Category

female artists

Grace Kelly’s Pressed Flowers

Grace Kelly measuring one of her flower collages, from "My Book of Flowers" (published 1980)

Grace Kelly measuring one of her flower collages, from “My Book of Flowers” (published 1980)

I’ve been reading My Book of Flowers by Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly) this past week. I’ve been fascinated to learn about this creative outlet for Grace Kelly, which I imagine gave her much satisfaction since many of her early expressions of creativity (as an actress) were put aside after she married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. This book was published in 1980, just two years before Grace Kelly was in a fatal car accident in September 1982.

I especially love My Book of Flowers because it explains Grace Kelly’s thought process and techniques for creating her pressed flower collages. For her, the physical process of touching the flowers and carefully working with her hands provided satisfaction: “…I prefer to use the tip of my fingernail or a small stem to move the petals into place. It is not only that the eyes find pleasure in finishing the pressed flower picture, but just sliding the flowers into place brings that same kind of tranquility as doing needlework, crocheting, or knitting.”1

Grace Kelly also explained that spacing of flowers is really important, especially when creating geometric collages that need to maintain a sense of “pristine formality.”2

Grace Kelly, pressed flowers in a geometric pattern with protea leaves, periwinkle, viola, daisies, and a yellow daffodil, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed flowers in a geometric pattern with protea leaves, periwinkle, viola, daisies, and a yellow daffodil, n.d.

Grace Kelly, flower collage with white phalaenopsis orchids from Ceylon, bougainvillaea and periwinkle, n.d.

Grace Kelly, flower collage with white phalaenopsis orchids from Ceylon, bougainvillaea and periwinkle, n.d.

Grace Kelly, Jasmine, Prunus Leaves

Grace Kelly, pressed collage from a branch of jasmine, prunus leaves, and pale davidii leaves known as “the handkerchief tree,” n.d.

Grace Kelly, Poppies, Buttercups, Wild Grasses

Grace Kelly, pressed collage “to capture the mood of a summer’s day” with poppies, buttercups, and wild grasses, n.d.

Grace Kelly, jigsaw puzzle, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed collage like a Provençal print or a Liberty fabric, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed collage with a reconstructed red rose and hydrangea flower from California, with pink pelargoniums from Spain, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed collage with a reconstructed red rose and hydrangea flower from California, with pink pelargoniums from Spain, n.d.

I particularly like this last collage by Kelly because the dark background reminds me of the paper flower collages that Mary Delany created in the 18th century (such as this one of the passionflower). Delany’s collages (which she called “paper-mosaicks”) were made from hundreds of pieces of tissue paper that were carefully cut and layered (and occasionally were touched-up with watercolor). Mary Delany’s collection of work is located at the British Museum. Grace Kelly discusses Mary Delany’s work at length in My Book of Flowers, so I think it is very likely that Kelly had Delany’s work in mind for this particular collage.3 Perhaps Kelly even thought that her “reconstructed red rose” (made from separately-dried flower petals) was similar to Delany’s process in constructing flowers out of cut pieces of paper.

It makes sense to me that Grace Kelly would be interested in creating pressed flower collages, not only as a creative exercise, but from a historical standpoint. Pressed flower collages historically have been associated with restraint and decorum, which are two things that I associate with Grace Kelly (both as an actress and a princess). For one thing, creating flower collages was popular among women during the Victorian era (the age of decorum and restraint!). And, in a ironic way, this restraint and decorum is also associated with the true origin of pressed-flower making, known as the art of Oshibana in Japan. This form of art began in the 16th century, allegedly was created by Samurai warriors as a way to practice patience, restraint, and concentration, as well as harmony with nature.

