Women painters before 1800: 1 to 1630

Artemisia Gentileschi, Allegory of Painting (c 1638-9), oil on canvas, 98.6 x 75.2 cm, The Queen's Collection, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Next week, I will start celebrating the bicentenary of one of the most successful women painters of the nineteenth century, Rosa Bonheur. Opportunities for and recognition of women in the arts grew greatly during her lifetime. This weekend I look back at the long night before that, when success as an artist was almost impossible for women, at some of the pioneers who made Bonheur’s career possible.

Among the earliest women painters to gain recognition, Sofonisba Anguissola (1530–1625) was exceptional in that she wasn’t born into an artistic family. Her parents were minor nobility in Cremona, Lombardy, Italy, and educated and encouraged their daughters to develop their abilities. As a result, four of their six girls became painters, but it was only Sophonisba who persisted long enough to make a career of her art.

When she was fourteen, she went to study in Bernardino Campi’s workshop, then to Bernardino Gatti’s. She probably completed her training in about 1553, but by then was already painting some outstanding works in oils.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1530–1625), Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi (1550), oil on canvas, 111 x 109.5 cm, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Sienna, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

One of her earliest surviving paintings is also one of her most remarkable and ingenious, her Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi, painted in 1550 when she was just eighteen. This double portrait is fascinating in her depiction of two left hands on the portrait which Campi is shown working on: one reaches up to meet his right hand, which holds a brush, and the other holds her own brushes.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1530–1625), The Chess Game (Portrait of the artist’s sisters playing chess) (1555), oil on canvas, 72 x 97 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Poznaniu, Poznań, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Five years later she transformed Renaissance portraiture with her superb Chess Game (1555), showing her sisters playing chess, with their mother (probably) making an appearance at the right edge. Her sisters, Lucia, Minerva and Europa Anguissola, are shown dressed in their finest, but the informality of their poses and expressions is striking, and innovative in portraits at that time.

Later in the sixteenth century, another precocious woman artist rose to fame, Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614). She was the only child of the successful painter Prospero Fontana, at a time when painting was very much a family business. With no son to take the workshop on, it was a relief to her father that she showed strong artistic ability at an early age – so early that by the time she was 13, she may have been generating much of the family’s income.

Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), Portrait of a Newborn in a Cradle (c 1583), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Bologna, Italy. The Athenaeum.

Her paintings provide unusual insights into contemporary family life, as in her Portrait of a Newborn in a Cradle (c 1583): clearly a child of a rich family, wearing a string of pearls in their ornate crib.

Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), Judith and Holofernes (date not known), oil on canvas, 175.9 x 134.1 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Fontana set a tradition that successful women painters should make several works showing Judith with the Head of Holofernes. This version, from 1600, avoids gore and puts Holofernes’ head discreetly in half-light, while Judith brandishes the sword with pride, and her maid seems to have taken delight in the action. Her use of rich colours and chiaroscuro were advanced for painting in Bologna at the time.

Her workshop in Bologna was successful and prosperous, but ultimate recognition came in 1603, when Pope Clement VIII invited her to move workshop and family to Rome. She quickly acquired powerful patronage, painted a portrait of Pope Paul V himself and became his court portraitist, and was even awarded a bronze medallion made for her by Casone in 1611.

Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli with six of her children (1604-5), oil on canvas, 99.1 × 133.4 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

When in Rome, she painted the remarkable family Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli with six of her children (1604-5), showing this wife who died within a year of its completion, five of her sons, and her daughter Verginia. As in most of her portraits, the lapdog was a sign of fidelity, and Fontana’s depiction of clothing exquisite.

Fontana died in Rome in 1614, leaving the largest oeuvre of any woman painter prior to 1700. Unlike the few women painters who had gone before her, she had succeeded at the highest level in a range of different genres, including mythology, religious works (with some large-scale altarpieces), and portraiture. Her reputation enabled Bologna, in particular, and Italy more generally to accept the work of future women artists. Although it would be several centuries before women had anything approaching a level field with men (if they have achieved that even today), Lavinia Fontana’s achievements were singularly great.

While she was painting for the Pope in Rome, in northern Europe still life painting was developing rapidly, thanks to the quiet brilliance of Clara Peeters (fl 1607-1621). We don’t even know when she was born, but she seems to have trained in Antwerp, then pursued her career successfully in the Dutch Republic. She’s thought to have been internationally successful by 1611, when at least four of her paintings were sold to Spain. Her last reliably dated works are from 1621, although there are a few paintings which have been attributed to her from later. No one knows whether she stopped painting when she married, or when she died.

Clara Peeters (fl 1607-1621), Still Life of Fish and a Candlestick (1611), oil on panel, 50 x 72 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Her Still Life of Fish and a Candlestick is one of the earliest and most accomplished paintings of the fruits de mer, which were to find favour with William Merritt Chase nearly three centuries later.

