By Kathleen Stone
There were so many women artists here whose work surprises and delights. And the Wadsworth Atheneum’s decision to showcase them makes an important contribution to our evolving understanding of art and its history.
By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy 1500 – 1800 at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT through January 9.
When Giorgio Vasari wrote his compendium of the lives of Italian Renaissance artists, he overwhelmingly favored male artists, and included only one woman. The book, first published in 1550 with a revised version in 1568, played a seminal role in shaping our perception of how European art evolved. It is not surprising, then, that Properzia de’Rossi, the one woman he included, was regarded as the only woman worthy of attention. Now comes the Wadsworth Atheneum and its revisionist exhibition, By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy 1500 – 1800. Its goal is to prove that far more women were accomplished artists throughout the Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque periods.
Of the 18 women included in the exhibit, Artemisia Gentileschi is probably the best known. Born in Rome in 1593, Artemisia first learned painting from her father, who introduced her to his friend Caravaggio. He also hired another painter, Agostino Tassi, to instruct her in perspective. Instead, Tassi sexually harassed and raped Artemisia. The rape was undeniably traumatic, as was the seven-month long trial that followed. It included a painful physical examination to prove her pre-rape virginity. How much of that experience fueled her painting, and how explicitly, is the subject of scholarly debate. The Wadsworth Atheneum chooses to downplay the violation and its aftermath. Instead, the show concentrates on her paintings, where Artemisia frequently depicted herself in character.
In one picture on view, Artemisia poses as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, her hand touching the spike-studded wheel that was supposed to be the instrument of her death. The painting captures the moment just before the wheel is destroyed, according to Christian belief, by a burst of flames sent from heaven. Catherine looks out from the canvas, channeling the fortitude the saint needs to summon in the face of an emperor intent on obliterating Christianity. Perhaps the figure visualizes the strength Artemisia drew on to survive her ordeal with Tassi and the court. In another painting, Artemisia depicts the Biblical figure Judith, moments after she has decapitated the Assyrian general Holofernes. Judith and her maid are together in a tent. The heroine is holding a long knife that still drips blood as her maid stuffs Holofernes’s head into a bag. They hear a noise and they freeze, peering into the darkness that lies beyond the single candle’s illumination. Artemisia heightens the drama through the use of extreme chiaroscuro, a technique that suggests she was familiar with Caravaggio’s work. Her composition, with its sweeping arcs along a descending diagonal, places her firmly in the Baroque tradition.
Fede Galizia also painted Judith with the head of Holorfernes, about 25 years before Artemisia completed her version. Fede’s version is very different, with Judith dressed in jewel-studded finery, idly fondling the hair of the detached head. This Judith has not heard any approaching footsteps because she appears to be entirely unconcerned. Like Artemisia, Fede was trained by her father, and her mesmerizing painted details were inspired by his specialties, miniatures and metalwork.
Because most artists’ workshops were filled with young men, many women had no option but to take their art lessons at home. It was rare for a young woman to apprentice outside the family, but Sofonisba Anguissola was exceptional in that, among other things. She was born in Cremona in approximately 1535, to a family of minor nobility. With her parents’ blessing, she apprenticed to a painter named Bernardino Campi, whom she later eclipsed. When she was only 16, Sofonisba executed one of the most striking paintings in the exhibit, a portrait of her sister dressed as a nun. The geometry – the tunic’s horizontal folds surmounted by the veil’s triangular peak and the color — stark black and white — make the painting strikingly modern, as if Sofonisba knew where art would be headed, four hundred years in the future. Her talent for seeing beyond the obvious proved to be invaluable in the court of King Philip II of Spain, where she earned considerable acclaim painting portraits of the royal family.
Even women who were well-known during their lifetimes, such as Artemisia and Sofonisba, were forgotten over time. Elisabetta Sirani is another case in point. Born in Bologna in 1638, she was amazingly prolific, completing over two hundred paintings before her early death at age 27. Some were portraits, but more commonly she painted religious or secular narrative subjects. In one, she depicts Portia, wife of Brutus, who has just stabbed herself in the thigh. Apparently Portia knew her husband was plotting something, though she did not yet know it would involve Julius Caesar. She wanted to be in on his secret, and to demonstrate that she would keep his confidence — even if she was tortured — she inflicted pain on herself. It’s a dramatic scene, the deep red of Portia’s dress matching the blood on her thigh, and the same color is picked up again in the gold-woven brocade. Other details are equally commanding: Portia’s face is calm as she prepares to stab herself again and her shoulder is bared, perhaps to get her husband’s attention.
What’s interesting about these pictures of Portia, Judith, and Saint Catherine is that they depict women doing extraordinary things. Not only did these women not flinch when they came face-to-face with violence, but they sometimes initiated the violence, for which they always had a purpose. By killing Holofernes, Judith saved her town and the Israeli people. Portia wanted to become one those aware of her husband’s insurrectionist plans. Catherine faced down a Roman emperor rather than renounce her religious beliefs. These were strong women, depicted by other women.
Not every painting in the exhibit fits this mold. Some are self-portraits or portraits of lesser known figures, miniatures, and still lifes, including two outstanding examples of the genre by Fede Galizia and Giovanna Garzoni that boast exquisite coloration and extremely fine lines. One might think that painting the Madonna and Child would be in the wheelhouse of women artists, but that preconception is dispelled here. The exhibit includes a few examples, but none is particularly compelling. Maybe that’s because artistic training and opportunities for women were limited. It is inconceivable, for instance, that the Pope would have asked a woman to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or that a grand duke would have commissioned a woman to produce an altar triptych. Men, on the other hand, were trained in workshops where such large-scale commissions were common, and they had countless opportunities to work on Madonnas.
Does discrepancy in training account for what I found to be the static nature of some of the paintings in the exhibit? Or could it be that the paintings that the Atheneum could borrow for By Her Hand are not among the best of each woman’s output? Other reasons for the show’s unevenness should be considered as well. But none of these reservations should dampen a visitor’s enthusiasm: there were so many women artists here whose work surprises and delights. And the Wadsworth Atheneum’s decision to showcase them makes an important contribution to our evolving understanding of art and its history.
Kathleen Stone is a writer and a lawyer. Her book, They Called Us Girls: Stories of Female Ambition from Suffrage to Mad Men, will be out March 1, 2022. For more information about Kathleen and her work, visit her website. Or follow her on Twitter, Instagram and LInkedIn.