Although it seems unlikely that Victorian women or Grace Kelly would even be paired with Samurai warriors in the same sentence, I’m really tickled that the art of creating pressed flowers has found resonance and meaning across different time periods and cultures. Perhaps this international art form is another way that pressed flower collages help to embody Grace Kelly’s role as a diplomat and representative of a principality. Several of her collages bring together flowers from different countries too, which in a way is akin to the role she needed to perform as a political figure. This type of international harmony fits well with what Grace said about flowers and her immediate environment too:

“Through working with flowers we began to discover things about ourselves that had been dormant. We found agility not only with our fingers but with our inner eyes in searching for line, scale and harmony. In bringing out these talents within ourselves, we gained a dimension that enabled us not only to search for harmony in an arrangement, but also to discover the importance of carrying it into our lives and our homes.”4

Grace Kelly at an exhibition of her flowers at Galerie Drouant in Paris, 1977

Grace Kelly at an exhibition of her flowers at Galerie Drouant in Paris, 1977

1 Princess Grace of Monaco with Gwen Robyns, My Book of Flowers (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980), 47.

2 Ibid., 48.

3 See discussion of Mary Delany on Ibid., p. 144-147.

4 Ibid., 10.

— 4 Comments

The Alma-Tadema Artists!

This afternoon I learned that I can no simply write “Alma-Tadema” to designate the paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a Dutch-born artist who worked in England in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Writing just the last name would be too confusing, since I now have learned that Lawrence was not the only painter in his family: his second wife, Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema (maiden name: Laura Epps) was a painter as well, as well as his daughter Anna! I love the thought of the Alma-Tademas painting together and consulting each other on their latest artistic project. I want to highlight these two lesser-known female Alma-Tadema artists, Laura and Anna, in this post.

According to her obituary in The Times in 1909, Laura was being trained as a musician until she met Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who subsequently taught her how to paint. The two were wed that same year, in 1871. The paintings by Laura Alma-Tadema are different than her husband, though I do think that their styles are complementary. Although both husband and wife were interested in depicting scenes from the past, Laura’s paintings tended to focus more on genre and domestic scenes.

Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema, "Always Welcome," 1887. Russell-Coates Art Gallery and Museum.

Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema, “Always Welcome,” 1887. Russell-Coates Art Gallery and Museum.

The painting Always Welcome (shown above), suggests the interior of a Dutch home in the 17th century, particularly due to the clothing of the little girl. In this scene, a young girl has come to visit her invalid mother. This painting was owned by the collector Sir Merton Russell-Coates, and it was Merton’s favorite piece in his extensive collection. The painting also resonates with me, since my littlest sister, a blonde, was five years old when my dark-haired mother fell very ill and was bedridden some years ago.

Similar subject matter that celebrates the Golden Age of Holland can be seen in lots of Laura’s other paintings, including At The Doorway and Sweet Industry. Although I do think that her husband was the greater of the two artists (there are some bits of awkwardness in her proportions and stiffness in her figures at times), I’m glad to know that Laura was a painter in her on right. She exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and also exhibited elsewhere in Europe, including the International Exhibition in Paris (1878) and International Art Exhibition in Berlin (1886).

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, "This is Our Corner," 1872. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, “This is Our Corner,” 1872. Image courtesy Wikipedia

There is no doubt that Lawrence and Laura’s artistic influence played a role in the art created by Lawrence’s daughter, Anna. Anna and her elder sister Laurence were born to Lawrence’s first wife, Marie-Pauline Gressin Dumoulin, who died the year that Anna turned two years old. The two sisters are depicted in This is Our Corner (shown above), painted by their father Lawrence in 1872.

Anna Alma-Tadema, "The Drawing Room" (also called "The Drawing Room at Townshend House"), 1885. Watercolor

Anna Alma-Tadema, “The Drawing Room” (also called “The Drawing Room at Townshend House”), 1885. Watercolor

Anna Alma-Tadema enjoyed some success as an artist, particularly during the time that her father was also alive. Like her stepmother Laura, Anna also exhibited at the Royal Academy and other international exhibitions. Anna was a talented artist with an eye for fine detail, which allowed her to create some beautiful paintings of domestic interiors full of exotic and luxurious items. One watercolor, The Drawing Room (1885, shown above), was created when Anna was a teenager. This painting was exhibited in the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. I think it is easy to see how Anna’s taste for luxury and exoticism fits with the aesthetic of her father’s romanticized and orientalist paintings.

