7 Female Old Masters Who Defied Their Time
Tales of misattributions, prolific savants, revenge, and suspicious deaths
No one has ever claimed that it’s easy to become a successful (self-sufficient, critically acclaimed) artist. Not today, and especially not in the past, when formal training was a requirement—and an immense expense. But it wasn’t just money that could get in the way. Up until the 19th century (and even thereafter), being an artist was a lot like being a politician today: you had to adhere to the mores of the time, win the acceptance of the elite, and avoid any treacherous scandals or missteps.
And so, if becoming an artist was a pipe dream for just anyone, it was almost impossible if you happened to be born a woman. (To denounce family life in favor of a life pursuing art, as a woman, was enough to offend.) As Calvine Harvey, Sotheby’s Old Master paintings specialist, has pointed out, only about 1% of major Old Master sales in 2018 were by women artists. There are many reasons for this, but it starts with training. No matter their talent, women were hard-pressed to get into reputable art schools; it was thought their “talents” might be put to better use, such as child-rearing and household-building. Those few that were allowed in were denied basic instruction, such as the use of a model (a disadvantage that persisted still for hundreds of years; even Mary Cassatt in the late 19th century could not obtain something so fundamental.) And even those who did get proper training were liable to be lost to time, with their work attributed to a man (or, in many cases, no one).
Modern revelations have put past injustices to task. In the 1980s, the Guerilla Girls publicized the fact that women artists were behind less than 5% of the works in the Modern Art department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while they were 85% of the subjects of nudes (more on the Guerilla Girls coming later this week). Earlier this year, female Old Masters got a lift from a Sotheby’s pre-sale exhibition, “The Female Triumphant,” an event that got some publicity from, of all people, “Posh Spice” Victoria Beckham.
The fact is, the increased barriers and undue difficulty female painters experienced all but guaranteed that those who achieved success were not just immensely talented but born with a limitless reserve of perseverance. And so we want to take this opportunity to highlight seven such examples, and the fascinating lives they led.
Widely thought to be the first female artist, the Italian painter Lavinia Fontana dabbled in many styles but is most well known for her portraiture and nudes. She was born in Bologna, her father the minor painter Prospero Fontana. Some historians have speculated it was her gender, warmth, and intelligence that allowed her subjects, who were often women, to open up to her. Eventually, her work came to be admired by Pope Paul V, who himself became a sitter of Fontana’s. As is the case with many female painters of her time, many of her paintings have been wrongfully attributed, to her contemporary Guido Reni.
Not only was the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi one of the first painters to earn the professional title of “female artist,” (alongside Fontana), she used her work to turn any notion of “femininity” on its head. As one of the most notable followers of Caravaggio, her work is dark, formidable, triumphant, and, at times, horrific. (This is most apparent in possibly her most famous work, Judith Beheading Holofernes.) Many biographers trace the theme of revenge back to her rape, by fellow artist (and friend of her father) Agostino Tassi, and the much publicized trial that followed.
If you are a fan of the Dutch Golden Age and saw the work of Judith Leyster, you can be excused for thinking it came from Frans Hals. Not only did Leyster admire and emulate the revolutionary portrait painter, a lot of her work was misattributed to him, as well as her own husband, Jan Miense Molenaer. She was prolific in a way no female painters of her time were, often with a point of view empathetic to her female subjects—a 17th century rarity.
Though she worked but 8 years, from the age of 19 to her untimely death at 27, Elisabetta Sirani produced over 200 works. It comes as no surprise then that she could paint very fast—so fast, in fact, her studio often attracted visitors who wanted to see her in action. Her [Judith and Holofernes] has often been compared to Gentileschi’s [Judith Beheading Holofernes], differing in both the involvement of the handmaiden, and Judith’s expression. Sirani died under immensely suspicious and contested circumstances, with her maidservant put on trial for potentially poisoning her.
The Dutch Golden Age painter Rachel Ruysch has always been a favorite of our curatorial team. If her focus on flowers seems well-trodden by now, it’s only because of the artists that followed in her wake; her style was all her own. Her love of flowers came in part from her father, a botanist. She would later return the favor, teaching him, as well as her sister, how to paint. Over the course of six decades she worked consistently (having enough income with her husband enabled them to hire help, keeping her at the canvas), building an international audience. To this day she is considered one of the most talented Still Life painters, of any time period or gender.
The Swiss Neoclassical painter Angelica Kauffman is almost a caricature of a prolific artist: brilliant from a young age (she was painting portraits of bishops by the time she was 12), a sponge to the world (she learned Italian, German, French, and English as a child), and talented in multiple disciplines (opera in addition to art). She was also emblematic of a female artist whose very gender caused her “scandal”; her closeness with fellow artist Sir Joshua Reynolds would be publicly satired. Nonetheless, she lived a long life full of achievement, including being one of two female founding members of the Royal Academy in London.
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As a portrait painter, what could be a greater achievement than to be chosen to paint the famously grandiose Marie Antoinette? The French painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun achieved this and so much more. Aligned with the emergence of Neoclassicalism as well as Rococo, Vigée Le Brun’s style was at once sensual and lifelike. She established herself early, but was caught up in the French Revolution (owing to her ties with royalty), and so fled to Italy, Austria, Russia, and Germany for a dozen years while tempers calmed. In all of these places she would go on to paint the aristocracy (including Catherine the Great), rubbing shoulders with some of the most monumental figures in world history. Her work is widely collected and exhibited today, and can be seen in the Louvre, the National Gallery, and the Met.