Tuesday, August 18, 2015

In the Company of Green Women (V): The Renaissance & Baroque Painters

Susanna and the Elders - oil painting - 1610, Artemisia Gentileschi

(Apart from this image, which has been posted in full, the remainder of the images of this post
 can be clicked to enlarge.)

"If Artemisia had not been a virgin before Tassi raped her, the Gentileschis would not have been able to press charges. During the ensuing seven-month trial, it was discovered that Tassi had planned to murder his wife, had engaged in adultery with his sister-in-law, and planned to steal some of Orazio’s paintings. During the trial, Artemisia was subjected to a gynecological examination and torture using thumbscrews to verify her testimony. At the end of the trial Tassi was sentenced to imprisonment for one year, although he never served the time..."
- Via the Wiki entry for Artemisia Gentileschi. (Note: Ah, but do not cry for Artemisia; as we will see, she, indeed, has her metaphorical revenge!)

Self Portrait as a Lute Player - oil on canvas - 1615-1617, Artemisia Gentileschi

"It is not easy to explain why the Italian towns and universities gave so much encouragement to the higher aspirations of girls. In poetry, in art, in learning, that encouragement was equally remarkable, and I am tempted to assign its origin to the martial temper of the Middle Ages, which drew many young men from the universities to take part in the exercises of the tilt-yard or in the perils of the battlefield, leaving the fields of learning in need of zealous labourers. Women, on the other hand, exposed their hearts, but not their lives, to the hazards of duels, tournaments and wars; they lived longer than men, as a rule, and hence it was worth while to encourage publicly those gifts of the female mind and spirit which had long been cultivated privately for the benefit of peaceful nunneries."
- Walter Shaw Sparrow from Women Painters of the World, 1905. (Full text)

"A number of obstacles stood in the way of contemporary women who wished to become painters. Their training would involve both the dissection of cadavers and the study of the nude male form, while the system of apprenticeship meant that the aspiring artist would need to live with an older artist for 4–5 years, often beginning from the age of 9-15. For these reasons, female artists were extremely rare, and those that did make it through were typically trained by a close relative..."
- Via the Wiki entry for Flemish artist Caterina van Henessen (1528 – after 1587).

Self Portrait Seated at an Easel - oil on wood panel - 1548, Caterina van Hemessen 

"Occasional doubt has been raised as to the authenticity and provenance of the work. Some have speculated that it was created by her father Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500–c 1566); he tended to portray women with the same large round, dark, eyes and reduced chin. However these theories are not given much weight by art historians, and the prominence of the signature is taken as evidence of Caterina's intention to mark the work as by her own hand."
- Via the Wiki entry for Caterina van Henessen. (Note: The actual inscription on the painting is: "I Caterina van Hemessen have painted myself / 1548 / Her aged 20.") (!)


(Note: As of this post, all links will now open up in new pages.)

Well, finally, after following the exploits of medieval women who, despite their unfortunate invisibility, we now know were active in many fields of visual art, we come to the end of our medieval journey.  We are now entering the High Renaissance and Baroque periods, and, somehow, with no prior evidence or warning, a most curious thing occurs: women artists have suddenly multiplied like rabbits! Not only that, we now have names, faces, and dates to conjure with; yes, actual flesh & blood people. In short, there's enough official data to utterly dispel the falsehood that women have no artistic legacy. Because, yes, there most certainly were great woman artists in the long past, whether certain small, indoctrinated, and biased minds recognize this or not.

But, if any or all of the woman painters I feature (or mention) in this post - an incomplete listing of about thirty-five* - come as a surprise to you, do not feel alone. You and I are sharing the same process of discovery. I can attest to the fact that, as recent as thirty-five years ago, little was known - or, at least shared with the general public - about any of these women outside of Europe, and (possibly) only marginally there, with few exceptions. Moreover, they were known mainly amongst scholars and academics who, for whatever reason, couldn't estimate the importance of the work these dedicated women had produced. And, let's face it, the women had to be dedicated, considering the immense obstacles that stood before them...

Enter the contemporary feminists. And, female art students of today, whether they realize it or not, are beholden to women like artist, Judy Chicago, and historians, Mary D. Garrard, Norma Broude, Frances Sinclair, Jane Fortune, and the numerous others who rescued the full spectrum of human creativity from the waste-bins of history. And, let's not forget the technology. Today an art student merely has to wave his or her hand over a screen to instantly conjure up art from around the world from any period in history... not so easily accomplished before the 21st century, and certainly impossible for women of the Renaissance.