Anna Alma-Tadema (1865-1943), Self_Portrait, n.d. Oil on paper.

Anna Alma-Tadema (1865-1943), Self_Portrait, n.d. Oil on paper.

The two Alma-Tadema sisters never married – in fact, Laurence, a writer, wrote a short poem, “If No One Ever Marries Me” in 1897. The two sisters reputedly lived in poverty and obscurity after their father’s death, which is unfortunate given their talent and promise. In order to help pull Anna’s work out of obscurity, I’ll be more careful and specific when I label something by one of the Alma-Tadema painters. Even in writing this post, I found several paintings by Laura and Anna which were attributed to Lawrence (something that another blogger lamented back in 2011!).

What are your favorite paintings by either Lawrence, Laura, or Anna Alma-Tadema?

— 2 Comments

Lavinia Fontana and the Female Self-Portrait

This month marks one year since my friend Hasan Niyazi, blogger from Three Pipe Problem, unexpectedly passed away. I have thought about Hasan a lot lately, particularly because I think he would enjoy some of the topics I am exploring with my students. I also miss the enthusiastic emails, comments, and tweets that he would write. I thought that this month I would post one or two of the guests posts that I wrote for Hasan’s blog. The following post first appeared on Three Pipe Problem in March 2011. Currently, the content of Hasan’s blog is no longer online, although I hope that will change in the near future. In the meantime, I would like to make this post I wrote available again, in Hasan’s memory.

Lavinia Fontana, "Self-Portrait at the Spinet," 1577

Lavinia Fontana, “Self-Portrait at the Spinet,” 1577

As an art historian who is interested in female artists, I am particularly intrigued by the way that Lavinia Fontana chose to depict herself in self-portraits. Since Renaissance women weren’t always in control of how they were portrayed in art (women were often depicted by male artists), I like to see how a female artist represented herself when she did have control over her image.

There are five self-portraits by Lavinia Fontana that are known: four paintings and one drawing. I would like to examine two of these self-portraits, including my own ideas with those that have been previously presented by Catherine King and Babette Bohn.1 I think these two portraits are quite revealing in terms of what Fontana felt was important to communicate about herself.

Fontana’s earliest self-portrait is quite unique, since it was created as a marriage portrait. This painting, Self-Portrait at the Spinet (also called Self-Portrait at the Keyboard) was made in 1577 for Fontana’s future father-in-law, Severo Zappi.2 I think Fontana felt some pressure at this time, since she was marrying into a family which held a higher social status than her own.3 One senses that Fontana felt a need to emphasize her wealth and status by observing various elements in her painting: her lavish clothing, jewels, and a servant in the background. Fontana also chooses to emphasize her accomplishments and abilities: she is playing an instrument and her easel is distinctly placed in the background. In addition, her knowledge and learning are emphasized by the fact that she includes a Latin inscription in the upper corner of the canvas.

I think this Latin inscription is rather interesting, since it is indicative of the social situation for female Renaissance artists. In translation, the inscription reads, “Lavinia virgin/maiden of Prospero Fontana has represented the likeness of her face from the mirror in the year 1577.” Isn’t it interesting that Fontana is emphasizing her virginity? Unsurprisingly, virginity was highly desired by prospective husbands at the time, but I think that Fontana mentions her virginity to fit further societal expectations. As Catherine King points out that in terms of self-portraiture, “the act of showing oneself to another was very different for a young woman than it was for a young man.”4 Hence, female artists needed to be careful in how they presented themselves in portraits. Fontana visually manifests this care by not only stressing her virginity, but by appearing in modest red dress that suggests marriage (red was the traditional color for wedding dresses in Bologna).5

Lavinia Fontana, "Self Portrait In a Tondo," 1579

Lavinia Fontana, “Self Portrait In a Tondo,” 1579

The self-portrait by Fontana that interests me the most was painted just two years after Fontana’s wedding portrait. This portrait is a tondo painted on copper (1579) and was created expressly for placement in a collection. On 17 October 1578, Dominican scholar Alfonso Ciacón wrote to Fontana and requested her portrait; Ciacón intended to publish an engraved gallery of 500 portraits of respected scholars, artists, and statesmen.6 No doubt Fontana felt honored to have her portrait be included in this engraved “gallery.” Fontana sent this portrait to Ciacón in 1579, but the book of engravings was never published.

