by Roderick Conway Morris

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Shattering a glass ceiling

By Roderick Conway Morris
TURIN 31 May 2003
Akademie der bilenden Künste, Vienna
The Painter's Studio by Pierre Subleyras, 1746



The 18th-century artist Pierre Subleyras painted a picture of his Rome studio a year or two before his death in 1749. He depicts himself to one side, looking decidedly worn down by his labors, holding up a self-portrait done in his youth. In the background, dwarfed by a towering stack of overlapping canvases is a figure, seated, seen only from behind, in tricorn hat and quasi-male attire but with long skirts, working at an easel, and a small child at a low table, also with her back to the viewer, apparently intent on drawing.

The faceless figures are surely Maria Felice Tibaldi Subleyras, the artist's wife and (at the time) a well-known painter in her own right, and one of the four children the couple had together before Pierre died prematurely, leaving them nothing 'except his fame and his example.'

This image of Maria Felice is emblematic of even the most successful women artists in Renaissance and baroque Italy - there in the studio, studying and working alongside men, but in a kind of 'purdah' imposed by prevailing Catholic ideas about the limitations and proper role of their sex, even their names soon to be forgotten.

Maria Felice Tibaldi Subleyras is one of nearly 30 women artists, including some, like Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi, whose reputations have been revived by recent research and exhibitions, and others who are in the process of being rediscovered and reevaluated, in 'Women in Italian Painting From the 18th and 19th Centuries,' a stimulating show of more than 100 pictures (some previously unpublished) by and of women at the Fondazione Pietro Accorsi (which continues until July 27).

Early on in the exhibition we are confronted by a series of etchings by the Bolognese artist Giuseppe Mario Mitelli (1634-1718) on the theme of women, in which they are serially presented as vacuous, vain, dishonest, envious, greedy, promiscuous and generally above themselves. This misogynistic popular propaganda was all too typical of the times and reminds us what women artists were up against when daring to try to enter this male and sometimes none-too-respectable sphere.

The greatest chance a woman stood of receiving any initial training was to be born into a family of artists, as were Fontana, Gentileschi and Tintoretto's daughter Marietta Robusti, who won considerable fame but died in childbirth when she was barely 30, and the four daughters of the Venetian-by-adoption Nicolo Renieri (1591-1667), all of whom practiced as professional painters in genres as diverse as flower painting and battle scenes.

Institutionalized hostility in the public domain toward women explains in large part why even the most obviously accomplished had so much difficulty 'selling' themselves and their work.

Anguissola, most of whose life fell outside the period on which the exhibition focuses (she was born in the 1530s and died in 1625), received a proper studio education arranged by unusually liberal-minded parents, went on to make a career for herself as an independent artist and was no doubt an important inspiration to other women. But even she, who spent many years in Spain as a court portraitist, is noted in the records there not as an artist but as a lady-in-waiting, a reason why subsequently many of her works were erroneously attributed to other, male, artists.

But Anguissola was fortunate to be born both a noble woman and before the full force of the Counter-Reformation, codified by the Council of Trent (1545-63), came into effect. For the Catholic Reaction brought new restrictions on women and changed the marriage laws, increasing the part played by the celibate priesthood in what had been until then often a more civil arrangement (which could be solemnized in the presence of a notary or even simply witnesses).

Equally, life in convents, to which many girls and women were consigned against their will, became more directly controlled by the all-male ecclesiastical hierarchy and more strictly enclosed. This deprived the many women artists who spent their lives in such institutions - several of whom figure here - of contact with male teachers and fellow artists, most of whom would have received a far better art education.

The Counter-Reformation also increased the polarization of women into opposing categories of 'whores' and 'saints,' and the phenomenon is reflected in the way that women were represented in painting. Mary Magdalene was particularly useful in this respect in that she was both whore and saint and so could, as penitent sinner, be shown exposing a generous measure of bare flesh, in the mode of St. Jerome, but infinitely more physically delectable.

A great number of new female saints were created in the wake of the Catholic Reaction, but most of them ended up having their likenesses painted by male artists, given that the church was usually reluctant to employ women, however talented, to do religious pictures, most devotional works by women being for family and private use.

But one of the most powerful canvases in the entire exhibition is a 'Martyrdom of Saint Eurosia' (a Spanish noblewoman beheaded by the Saracens for refusing to marry one of their number) by the Venetian Giulia Lama (1681-1747). That this was long attributed to Piazzetta is witness to the high quality of the work, and against the common trend Lama did manage to secure major ecclesiastical commissions, among them a crucifixion for the altar of San Vidal in Venice.

In the puritanical atmosphere of the post-Reformation, the nude also came under scrutiny and members of Rome's Academy, the Accademia di San Luca - which had a number of women members - were supposedly forbidden to use live female models when painting in this genre. Gentileschi was one of the first women painters regularly to assay this genre - possibly using herself as a model - and a nude 'Cleopatra' and a brooding self-portrait with a nicely calculated degree of décolleté appear here. And Giulia Lama left a large number of drawings of male and female nudes done from life.

Otherwise, more explicitly erotic pictures seem always to have been the work of men. A remarkable example is an intimate portrait by Cesare Dandini (1596-1657) of the mistress of Cardinal Giovan Carlo de' Medici, the musician and singer Anna Francesca (Checca) Costa. Depicted here with shift falling from her shoulders, lips rouged into a perfect cupid's bow, a suggestive upturned index finger and a frank, unwavering gaze, this is as carefully contrived an image of a sex goddess as the most expertly constructed still of a Hollywood diva of the 1930s. The great difference, of course, is that this painting was clearly never intended to be seen outside the cardinal's most private apartments. But, interestingly enough, Checca was no mere rich man's plaything; she was not only a celebrated performer, but also a successful entrepreneur, who arranged musical spectacles in Italy and France.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024