The Women Artists Painted Over by History
by Rachel Campbell-Johnston
14 May 2014
It all goes back to Aristotle. It was he who first put about the rumour that women were biologically incapable of creativity. The reputation stuck. Which is why a new BBC series, The Story of Women and Art, and an upcoming exhibition at the Fine Art Society should prove thought-provoking. Entitled Annie Kevans: Women and the History of Art, the exhibition consists of some 30 portraits by the contemporary painter Annie Kevans of successful but frequently forgotten or overlooked female artists, salvaged from the archives of patriarchal art history.
For centuries only men had the money and contacts that allowed them to commission; the freedom to travel that helped them to broaden their minds; the education that prepared them to write the theories that set cultural agendas. They ran everything from the schools where the students learnt their skills to the guilds that conferred professional status.
Women meanwhile, corralled by social convention, were relegated for the most part to a merely subsidiary role. Even when given a break by an encouraging father, admiring fellow artist or progressive academy, they never really attained parity. In the 18th century, for instance, an era in which artists were still largely judged by their mastery of the figure, it remained taboo for a woman to paint from the male nude.
Yet trawl through the footnotes of art history and you will discover any number of female practitioners; talents which our contemporary art world, transformed in the Seventies by feminism, have increasingly recognised. Here is a pick of the top ten from across the centuries.
Claricia, 13th century
Several medieval manuscripts were worked on by women, one of whom was the German illuminator Claricia. In a late 12th-century psalter, she creates a particularly lively portrait of herself swinging from and forming the curly tail of a capital letter Q. Dressed in a slim-fitting robe and with long free-flowing hair, Claricia would appear to have been not a nun from the Augsburg convent for which the manuscript was made, but rather a well-born young lady who had been sent there for schooling. As the Middle Ages progressed, miniature painting was increasingly regarded as a becoming accomplishment for educated women.
Properzia de’ Rossi, c 1490-1530
Properzia de’ Rossi of Bologna who, according to Giorgio Vasari, was “very beautiful in person” and “played and sang in her day better than any other woman of the city” — was also the first professional female sculptor of the Italian Renaissance. Originally praised for her skill at carving fruit stones, she went on to sculpt portrait busts and, eventually, to beat her male rivals for significant church commissions. However, tormented by her unrequited love for an indifferent noblemen, she apparently sickened and died penniless and alone. Vasari draws the conclusion that women — even those that are great artisans — cannot escape their female nature.
Sofonisba Anguissola, c 1532-1625
The first lady of the Italian Renaissance, Sofonisba Anguissola was arguably the first female artist to gain an international reputation. Her alert, lively portraits, so attentive to character and decorative intricacy, earned enormous respect — not least in Madrid where, in her mid-twenties, she became official court painter. Even Michelangelo was impressed. Having met her in Rome, he began sending her sketches to copy and became her informal tutor. She, in her turn, opened the way for a host of other women to pursue artistic careers.
Artemisia Gentileschi, 1593-c 1652
As a teenager, this eldest daughter of a Tuscan painter was raped by the artist whom her father had chosen to be her tutor. Worse, the veracity of her court testimony was tested by thumbscrews. Little wonder perhaps that she went on to turn art into a weapon against the bullying patriarchy. Her biblical paintings of Judith slaying the predatory general Holofernes have all the blood-spurting vividness of the Baroque at its best.
Louise Moillon, 1610-1696
A 17th-century still-life painter who began selling her pictures at the age of ten, Moillon could capture the texture of a fruit skin, a water droplet’s reflections, a cloth’s surface detail or a basket’s plaited weave with such superlative skill that she was accepted as a member of the French Royal Academy despite its firm belief that the genre in which she worked didn’t matter.
Angelica Kauffmann, 1741-1807
By the time this precocious daughter of an itinerant Swiss muralist was a teenager she was taking portrait commissions from bishops and noblemen. Travelling to Britain, she caught the eye of Sir Joshua Reynolds. He nicknamed her Miss Angel and painted her portrait — a compliment she returned. It was probably owing to his good offices that she became one of London’s most sought-after portraitists and, in 1769, was appointed a founding member (the only woman apart from Mary Moser) of the British Royal Academy, becoming from then on a prolific contributor of fashionable history and allegorical canvases to its annual show.
Anne Seymour Damer, 1749-1828
Developing a youthful interest in art under the auspices of her guardian Horace Walpole, this aristocratic portrait sculptor received commissions from the likes of George III and Napoleon. Known for her theatrical personality, her preference for wearing male clothing and for entering (even after her marriage to an earl) into demonstrative friendships with other women, she was nonetheless so serious about her art that she asked to be buried with her sculpting tools and apron as well as the ashes of her favourite dog.
Élisabeth Vigėe Le Brun, 1755-1842
The most significant female painter of the 18th century, the Parisian Vigée Le Brun was so determined to work it’s said that she remained at her canvas even through her labour pains. When she was young, her studio was seized by the authorities because she had practised without a licence. But still she went on to paint dozens of flamboyant Rococo portraits of Marie Antoinette, and in 1783 the French Académie was finally persuaded, under royal pressure, to accept her as a member.
Suzanne Valadon, 1865-1938
Despite being the first woman painter admitted into the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Suzanne Valadon, an erstwhile acrobat whose circus career had ended with a fall from a trapeze, is probably better known as the model for Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir, and the mother of Maurice Utrillo, than as a painter in her own right. But Degas recognised the vibrant power of her work and admired the bold candour of her nudes. He bought her paintings and encouraged her.
Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2010
For most of her life, Louise Bourgeois was dismissed as a peripheral figure and it was only in the 1980s, after New York’s MoMA had offered her a retrospective, that the labyrinthine inner world of this last great surrealist was revealed. Bourgeois — nicknamed the Spiderwoman (after her now world-famous sculpture Maman) — had to wait until she was a septuagenarian for her unnervingly subversive and profoundly autobiographical vision to be finally recognised.