Portrait of Five Women with a Dog and a Parrot - oil on canvas (distressed) - Lavinia Fontana

So, with little more ado I present to you my recent findings - as much, or more, of a shock to me as this information may seem to you. But, if you are a woman keep this one idea in mind: the female artists of the remote past - even more so than many of those today - were sending a codified message... to each other, and to all the marginalized creative woman of the future. Unlike those anonymous artists of the medieval period, the painters of the High Renaissance and those which followed, began signing their work, as if to say: "I did this. I was here. Remember me."

Of course, in reality, there have been many men similarly marginalized by society throughout the ages; so, this underlying message is for them, as well. It is a message for the "outlaws", the mavericks, the dispossessed... the men and women who (along with their work) - were suppressed or lost, or, possibly even destroyed, by the prevalent trends and powers-that-be of their day... or the biased and misinformed whims of chroniclers who came after. It's of some small comfort to know that, In time - although, perhaps, a very long time - those marginalized humans might finally find a rightful place in history, and receive the respect and recognition due to them.

Well, idealistically. But, in any case, truth will "out"... and, that's the main thing.

Below the jump is a listing, arranged chronologically by date of birth, of a gathering (and gallery) of Renaissance painters and those from the Baroque - a French word originally referring to an irregularly-shaped pearl - period which followed. Some of them, along with the examples of their work, I've accompanied with a bit of text; some with only a few links, depending on how much is known about the artist, and/or, specific items of intrigue. It's only the mere tip of the iceberg, but it's the best I can do. Enjoy! :-)

Qiu Zhu
Ming Dynasty
(early 16th Centrury)

Chatting by the Spring, Along the Willow Bank - fan; ink on gold paper - Qui Zhu

Pine Tree and Figure - fan; ink on gold paper - Qui Zhu

Very little is known about Qui Zhu (also known as Du'ning Neishi) - at least in the western hemisphere - but we do know she lived in the Chinese city of Taicang during the Ming Dynasty, and was the daughter of Qui Ying, a man considered one of the Four Masters (of art) during that period of Chinese history. We can assume, too, that Qui Zhu's talents were both nurtured and supported by her father, which, oddly enough, is a significant theme - the leitmotif - running throughout the personal lives of many of the female artists who thrived during the Renaissance.

Regarding the two fans (above), both were found online via the Sotheby auction house website. The upper one failed to sell, but the lower one, "Pine Tree and Figure" - which was estimated to sell from $15,000 to $25,000 - sold for a whopping $37,500! A third fan by Qui Zhu, depicting "A Daoist Female Immortal (possibly Chang E)" can be found here.

(Note: The main artist title links in the remainder of this post link to Wiki entries, but you'll note that Qui Zhu doesn't have one. I learned about her existence, as I did for several other artists in this post, via artist Myrtille Henrion Picco's amazing feminine art history site: Figuration Feminine (which is now posted on Trans-D's sidebar as well). Qui Zhu is, specifically, found on this page. Incidentally, Figuration Feminine is a French site. If you can't read French, Google will translate the page for you. Beware, however! At least, in the French to English case, Google has a tendency to translate the word "she" into the word "he"!!!)


The Lamentation - oil on canvas - 1550, Plautilla Neilli  

In actuality, Plautilla Nelli is not the first woman of the western world to take up painting. There was her Flemish contemporary, Caterina van Henessen, previously mentioned in the post introduction, and Catrina Vigri, or, Saint Catherine of Bologna, 1413-1463, (the actual Catholic Patron Saint of Artists) who proceeded her. We also have the miniaturists, Levina Teerlinc (1510 -1576, Flemish) and Esther Inglis (1571-1624, French/Scottish), the latter of whom was also an illuminator and scribe. But, Paulita Nelli was the first significant Italian Renaissance painter - well, born first, at any rate - and so, she comes in at #2 .

Plautilla Nelli was also a Dominican nun, but, no she didn't set the same precedent we found In Part III of this series. In fact, of all the women mentioned below, only one other was the product of a convent. And this is significant. The cloistered life was no longer imperative for a creative woman, nor was a concentration on religious themes her only means of expression.

Nelli and her Italian Renaissance peers have been given a major boost in recent years by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, headed by Jane Fortune. Besides rescuing thousands of works from ruin, the AWAF also has promoted their exhibition and is working to establish a permanent home for them. In 2009, Jane Fortune published Invisible Women - Forgotten Artists of Florence, which, in 2012, was made into an Emmy Award-winning documentary (see this PBS page). (Note: I've included a short video about it at the end of this post.)