Nonetheless, we can see that Fontana wanted to portray herself in a certain way, especially since she knew that her image was intended for display alongside portraits of other prominent individuals. As with the marriage portrait, Fontana opts to emphasize her learning and wealth. She manifests her scholarly pursuits (she’s not just a mere “craftswoman”) by showing herself among anatomical casts and classical statuettes. (A nineteenth century engraving of Fontana’s painting is helpful in seeing these details.) In addition, Fontana is interested in suggesting her wealth; she depicts herself in lavish clothing and she is sitting in an armchair (poor people owned only stools at this time).7

Once again, Fontana is careful in how she has presented herself (in order to meet societal expectations). Not only is she wearing modest clothing, but she further emphasizes her respectability by stating that she is married. The inscription in the right-hand corner of her portrait states: “Lavinia Fontana married into the Zappi family made this 1579.” In fact, this reference to her marriage was advantageous not only for purposes of societal decorum, but also a way to emphasize her social status, since the Zappi family held a comparatively high status in society.

As I have been writing this post and thinking about Fontana, I’ve come to a realization as to why I am drawn to female self-portraits. For one thing, I’m an art historian who is a woman. Although I am hopeful that the job market for women in academia is ever-improving (and equalizing), I think many women still feel cautious in how they present themselves in the academic world (in order to keep a competitive edge against men). I certainly feel that way. Along these lines, as a female blogger, I sometimes find myself concerned with how I portray myself in writing. Although I don’t feel that I experience the same difficulties as women in the Renaissance period, I experience an element of self-awareness when I need to portray myself (either visually or in writing). I think blog posts are my equivalent for self-portraits, especially since I’m not an artist!

UPDATE: Since writing this initial post in 2011, I have written more about Lavinia Fontana’s “Self-Portrait” for the Ciacón collection elsewhere on my blog: “Lavinia Fontana’s ‘Self-Portrait’ and Gender.”

1 Catherine King, “Italian Artists in Search of Virtue, Fame, and Honour c. 1450-c.1650,” in The Changing Status of the Artist, eds. Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 72-74. See also Babette Bohn, “Female Self-Portraiture in Early Modern Bologna,” in Renaissance Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 251-256. If you are interested in seeing information about the remaining three self-portraits which are not discussed in this post, see article by Bohn.

2 Bohn, 253.

3 Ibid., 254.

4 King, p. 67. For an example of extreme modesty in portraiture, see Sophonisba Anguissola’s Self-Portrait from c. 1555, in which she modestly covers herself with a mirror (which she protectively places in front of her body like a shield).

5 Bohn, 254. The red knot that is placed on the instrument was a symbol of love and betrothal at the time, which can also tie into Fontana’s interest in maintaining social decorum. For more information, see Liana De Girolami Cheney, et. all, Self-Portraits of Women Painters (London: Ashgate/Scolar Press, 2000), p. 60 (revised. Washington: DC: New Academia, 2009). The red knot is also discussed in Caroline P. Murphy, Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and her Patrons in Sixteenth-century Bologna (New Haven and London, 2003), 41–3.