Clara Peeters (fl 1607-1621), Still Life with Flowers and Gold Cups of Honour (1612), oil on oak, 59.5 x 49 cm, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, her still life with Flowers and Gold Cups of Honour (1612) reveals multiple miniature self-portraits reflected in the gold cup at the right. These are shown more clearly in the detail below.

Clara Peeters (fl 1607-1621), Still Life with Flowers and Gold Cups of Honour (detail) (1612), oil on oak, 59.5 x 49 cm, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Her short career overlapped with that of the most famous of all the early women painters, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653). She was the eldest child of the renowned Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi, learned to draw at an early age, and worked in her father’s workshop. Her father was strongly influenced by the work and friendship of Caravaggio, which in turn was an early influence on Artemisia. Her mother died when she was 12.

She was taught by Agostino Tassi, when he was working with her father on murals in a palace in Rome, at which time Artemisia was already painting her own works in oils. Tassi raped Artemisia, and continued to have sexual relations with her in the expectation that they would marry. Her father pressed charges against Tassi, who was eventually convicted after a long trial which was very traumatic physically, mentally, and emotionally for Artemisia.

Her father arranged for her marriage to a modest painter from Florence, and the couple moved to Florence where Artemisia started receiving commissions. They worked there between 1614 and 1620, during which Artemisia became the first woman ever to be accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. She enjoyed good relationships with other prominent artists and intellectuals, including Galileo Galilei. In 1618 the only one of her four children to survive into adult life was born, Prudentia, who also became a painter. However in 1621 she separated from her husband and moved back to Rome, the same year that her father moved to Genoa. This didn’t prove a success, so she moved to Venice, and on to Naples in 1630.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653), Susanna and the Elders (1610), oil on canvas, 170 x 119 cm, Schloss Weißenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Gentileschi’s first painting of Susanna and the Elders from 1610 remains her best-known, and with Tintoretto’s is one of the canonical paintings. Gone are the decorations, symbols, and diversions of earlier artists, in favour of a close-up of the three actors at the crucial moment that the elders tell Susanna of their ‘generous offer’. They’re as thick as thieves, one whispering into the ear of the other, who holds his left hand to his mouth as he commits his crime. Susanna is naked, distressed, and her arms are trying to fend the elders off. Her face tells of her pain and refusal to succumb to their blackmail.

She is most famous for her paintings of Judith Slaying Holofernes, her first version being painted at about the same time as her rape and Tassi’s subsequent trial. It’s generally believed that Tassi was the model for Holofernes, she cast herself as Judith, and a female companion who failed to come to her aid during the rape (and failed to give evidence in her support at the trial) was the maid. It would therefore be natural to interpret this painting as part of her very understandable response to her own traumatic events.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620-1), oil on canvas, 200 x 162.5 cm, Galleria della Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
Artemisia Gentileschi (c 1593-1656), Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620-1), oil on canvas, 200 x 162.5 cm, Galleria della Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Her second version, painted in 1620-21 and now in the Uffizi in Florence, is similar in most respects, although the view isn’t as tightly cropped on the three figures, so that it shows Holofernes’ legs and a deep red wrap around his lower body. The lower section of the blade is also executed rather better, so that it doesn’t appear to merge with the surface of the bed.

Judith’s face shows intense concentration and effort, both arms thrust out straight in front of her. The left grips Holofernes by the hair, the right pushes the blade onwards. Her maid is seen holding Holofernes down, pushing hard with both her arms out straight too. Holofernes’s right hand seems to be pushing the maid back, but his left arm is folded over his body.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Allegory of Painting (c 1638-9), oil on canvas, 98.6 x 75.2 cm, The Queen's Collection, England. Wikimedia Commons.
Artemisia Gentileschi (c 1593-1656), Allegory of Painting (c 1638-9), oil on canvas, 98.6 x 75.2 cm, The Queen’s Collection, England. Wikimedia Commons.

There’s more uncertainty as to whether her brilliant painting of the Allegory of Painting (c 1638-9) is a self-portrait. This striking angle of view can be accounted for if this was a self-portrait composed using two mirrors, one placed above and on the left of the painter, the other directly in front of her, where she is gazing so intently. If so, it was particularly ingenious because the reflection in the second mirror would have normal chirality (left and right would not be reversed).

However it has been suggested that this isn’t a self-portrait, in which case her choice of view would have been most unusual. It’s believed to have been painted during Gentileschi’s stay in London, possibly for the King, Charles I, as it appears to have passed straight into the Royal Collection, where it has remained ever since (apart from a short absence prior to the Restoration in 1660).

Tomorrow I will resume with the work of Judith Leyster and the meteoric but brief career of Elisabetta Sirani.