Self-Portrait at the Easel - oil on canvas - 1556, Sofonisba Anguissola

"I bring to your attention the miracles of a Cremonese woman called Sofonisba, who has astonished every prince and wise man in all of Europe by means of her paintings, which are all portraits, so like life they seem to conform to nature itself. Many valiant [professionals] have judged her to have a brush taken from the hand of the divine Titian himself; and now she is deeply appreciated by Philip King of Spain and his wife who lavish the greatest honors on the artist."

- Gian Paolo Lomazzo, from Libro de Sogni (1564), in which the author imagines a conversation between Leonardo da Vinci, representative of modern painting, and Phidias, the artist from Antiquity... found on this Sofonisba Anguissola page.

(approx. 1538 - aprox. 1568)

Self Portrait - oil on canvas - Lucia Anguissola

I've little to say about the Anguissola sisters that hasn't already been said. Of the two sisters, Sofinisba achieved the greatest fame, but, then, Lucia's life was cut short at (approximately) the age of 30. There were 3 other artistic sisters as well: Elena, Minerva, and Anna-Marie, but if anything survives of their work, I haven't found it online. Here is the link to Sofinsba's Wiki gallery.

The sister's are described as Mannerists. Mannerism being one stylistic sub-division of that period (1600s), along with the later, Rococo (1700s). But, this is the first and last time I'll refer to those genres in this article!


Isabella Ruini as Venus - oil on canvas - 1592, Lavinia Fontana

Things start to get interesting when Lavinia Fontana enters the Italian Renaissance scene. Ah, those Italian women! Try to imagine, for a moment, this "undiscovered" (and non-existent) painting: "Mona Lisa With a Knife," or, perhaps, "Mona Lisa with a Concealed Weapon" and you'll sort of get the picture... but, I mean this in the best possible way! Italian women were, are, and always will be formidable!

The Italian women of the Renaissance were the true innovators, the true warriors, and, in my opinion, the actual reason the Renaissance originated in Italy to begin with; that is, when women began to discover the true extent of their primal, instinctive power and influence. Sort of like: "Step aside, Antonio, there's room enough for both of us on this platform!" It was this combination - the sacred marriage, or chemical wedding - of both male and female forces that enabled the Italian Renaissance culture to flower before the rest of Europe caught on. Feel free to quote me. ;-)

Enter Lavinia Fontana. If you want her biography, click on the Wiki link above; I only wish to shed a little light on two of her paintings. For the record, Fontana was considered the first of  the woman painters to paint female nudes, for which the portrait of Isabella (above) is a subtle example. Noting the expression on the woman's face, I'm reminded (again) of the famous Mona Lisa. What exactly is it about the direct gaze from her eyes, and her slight smirk that's so intriguing? It seems, and perhaps for the first time, the sense of a woman's unabashed - although understated - eroticism shines through... and such was the genius of Lavinia Fontana.

Portrait of Antoinetta Gonzalez - oil on canvas - Lavinia Fontana

But, wait, what's this (above)? Who would want to paint this anomaly, this freak of nature? Where is the beauty in this documentation?

The little girl depicted was an actual person: Antonietta Gonzalez; and the story of Fontana's painting can be found here. Suffice to say, this little girl - and, apparently, other members of her family - primarily her sisters - had the rare genetic disorder of hypertrichosis, or “werewolf syndrome”. Far from being ostracized by Renaissance society, however, Antonietta and her sisters became the guests of royalty... and, hence, this portrait by Lavinia Fontana.

Obviously, not only did our heroine, Lavinia Fontana, address the taboo subject of female eroticism, but she, like 20th century photographer, Diane Arbus, was willing to embrace human anomalies and aberrations, and redefine the meaning of "beauty".


Guindas en una Fuente de Plata (Cherries in a Silver Compote) - oil on canvas - Fede Galizia

Galizia is known primarily for her still life paintings, but she portrayed a number of other subjects as well... including, what seems to be a favorite theme amongst her female (and male) peers: Judith with the Head of Holofernes. You might say, Judith was the super-heroine of her day.

Galizia's work can be found here.

Biographical note: Galizia never married and it's assumed she died of the plague.

(1590 – 1651)

The Repentant Saint Mary Magdalene - oil on canvas - Lucrina Fetti

Fetti is the second and last nun of this series. I am particularly intrigued by her interpretation of Mary Magdeline above. As it was, Mary Magdeline was another favorite subject on the Renaissance agenda, often depicted as "penitent" due the common falsehood (and misogynistic misconception) that the Magdelene was a "fallen" woman, instead of Christ's nearest and dearest disciple.