6 Name also appears in art history texts as Alonso Chaçon and Alfonso Chacon.

7 King, 73.

— 9 Comments

The Female Body and Horizontal Images

Sherman, Untitled 94, "Centerfolds" series, 1981

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins. I’ve been thinking a lot about the chapter dedicated to Cindy Sherman, particularly when she discusses the controversy regarding her “Centerfolds” series from 1981. This series began as a commission from Artforum‘s editor Ingrid Sischy. The format of the commission would have involved two facing pages, which led Sherman to think about “centerfold” photographs from men’s magazines like Playboy. Sherman decided to highlight this reference by using a horizontal format for her photographs, although she added an element of irony by depicting clothed women in supine or semi-supine positions. However, the pictures were never included in the magazine; it was thought that the irony would be lost and “misunderstood” by militant feminists.1 Sherman continued to explore this horizontal format, however, and finished the “Centerfolds” series despite the rejection.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled 96, "Centerfolds" series, 1981

Reading about the “Centerfolds” series and its horizontal format has prompted me to think about about various ways in which the orientation of a work of art can convey meaning. I can understand why the horizontal orientation would be used for a centerfold in a magazine, if only for practical purposes. But I have realized that the horizontal format also is preferred for a lot of depictions of nude females over the centuries. The paintings that immediately come to mind for me are Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), Ingres’s The Grand Odalisque (shown below) and Gauguin’s Spirit of the Dead Watching (“Manao Tupapau”, 1892).

Ingres, "The Grand Odalisque," 1814

So, why would a horizontal format be preferred by some artists of the female form? I approached this topic through the lens of feminist analysis (in relation to female objectification and the “male gaze”), and here are some ideas which I came up with:

  • The horizontal orientation the medium implies rest and repose. The image is “at rest” – as emphasized by the horizontal lines on the top and bottom of the canvas or medium itself. This suggestion of repose can perhaps suggest a contrast between the active viewer and the image itself.
  • Repose and rest is emphasized in the horizontal orientation of the subject matter. In this way, the object can be interpreted as passive as well, which draws a contrast with the active viewer.
  • It may be easier to objectify a body through a horizontal orientation, since the body might be more visually approachable to the viewer in a horizontal format. A horizontal body can fill the field of vision on part of the viewer, for example. Along these lines, viewers may find it more approachable to see a large-scale depiction of a body that is horizontally oriented: one may feel unable to objectify a vertically-oriented image in which the sitter towers over the viewer.
  • A thought: Could it be that the female form is more predisposed to horizontal orientations because females are traditionally associated with the land and earth? I’m reminded of the horizon lines of landscapes and wonder if there might be some parallel. In contrast, I often think vertical lines often are associated more with masculinity (e.g. phallic imagery, skyscrapers, etc.).

Cindy Sherman noted herself that the horizontal format conveyed certain meanings to viewers of her “Centerfolds” series. She said, “…the horizontal format was a problem. Filling that space meant using some kind of prone figure, and that made it seem to some people that I was glorifying victims, or something.”2 As a change, Sherman decided to adopt a vertical format for her next series, called “Pink Robes.”

Sherman, Untitled 98, "Pink Robes" series, 1982

Although these vertically-oriented images do not automatically suggest a centerfold spread in a magazine, Sherman explained the following about the “Pink Robes” series: “I was thinking of the idea of the centerfold model. The pictures were meant to look like a model just after she’d been photographed for a centerfold. They aren’t cropped, and I thought that I wouldn’t bother with make-up and wigs and just change the lighting and experiment while using the same means in each.”3

In contrast to the objectification that seems to be implied through the horizontal orientation of the “Centerfolds” series, I think that “Pink Robes” puts more stress on the subjecthood and identity of the model, particularly due to the vertical format. The subjects imply activity and alertness because they are propped “upright” through the vertical position of the frame. Even though the subjects in these scenes imply some vulnerability through their loosely-draped pink chenille bathrobes, the vertical format still suggests strength and presence.

What types of meanings do you think can be conveyed through horizontally- or vertically-oriented images of the female form? Can you think of other examples of representations of the female form which seem to relate to the orientation of the composition and medium?

