by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Women

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 18 January 2008
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington.
Female nudes in the exhibition
include Lotte Laserstein's
'The Morning Wash,' 1930.



'I will show your Excellency what a woman can do,' wrote the 16th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi to one of her aristocratic patrons. Some three centuries later, the American artist Georgia O'Keefe remarked: 'The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I'm one of the best painters.'

The struggle of women artists to gain recognition as artists, regardless of their sex, is the underlying leitmotif of 'The Art of Women from the Renaissance to Surrealism,' a far-ranging exhibition of 260 works by 140 artists at the Palazzo Reale until March 9.

The curators are frank in stating that they were unable to obtain a number of works they would like to have included to make their survey more complete. They were competing with other exhibitions focusing on women artists, such as last summer's 'Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque' in Washington, a forthcoming show on women Impressionists (Frankfurt), and events attached to centenaries of the births and deaths of artists as diverse as Frida Kahlo (Minneapolis and San Francisco) and Angelica Kauffman (in Switzerland and elsewhere).

The sheer number of international exhibitions devoted to women artists is a sign of a new awareness of the hitherto underestimated contribution they have made to the history and development of art. And while Hans Albert Peters, one of the team of curators of the Milan show, laments their failure to secure certain works by better-known names, there is instead, for example, a wonderful self-portrait by the 19th-century Ukrainian émigré Marie Bashkirtseff (who died tragically young, in her mid-20s, and most of whose work was destroyed in World War II), and 'The Tisane Seller,' a luminous study of a young working woman by the 18th-century French painter Françoise Duparc.

To be celebrated in one's own times only to fall into obscurity is a fate not unknown among male artists, but it is an experience that has befallen almost every female artist, however famous in her own era.

Subsequent misattributions have been a major factor. Sofonisba Anguissola (around 1535-1625) - represented here by her groundbreaking 'Game of Chess' and self-portraits - had a brilliant career both in Italy and at the Spanish court. But she was not in the habit of signing her paintings and was paid in Madrid as a lady-in-waiting (as befitted her noble birth), not as an artist, depriving posterity of invaluable contractual documents. Her paintings were later attributed to a bewildering range of male artists, including Titian, Moroni, Sustermans, Van Dyck, Coello and Zubaran.

The equally successful Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652/3), the first great woman painter of the female nude (two are on show here) and the first woman member of Florence's Academy, suffered similarly. Her stunningly original debut picture, 'Susanna and the Elders' of 1610, in which she daringly moved the female figure into the near center of the canvas, was later attributed to her father, Orazio, and only recently recredited to its rightful author.

The Dutch genre and portrait painter Judith Leyster (1609-1660), friend, colleague, sometimes rival of Franz Hals (she won a court case against him for poaching one of her best students), was only 'rediscovered' towards the end of the 19th century, when a picture sold to the Louvre as a Hals turned out to bear her monogram. This led to the reassignment of a number of pictures to her œuvre. (Her characteristic 'Concert' displayed here contains a probable self-portrait.)

Nor does the problem of misattributions disappear in later eras, especially as the market has a vested interest in assigning works to well-known male artists rather than relatively obscure female ones. The most famous French Neo-classical painter, Jacques-Louis David, did a great deal to open up art education and the Salon to women. But quite a number of his female followers' works ended up being attributed to him. The true authorship of several has only recently been recognized, including one by Constance Marie Charpentier, represented here by a classic Romantic image of the period, 'Melancholy,' of 1801.

Women's access to art education and professional artistic bodies had gradually improved during the previous hundred years or so. The most internationally popular and influential single woman artist of the 18th century, the Venetian Rosalba Carrera, for example, was admitted by unanimous vote to the French Académie Royale in 1720. One of her pastels on show is an unusual self-portrait in old age.

Another highly engaging self-portrait, by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842), was painted when she was in her mid-30s. This gifted and feisty individual, the daughter of an artist and a hairdresser, was much in demand at the French court, and after the Revolution led a peripatetic existence and was warmly welcomed in courts and academies all over Europe and in Russia.

The opening up of the Paris Salons after the Revolution put France in the forefront of the emancipation of women artists. The number of women exhibiting rose from 28 in 1801 to 67 in 1822. By 1835 more than 20 percent of the participants were women. In the second half of the century, women in Britain also began to conquer the almost exclusively male citadels of art, and several hundred women appear in the records of public exhibitions in various parts of the country between 1840 and 1900. However, 19th- and 20th-century French and German, not to mention Italian, artists (who make up a third of the total) are much better covered in this show than their British and American sisters.

Among the most eye-catching pieces by more recent artists are those by Suzanne Valadon (1867-1938). The illegitimate daughter of a poor seamstress, Valadon entered the art world as a model. She posed for Puvis de Chavannes, Renoir and other prominent artists, but became a full-time painter in her own right from 1896 onwards. She was christened Marie-Clémentine, but renamed Suzanne by her friend Toulouse-Lautrec, a reference to the biblical story of 'Susanna and the Elders.'

Valadon's bold, brightly rendered female nudes, observed with an unwavering, almost brutal gaze, contrast dramatically with the near monochrome, dreamlike ones of the Rome-born American Romaine Brooks, whose 'Sad Venus' of 1917 is on show here. Interesting, too, in the context of the variety of female nudes produced by women artists is Lotte Laserstein's German realist 'The Morning Wash,' of 1930.

The weakest section of the exhibition is the final one, notionally devoted to Surrealism. There is surprisingly little here considering the large number of women drawn to Surrealism. The exhibition catalogue is attractively presented, but has no explanatory notes on individual works. The short artists' biographies are useful when most standard reference works today, while containing entries on minor male artists, still overlook major female artists - a situation that should be remedied over time by such exhibitions as these, and the wider diffusion of recent research spearheaded by feminist art historians.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024