In Fetti's painting, the Magdalene is more pensive than penitent... leaning on book in a most contemplative way, and gazing at... what? It almost looks like a decaying skull... as it does in Fetti's peer, Nicolas Régnier's interpretation (found here). My guess is that it's the vessel described in the Eastern Orthodox tradition (quote from Wiki's Magdelene entry):

"Mary Magdalene is honored as one of the first witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus, and received a special commission from him to tell the Apostles of his resurrection. She is often depicted on icons bearing a vessel of ointment, not because of the anointing by the "sinful woman", but because she was among those women who brought ointments to the tomb of Jesus. For this reason, she is called a Myrrhbearer."

(July 8, 1593-1656)

Judith Slaying Holofernes - oil on canvas - 1618, Artemisia Gentileschi
- National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples

Remember Artemesia - the twice-raped-victim - found in the introduction to this post? Did I not say the girl would have her day?

Observe Gentileschi's famous painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, completed in 1618. As barbaric as it is magnificent, it trumps all other treatments of this subject - and there were many, up to and including her father's (Orazio), and even the famous Carvaggio's - rendering each and every one artificial, sterile, or merely decorative in comparison to hers: the truly definitive masterpiece.

You might say: "Hell hath no fury..." but, there you'd be wrong. Gentileschi's Judith is muscular and merciless, but she remains both calm, cool, and methodical. A simple "Off with his head!" will do... and, by this, we can assume she (metaphorically) alluded to both.

Which brings us to the matter of the "rape". My response is not what you'd expect from a feminist, in that, while certainly the trial, etc. made for a great show, I'm not entirely sure that this wasn't its sole purpose. Keeping in mind that Artemesia, apparently, continued her sexual involvement with her rapist in the hopes that he - a married man - might eventually marry her, this passion play grows increasingly complex.

More to the point, in terms of the alleged Italian "justice" system, it seems to me we'd be more likely find Tassio's inert body floating face-down in a canal, than watching his idiotic performance in a court of law; unless, of course, it's actual purpose was to save face... along with the Gentileschi family name, and Artemesia's tattered virtue. Remember, "virtue" had been all the rage since the Middle Ages... as important when assessing a woman's "value" as other desirable features... such as having a strong back, and a full set of teeth!

We can assume the trial brought Artemesia her first taste of fame. Which is all very well, but, personally, I find the canal scenario a far more economical plan.

Ultimately, critics and historians tend to use the "rape" as an excuse for Gentileschi's subject matter; a subject matter they often view as a merely her attempt at titillating the male art collectors of her time (what else?), meanwhile, deliberately overlooking the second, more plausible, possibility: her innate feminism. Gentileschi wasn't the only woman of the Renaissance depicting strong women devising their own means of liberation. One might argue that "liberation" was the true, underlying theme of the Renaissance women painters.

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy - oil painting -1613-20, Artemisia Gentileschi

That being said, our heroine excelled in ways none of her female contemporaries - and many of her male peers - managed to accomplish. For example, during her life, she was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. And, her legacy lives on. Gentileschi's life inspired "Romola" by the great novelist, Mary Anne Evans (George Elliot), and several other literary (and relatively recent) cinematographic treatments. She can even (posthumously) boast her own contemporary website. (And, yes, she, too, has a place setting at Judy Chicago's Dinner party!)

Lastly, in 2014, her exquisite interpretation of the Magdeline (above) - certainly another "definitive" painting - went for a cool €865,500 ($1,175,211) at a Sotheby’s auction in Paris; not bad for "woman's work".

By the way, Gentileschi had a daughter, Palmira, who was also an artist, trained by her famous mother. Supposedly, none of her artworks have survived, but, I find this almost impossible to believe. Then again, I note a number of works attributed to Artemisia that neither precisely reflect her style, her elegant lines, nor her unique palette. The one below - which should have the Guerilla-girl caption "Time to wake up, dear" - is an example. Could a Palmira be hidden somewhere among the Artemesia's?

Jael and Sisera - oil on canvas - 1620, Artemisia Gentileschi

(period of activity: 1600 -1649)

Eine Hexenszene (Witches Scene?) - oil on copper - Isabella Francken

And, now for something completely different. While we're still in the same time period, our geography has shifted, and with it, our mindset.  Welcome to the "Lowlands of Holland" and the Dutch Renaissance. It's important to note that there was an unrecognized competition going on between Florence and Antwerp at the time: that is, which of the two major cities could produce the most female artists! Certainly, as William Sparrow indicated in his "Women Artists of the World" (quoted in the post-introduction) Italy produced an amazing number of gifted, creative women. Unfortunately, Sparrow completely overlooked women's artistic achievements in Belgium and the Netherlands, so his record is hardly accurate. In fact, there were many women participating in the "Dutch Golden Age of Painting."

