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The status of women artists - then and now

— February 2014

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Lavinia Fontana,  Portrait of a Noblewoman, c.1580 Oil on canvas 45 1/4 x 35 1/4 in. Courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Funding for the frame generously provided by the Texas St

Renaissance Women artists – who were they?

Jenny Kingsley explores the history of women artists of the Renaissance

Recently I saw a play about Elizabeth Siddal (1829 – 1862), the Pre- Raphaelite artists’ model, poet and artist. The art critic John Ruskin   compared her work to that of J.M.W. Turner   and G.F. Watts.   But despite opportunities to study and exhibit, Siddal remained in the shadow of her contemporaries. Ill health and a disheartening relationship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti  overwhelmed her. She lacked the benefit of a supportive, prosperous, cultured family or the camaraderie of established female artists. Siddal’s father sold knives and forks. For a while she earned her living working in a milliner’s shop.

Aspects of Siddal’s story reflect those of many female artists of the quite recent and not-so-recent past. From the Renaissance onwards it became possible for some women to identify themselves as artists but still, this was extremely hard to achieve.

Economic, political and legal inequality between the sexes, sustained by prevailing cultural norms, served to thwart Renaissance women from pursuing artistic careers; stars were few and far between. Other reasons for their obscurity are lack of documentation and evidence; for example, despite documented references to a woman’s oeuvre, it may be that little, if any, of her work can be found.  Another factor is incorrect attribution to a male artist, be he a relative or mentor, in order to retain the value of the work or hide the fact that the ‘Master’ commissioned did not create the work himself. For instance, some of the paintings attributed to the Venetian painter Tintoretto    could have been painted by Marietta Robusti (1552/60–90), his daughter. She trained with her father and was a highly esteemed portrait painter. Until quite late in the 20th century the tendency to preserve the status quo within art history education curricula has also discouraged reclaiming women artists from Renaissance history.

Furthermore, female Renaissance artists were automatically disadvantaged as there were no overt opportunities for them to study the nude, without which it is impossible to paint the clothed body convincingly. Representations of the human form, clothed and unclothed, were central to Renaissance art. Some women attempted to overcome this barrier by ‘copying’ while others concentrated on producing miniatures, portraits and self-portraits.

Nonetheless, there were women during the Renaissance who shared the artistic realm with men, usually because they were encouraged, mostly for economic reasons, to develop their skills by a male relative or family friend who was also an artist... To read on, Cassone subscribers click here

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How are women artists treated by the media now? London's Whitechapel Gallery is holding a symposium to discuss this on 6 March, 7p.m.  The Real World: Art, Gender and the Media. Full details on the Whitechapel Gallery website


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