1 Calvin Tomkins, Lives of the Artists (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 33.

2 Ibid., 34.

3 Paul Taylor, ‘Cindy Sherman’, Flash Art, no.124 (Oct.-Nov. 1985): 78-9. Source quoted online here: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/sherman-untitled-98-p77729/text-summary

— 8 Comments

Lavinia Fontana’s Self-Portrait and Gender

Lavinia Fontana, Self Portrait In a Tondo, 1579

Lavinia Fontana’s self-portrait from 1579 has long been of interest to me. I wrote about this painting on a guest post at Three Pipe Problem a few years ago, and I regularly use this self-portrait when I discuss Renaissance art with my students. Today I read some new considerations about this portrait in relation to gender and objectification, which I thought that I would jot down. These ideas were discussed by Catherine King in “Portrait of the Artist as a Woman” in Gender and Art (edited by Gill Perry).

I think King has some great ideas, and I think that a few of them can be taken even further. For example, King mentions that the circular form (tondo) form for the painting is significant, since “the circle was regarded as the most perfect geometric structure in contemporary scientific and philosophical thought, as it described the path of the planets and the structure of the cosmos.”1 I also wonder if Fontana chose this particular form because the circle is associated with the female sex, as was the case in ancient cultures like those of Egypt and Rome. The circle, for example, recalls the shape of the maternal womb and also the ovum. We know that Fontana’s self-portrait was intended to be placed in an engraved collection of other portraits, and it would be interesting to know if any of them appear in tondo form. (Does anyone know? I do know that the engraved collection was never published, but I’m not familiar with other original extant paintings that were intended to be turned into engravings for the collection, beyond this self-portrait).

19th century engraving of Lavinia Fontana's Self-Portrait, Castello Sforzesca, Raccolta Bertarelli, Milan

Catherine King also mentioned a few other significant details which I have not considered before. A nineteenth century engraving of this portrait allows us to clearly see that a nude male anatomical model is placed in the foreground, while a female nude is placed in the middle ground. On one hand, Fontana includes these figures to show off her education; she is a learned artist who has studied the human form and anatomy. However, Fontana may have also composed these figurines in a way to control her own image in relation to social decorum. King points out that the male figurine is turned with his head downward, so “there is no risk of the viewer imagining the naked man looking at [Fontana] while she is looking at us. It is, rather, she who is in charge of the gaze.”2

I think we could also take King’s ideas further and say that Fontana seems to want to control the (male) gaze and objectification of the female form in other ways, too. One can see that the little female anatomical model is twisted in a way so that her left thigh blocks the viewer from seeing her genitals. Her arm also reaches upward, partially covering her breast from view.3 Just as Fontana has worn high-collared and modest clothing in this self-portrait, she also seems to eschew objectification of the female nude, through the figure’s placement further away from the viewer and composition of the figure’s limbs. King hints at something along these lines, too: she notes that the female figure is placed further in the background in order to discourage the viewer from “mentally undressing” Fontana herself.4

King also finds that Fontana asserts her control over her image and female representation by drawing a contrast with the anatomical casts that are in the background. These casts, which are arranged in a cabinet, are also gendered. For example, three male heads are included in the shelves closest to the viewer. The heads and other (possibly male) body parts are therefore objectified through their fragmentation. Therefore, it seems like Fontana is stressing the male objectification in order to emphasize her subjecthood as the female portrait sitter. And although King never states this opinion outright, one gets the sense that King finds the fragmented bodies to be a bit threatening to the (male) viewer. (It’s not difficult for me to see how a modern viewer/reader could make some loose associations with Freud and castration theories!)

All this being said, I’m interested to know what you think of Fontana’s portrait. Does she seem intimidating and/or controlling to you? Do you feel like Fontana is trying to showcase her beauty and physical appearance? Can you think of any other ways that this painting can be interpreted in terms of gender?

1 Catherine King, “Portrait of the Artist as a Woman” in Gender and Art by Gill Perry, ed. (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1999), p. 53.

2 Ibid., 53.

3 The composition of the female figurine reminds me a little bit Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Susanna and the Elders” (1610). In the past several decades, the composition of the figure of Susanna has been interpreted as one who resists sexual objectification (partially due to art historians who were compelled to discuss this painting in relation to Gentileschi’s personal life).

4 King, 53.

— 7 Comments

Email Subscription

An email notification will be sent whenever a new post appears on this site.
Name
Email *

Archives

About

This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.