(Note: As much as a feminist might cringe at Sparrow's patronizing tone - and faulty analysis - throughout, he has to be credited for broaching the subject at all, especially during the early years of the 20th century.)

That being said, almost nothing is known about Elizabeth Francken apart from the legacy left by her famous family name. You'll note in the Wiki Francken entry, however, her name does not appear. In fact, only one female name appears: a mother. A good thing, too; otherwise, we night imagine all the men were birthed by men... or simply cloned. ;-)

In any event, Isabella did exist. We have two paintings attributed to her, although it is here her "footprint" seems to mysteriously vanish into the aether.

Is her painting, unprecedented in its content, "Eine Hexenscene," (above) a clue? Looking closely at it, we become unwitting voyeurs of an almost textbook gathering of "witches"; note the hook-nosed crones, the cauldron, the black cat, the black dog, the disembodied "hands of glory"... why, there are even demons fleeing up the chimney! So, what is this? A 17th century Halloween greeting card? What did Francken use for reference material? What, exactly, did she mean by this strange scene?

There's a dirty little secret about the Renaissance that is often understated... and, that is, during the 16th century, and continuing into the 17th century, the witch-hunts of Europe were "intensified," resulting in an estimated 35,000 to 100,000 executions. It probably wasn't a super cool idea to even speak of witchcraft in Franken's day, let alone document it; most especially if you were a woman... and it was at its deadliest if you were an "older" woman.

Who knows? Perhaps, Francken's painting was all just a bad dream.


Self-portrait (?) with Vanitas - oil on canvas - 1610, Clara Peeters

The Renaissance women of the Lowlands, unlike our Italian heroines, tended to veer away from biblical and classical themes, thereby elevating newer and different genres, and an altogether different symbolism. The still life, or vanitas, was one such genre, roughly described as the displaying of objects, and organic subjects as metaphors for the transient nature of life. Clara Peeter's painting above is a shining example.

Possibly a self-portrait, of all the other paintings I've seen from that period and in that genre, Peeter's is possibly the most complexly arranged and meticulously crafted. And, it would have to be. The intense expression in the woman's eyes describes an acute, analytical mind, and a precise hand. She was obviously a wealthy woman and a proud one, too, evidenced by all the "bling" displayed throughout the picture. As for the object in her hand - most likely a timepiece -  we are reminded that this moment in time - her moment - is little more than an illusion. Along with the flowers on the table, all organic life must fade...

Although, not necessarily the "bling"... nor, her painting!

Incidentally, the dice (in the lower right corner of the painting) have come up seven. If life is "crapshoot", she's won the game! And, Peeters did, in a way, win the game... posthumously. Although little seems to be known about her life, one of her paintings was purchased by a private collector for "around" $2,900,000, in the year 2000.


Still life with plums, walnuts and Jasmine - watercolor on vellum - Giovanna Garzoni

Still-Life - gouache on vellum - Giovanna Garzoni

Giovana Garzoni's still life images are the most widely produced and reproduced on the world wide web these days, and, immediately, I think we see why: her series of 17th century watercolors are amazingly modern in appearance! The crisp lines, the close-cropped subject matter, and Garzoni's subtle and elegant use of color are the hallmarks of a 20th century illustrator. It's almost impossible to believe they were painted 400 years ago. 

As it happens, this is a phenomenon I note often in "woman's work;" the style and subject matter is often ahead of its time, as if those of us of the female gender, indeed, have a subliminal, "psychic" link with the future.

As it was, Garzoni was also career woman and a scholar, foregoing marriage to, instead, travel extensively throughout Europe during her lifetime.

(July 28, 1609 – February 10, 1660)

Self Portrait - oil on canvas - Judith Leyster

I think, of all the self-portraits on this page, Dutch painter Judith Leyster's (above) is one of my favorites. Her painting is imbued with such life and character, one could swear they'd met this woman on a street just yesterday. Well, that is, if it weren't for her attire... but, keep in mind, that bizarre collar is a sign of a prosperous woman. Sans the collar, however, one wouldn't suspect for a moment that she came from the long past. The painting almost seems like a still from a YouTube video. She's caught right in the middle of saying something... possibly something ironic and witty, but, definitely hilarious.

As is usual in the case of invisible women, however, most of her work, was initially attributed to a male artist - Frans Hals - in spite of the fact that her "distinctive" JL monogram was plastered all over the place, and in plain sight!

