painter Sofanisba Anguissola in the 16th century ,via artists from the Low Countries in the 17th century to the German artist Maria Sybilla Merian who left her husband and took herself and her daughter to Surinam to paint insects in their natural setting.

The dominant theme is that whenever women demonstrate that they are every bit as talented as their male counterparts, they are banished to obscurity.  It was ever thus and, human nature being what it is, I don’t suppose much will change despite it being the 21st century.  However, interwoven throughout this first of a series of three, Professor Vickery provides a history of the status of women in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe.  Sofanisba Anguissola’s insightful painting into a family game of chess demonstrates how her father thought women should be educated to survive if they do not have sufficient dowries to attract a husband.  Prof Vickery suggests chess was taught to these girls in order for them to learn survival strategies in a man’s world.  A sketch for the wonderfully smiling little sister was evidently sent to the great Michelangelo who threw down a challenge that the real test would be to sketch a crying child.  Amanda shows us this sketch and you can almost hear the sobs!

The Chess Game - Sofonisba Anquissola 1555

The Chess Game – Sofonisba Anquissola 1555

Her explanation of the background history of this painting of the Gozzerdini family  (1584) below by Lavinia Fontana includes the revelation through tiny visual clues as to the real reason for why one daughter managed to provide a male Gozzerdini heir.  This is hidden on the lockets worn by the two women and demonstrates how skilled Fontana was in the use of the hidden message.  This painting, with the real reason as to why one sister would never conceive hidden in plain view, would never have been painted by a 16th century male artist.

The Gozzerdini Family 1584 - Lavinia Fontana
The Gozzerdini Family 1584 – Lavinia Fontana

Probably the most famous (some say notorious?) female artist of the early 17th century is Artemisia Gentileschi and it was heartwarming to hear someone propose that Gentileschi was NOT a victim, but a strong, capable, commercially astute and incredibly talented artist.  For those not aware of Gentileschi’s story, she was the daughter of the artist Orazio Gentilschi who employed Agostino Tassi (also an artist) to teach his daughter perspective.  To sum up a long story, Tassi took advantage of the teenage girl and raped her.  Eventually Orazio brings a case against Tassi for rape and it has been argued by the feminists that her paintings, such as the Judith beheading Holofernes series, are Artemisia’s sub-conscious response to this rape.  Professor Vickery argues against this and providing new document evidence from the Medici Archive Project, proposes that Artemisia was every bit as business-like as a man in making connections, networking and gaining patrons in the upper echelons of Florentine society.  How else would a woman artist have gained an international reputation and been feted by the great and the good in the cities of Rome, Florence, Venice and the court of Charles I in England?

Examining the domestic interiors of Clara Peeters (whose tiny portrait is pointed out in the rim of a pewter tankard) and Judith Leyster and comparing them to the better known domestic interiors of Vermeer we see that these two particular artists are every inch as good as their 17th century male counterparts of the Golden Age of Dutch Art.

For me, the revelation was the work of Joanna Koerton who achieved international fame as a silhouette cutter and, in her day, achieved high prices for her work.  Professor Vickery tracks down a modern artist who demonstrates the art of paper cutting and this artist (yes – a woman) is also of considerable talent and her work will make you blink.  To find an example of Koerten’s oeuvre we follow Amanda through the hallowed halls of a museum down into the basement where a framed portrait silhouette of William of Orange lies hidden in a drawer.  I got the impression that the young man accompanying our Professor was perplexed as to why anyone would want to see this work.

The story of the 17th century German artist Maria Sybilla Merian is where art and science meet.  An accomplished illustrator of flowers and insects she divorced her husband in 1698 and, taking her daughters  with her, travelled to Surinam where she painted insects and their floral hosts in their natural environment.  She was the first observer and recorder of the insect world at a time when this science was unknown.  Not surprisingly the work of Merian is still important today, but it is sad that in a late register she is listed as a pauper.  Merian died in 1711.

Having been interested in the role of women as image makers as both painters and photographers throughout my career it has always bothered me that we have never had a series of television programmes exploring the work of the Great Mistresses.  Professors Greer and Pollock have championed the role of women in art since the late 60s, but their feminist standpoint has more often than not been sneered at by the male art history academics.  Professor Vickery approaches her subject without a political bias or special agenda and presents the viewer with new and mostly unknown images by women, but not necessarily for women.  These artists competed successfully with men on the international stage.  Unfortunately history has confined them to the basement.

In my opinion, this series should become required watching for all students of history and art history just as John Berger’s 1972 TV series, Ways of Seeing still is.  Berger states in his book of the same title, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”  In this first programme these artists are clearly painting for a male audience, but in the case of the Gozzerdini Family by Fontana, all the women have the last laugh.

The BBC have announced it will be remaking Sir Kenneth Clark’s series Civilisation.  If they are intent on making a truly sensational series I hope they will include the role of women in art.  In order to have a fresh take on this series it would be great if they have a series of presenters who are specialists and not just repeat using a single male presenter to step into Sir Kenneth’s shoes.  I can think of several candidates of both genders and Professor Vickery is at the top.





Melanie Taylor was born in Pinner, England in 1953 and brought up on the Channel Island of Jersey. On leaving school she attended the local secretarial college. With secretarial skills learned, London beckoned and Melanie returned to England. After marriage, children and divorce, in 1999 she saw an advert for part-time degrees at Kingston University in her local newspaper and enrolled to study The History of Art, Architecture & Design, graduating in 2005. Redundancy and an inheritance gave her the luxury of being able to study full-time for her Master of Arts degree in Medieval & Tudor Studies at the University of Kent, Canterbury. Melanie now lives in Surrey and lectures in art and social history.

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2 thoughts on “The Story of Women & Art

  1. Great article on an excellent series & I absolutely support your suggestions for the re-make of Civilisation! The choice of a single male presenter will demonstrate that in terms of the equality of status between the sexes nothing has changed.

    Did you see Alistair Sooke’s similarly excellent programme for the BBC’s Culture Show on the marginalisation of female pop artists?

    1. Frances, I missed Alistair Sooke’s Culture Show – bother! However, I was infuriated by AA Gill’s typical chauvinistic rant in the Sunday Times! So typical of someone who can only make his living by being sensationally rude – but then it’s all about selling newspapers.

      Thank you for the post. It’s much appreciated.

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