A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel - oil on canvas - Judith Leyster

But, then, Judith Leyster's work, when not misattributed, is often misinterpreted. Take the painting above: "A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel." I swear but I've seen online comments referring to it as "cute" or "charming" when it is, in fact, neither.

Instead, it's almost surreal.

Take a closer look. In reality, the only "juveniles" in this painting are the glass eel and the tabby kitten. And, is that really a "girl's" face? When the commenters online bothered to note how aged she appears, they seemed to think she was merely a malnourished child! But, the woman is no child, and, unless I'm mistaken, neither is the "boy", who might be her young adult son (note his teeth, hands and receding hairline). I believe they are what we refer to today as "little people," and, like Lavinia Fontana with her wolf-girl, Judith Leyster did not shy away from her portrayal of the "little people."

Moreover, hers was not a "morality tale," as some critics tend to interpret it. The little woman is shaking her finger because both she (and Leyster), are in the act of performing a sleight-of-hand trick... and possibly a few!

As it so happened, when I first came upon this painting, my eyes were continuously drawn to the kitten's paw, which is so prominently splayed on the man's arm. And, Leyster, through her cunning use of a triangulated design, has deliberately led your eye to that exact spot. Note the strong line formed by the woman's hand pulling the kitty's tail!

Cats paw, cat's paw; I wondered... what did she mean? So, I Googled it, and here's what I found: "Cat's paw is a phrase derived from La Fontaine's fable, "The Monkey and the Cat", referring to a person used unwittingly or unwillingly by another to accomplish the other's own purpose."

We can only guess at the "purpose," but if there's any moral to Leyster's fable, this is it: never underestimate the intelligence of a woman... not the little woman in the painting, and certainly not Judith Leyster's!

Incidentally, Leyster was noted for her play on words. Her monogram consisted of the initials JL accompanied by a star. Her surname, in Dutch, means "lead star."

(December 25,1610 - 1 January 1, 1696)

At the Market Stall - oil on wood panel - Louise Moillon

Finally we come to a Renaissance painter who is neither Dutch nor Italian: Louise Moillon, born in Paris. Disregarding her scant Wiki biography, there is actually quite a lot known about her life, which can be found here, in Part 1 and Part 2 of a National Museum of Women in the Arts article.

The consensus of opinion seems to be that Moillon painted still life representations of fruit (and vegetables) "in a quiet style."

 As usual, I disagree.

Taking a closer look at the examples of her work which specifically feature women, such as the painting above (several others can be found here), something more important seems to be taking place. Click on the image, and then note the facial expressions on the two women. Note the stall owner's - or costermonger's - muscular arms, and the older women's erect posture - in spite of her walking-stick - under her tremendously heavy basket. Then, have a look at the stall scene below.

The Fruit and Vegetable Costermonger - oil on wood panel - 1631 Louise Moillon

In this scene, a noblewoman is cooly inspecting a basket of fruit held aloft by another costermonger, who's wearing an odd expression as she stares at some point outside the frame. Is it a look of resignation or, perhaps, resentment? There's a tenseness in this scene that somehow clashes with the "quiet style" we are told to expect. Is there an underlying societal class statement being made somewhere between the fruits and the vegetables?

Perhaps, I'm reading too much into Moillon's work, but, as it stands, The Age of Enlighenment began during her lifetime (1620), and, although the French Revolution wouldn't occur till some 90 years after her death, I can't help but feel there is some presentiment of this in Moillon's "quiet" paintings.

(January 8, 1638 – August 28, 1665)

Judith with the head of Holofernes - oil on canvas - 1658, Elisabetta Sirani

You'll note that we have come to the point in history where we are now in possession of full birth-dates... and, both Elisabetta Sirani (and Moillon, above) were born under the astrological sign of Capricorn. Is this significant? Probably not; but, personally, I find it satisfying. ;-)

Comparing Sirani's "Judith..." with Gentileschi's "Judith...," however, is like comparing two separate species. Gentileschi's is obviously the winner when it comes to sheer expressionism, but, in terms of theatrical symbolism, Sirani has it down. Although her Judith is not the cooly impassioned slayer we found in the former interpretation, the heroine is equally as strong and resolute. There is, however, an irony in her expression that speaks volumes. It's as if she's saying: "One misogynist down, 4 million more to go!"

Sirani, herself was an illusive figure, but, in terms of her innate feminism, certainly no slouch. She painted an interpretation of the heroine Timoclea her Italian female peers must've loved:  Timoclea Hurling Her Rapist Down a Well (1659). She also had her own take on Venus and Cupid, adding to the evidence that eroticism was a key word for the Italian Feminists of the Renaissance.

There, I said it: the "F" word, Feminists. I welcome your (futile) arguments. ;-)

Sirani wasn't merely an artist and printmaker, however, she also trained a number of men and women artists, including her younger sisters, Barbara and Anna Maria.

Unfortunately, Sirani died at the age of 27 of mysterious causes. Originally they suspected homicide, but then changed the verdict to death by "love-sickness, as Sirani never married." Later, at some point in time, they decided she probably died of a "ruptured peptic ulcer" (see Wiki entry by clicking her post title).

As for "love-sickess", well, there's plenty of that going around during all phases of history; but Capricorns do not (literally) die of it. When it comes to the married state, Capricorns often marry late in life, if at all, and, surprisingly, many of the female Renaissance artists did the same. That being said, dying young is generally not what Capricorns do in general, unless there is foul play involved. So, my money is on the homicide.

Self-Portrait as Allegory of Painting - 1658, by Elisabetta Sirani
Pushkin Museum, Moscow

(February 20, 1630 - July 22, 1684)

Natureza morta (still life, or, literally: Dead Nature) - oil on canvas - Josefa de Óbidos

And, so, now we arrive in Portugal. Thus far, Spanish-born, Josefa de Ayala Figueira - that is, Josefa de Óbidos - is the only Renaissance painter to be found in her region; but, I suspect we are merely in the very early days of feminist inquiry, and I'm sure there will be others.

Óbidos is known for both her religious paintings and her contribution to the still-life genre, but if you study the painting above, along with a few found on this page, notably The Sacrificial Lamb, you might notice she is, in a sense, using the 20th century technique of collage. Hers was a painterly form of collage - drafting free-standing painted objects into her works to create a somewhat enhanced, cohesive whole - but, I believe she may have been the first artist ever to experiment with this particular method, some 300 years before the term "collage" was even coined. Collage in three-dimensional form was known to the medievalists, as it was to the Victorians, but Óbidos, as far as I know, was the true pioneer.

(August 20, 1630 - November 12, 1693)

Vanitas with Sunflower and Jewelry Box - oil on canvas - 1665, Maria van Oosterwijck

We return to the Netherlands again, and to, yet, another still-life artist, and one of the best, Maria van Oosterwijck. If women didn't exactly invent the genre, they certainly pushed the envelope, and this happened across the board during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Not only was van Oosterwijck a prolific painter, but she was also a consummate entrepreneur. Quoting her Wiki article:

"In addition to being a talented painter, she was also a savvy businesswoman; she obtained the services of an agent in Amsterdam to market her pieces to the Germans. Among her patrons were Louis XIV of France, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, Augustus II the Strong, and William III of England; she sold three pieces to the King of Poland. Despite the fact that her skillfully executed paintings of flowers were sought out by Dutch and other collectors, she was denied membership in the painters' guild, because women were not allowed to join."

In terms of marital status (or the lack thereof), we have this (from the Wiki entry):

"Early writers tended to depict female artists by correlating virtues which were traditionally held by women with similar values gleaned from interpretation of their paintings. Van Oosterwijck, who devoted her life to her painting rather than being a wife and mother, proved a challenging subject for these writers, and their accounts may not portray her as a fully formed personality. The more personal aspects of her paintings were also largely unexplored."

Need I say more? The article then reminds us of van Oosterwijck's peer, Rachel Ruysch, another Dutch still life painter, who, as it happened, managed to produce a litter of ten children! Talk about multi-tasking! :-O

But, If it means anything, van Oosterwijck's life was not without romance and intrigue. She was the muse of poet, Dirk Schelte, with whom she had a joint portrait painted by the artist, Gerard de Lairesse. Schelte also wrote a poem to her, and while I can find neither the painting nor the poem online, it might be found in this book.

Apart from Rachel Ruysch, other Dutch contemporaries of van Oosterwijck were Renaissance women painters, Jeanne Vergouwen, and Michaelina Wautier.


Portrait of the Artist's Husband - oil on canvas - Mary Beale

Mary Beale is described as the "most important portrait painter in 17th century England," but, as far as I could find, she is the only English woman who appears in a list of 16th-17th century painters. I find it, once again, almost impossible to believe she had no British woman contemporaries, but, if she did, they've yet to be found. Keep in mind that London was in the throes of the Black Death at this time, which had arrived later in the British Isles than it did elsewhere in Europe.

Her biographic information is sketchy, but a good source of her work can be found here and here.

As we can see from her portrait of her husband above, Mary Beale had the uncanny ability to  document her subjects in such a way that we almost feel we know them. I personally, think I saw her husband somewhere, although I can't place him.

Apparently, the great novelist, Daphne du Maurier, felt the same way. She was so inspired by Beale's portrait of Rachel Carew, (below), that she was moved to write her novel, My Cousin Rachel.

Portrait of Rachel Carew - oil painting - 1705, Mary Beale

(October 3, 1648 - September 3, 1711)

Self portrait - oil painting - Élisabeth Sophie Chéron

"The unusual possession of two exquisite talents
 will render Cheron an ornament to France for all time.
Nothing save the grace of her brush could equal
the excellencies of her pen."
- Inscription beneath Élisabeth Sophie Chéron's portrait at the church of Saint Sulpice, Paris.

Élisabeth Sophie Chéron was the quintessential "renaissance woman," in that she was a painter, a poet, a musician, and an academic. She comes across as a sweet and sensitive soul, but I've not found enough information about her to say a great deal more.

As it was, although courted by the men in her intellectual circle, she put off marriage till the age of 60, when she caved in to the advances of one Jacques Le Hay, a royal engineer. Sadly, three years later Cheron died.

I'm not sure if there's a cautionary tale in there or not!

Cheron and Louise Moillon were not the only French women painters in this time period, but the information rapidly becomes very scarce during an online research. I can only present names: Catherine Duchemin Garadon, and sisters, Madeleine and Geneviève de Boullogne.

(January 12, 1673 - April 15, 1757)

Last, but not least, at the end of our time period we have the Venetian portrait painter, Rosalba Carriera, who, interestingly enough, worked almost exclusively in pastels.

And, you can see this in the outstanding luminosity of her work. The subjects above, (left) Gustavus Hamilton, 2nd Viscount of Boyne (one of two portraits), and (right) "Young Woman with a Parrot" (found here), seem to glow with a richness of color that no other medium can duplicate. From experience, I can tell you this is no easy feat. Carriera's hand was that of an expert. It is no wonder (at all) that she was the most sought-after of the portraitists in both Italy and France in her day.

As we can see, she, too was a Capricorn artist... and, no, she never married. But, here's a bit of intrigue from her Wiki article:

"In Prideaux Place, Padstow, Cornwall, there is a charming portrait by Carriera of Humphrey Prideaux, the archetypal gentry son pictured on his "Grand Tour," in which a love-letter from Carriera to the sitter is reputed to have been hidden behind the frame."

One last note: a publication (in French) of one of Carriera's journals can be found online at Gallica.

Also, there are five more Italian Renaissance women painters of note that I was unable to include here: Margherita Caffi, Giulia LamaGiovanna Fratellini, and Arcangela Paladini, and Marietta Robusti.


* Originally my count was at thirty-four, but, with the inclusion of Marietta Robusti, it is now thirty-five. Irritatingly enough, in many of the articles I've linked to in this post, a majority of the authors find it necessary to add something to the effect of: "_______ is one of the few women painters at this time"

As we see, this is not true... in the same way there are more than a "few" Green Women!


Addendum: Invisible Women - A cautionary Tale

As Judy Chicago once said, and I'll dutifully quote her again:

"... I found out that many women before me had broken through female roles and made themselves into successful, independent and creative people. Yet the struggles and successes of one generation did not necessarily guarantee greater ease to the women of the next. Instead of the work of one woman attesting to the potential of all women, the work was ripped out of its natural context by male historians. One historical period would allow women more freedom... Then male dominance would assert itself again. The women's achievements would be left out of recorded history, and young women could not model themselves upon the struggles and accomplishments of their mothers." 

The cautionary tale is this: those of us born on the wrong side of the gender equation must never rest on our laurels. The misogynistic "illuminati" have a habit of coming out on top. Presently women are "eating cake" to a a small degree, but two hundred years from now, a future Jane Fortune might be ferreting our "feminine" artwork (and/or, our feminine bodies) out of the bottom of a swamp. Just saying.


  1. Great post! /Isabella Ruini as Venus/ does look like the /Mona Lisa/ and Leyster's self-portrait is fantastic. The still lives from different artists are amazing, and is it my imagination or do they particularly have a different quality from ones painted by male artists? I have to read this again carefully, but I am struck by how I simply have never heard these names or seen these paintings. It is sobering and grim.

    1. Thank you.

      Yes, all of the artists are women and all of them innovators, and, to an art student of the 20th century, all of them unknown! So, don't feel bad, I never knew of any of these artists either; and there was a time when their presence might have greatly encouraged me.

      C'est la vie. Well, we know about them now. But, yes, it is a little creepy how all these women remained truly invisible for so long, when, in their time, they were celebrated. You do realize there is more than one "cautionary tale" involved here...