female artists

Susanna and the Counter-Reformation

Artemisia Gentileschi, "Susanna and the Elders," 1610. Image courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art

“Susanna and the Elders” is an apocryphal biblical story of virtue and voyeurism. The story tells of a virtuous Israelite woman who was bathing, unaware that she was watched by two lecherous elders. After bathing, the elders accost Susanna and threaten to blackmail her unless she has sex with them. Susanna refuses to succumb to their threats, and eventually is saved. The story of Susanna and the Elders often appears in Renaissance and Baroque art. The inclusion makes sense for a lot of reasons. For example, the subject matter provided an excuse to depict the female nude.

One of the most popular depictions of Susanna and the Elders was created by the female artist Artemisia Gentileschi (see above). This painting has been discussed at length by feminist art historian Mary Garrard. Garrard discusses how Susanna’s twisted composition stresses her defensiveness and innocence. Garrard also delves into a discussion of Artemisia’s own biography, in which she was raped by her father’s assistant Agostino Tassi.

Although Garrard has some interesting ideas, today I’m more interested in writing about a more recent interpretation for this painting. Edward J. Olsewski published a short article in 2007 which discusses new ways to interpret this painting. Edward J. Olszewski agrees with some of Mary Garrard’s interpretations, but finds that we need to interpret this painting (and other depictions of Susanna going back to the Renaissance) within the context of the Counter-Reformation and extant literature. For example, he finds that nudity is a reflection of truth rather than merely male lasciviousness, and quotes several sources that discuss “truth unveiled” (Dante, Purgatorio XXXIII) or “nudity – that is truth” (Berchorius’ Moralized Ovid) to prove his point.1 He writes, “Much of the literature of the cinquecento associates goodness with beauty. Thus, Susanna’s nudity can be interpreted as an indication of her innocence, of the truth of her claims in the episode with the Elders.”2

I think this focus on truth and innocence is pertinent to the Counter-Reformation period, in which the Catholic Church is being accused of false doctrine and heresy by the Protestants. In fact, Susanna herself was seen as a symbol of the Church going back to the early Christian era: Hippolytus associated Susanna with the persecuted Church (finding her bath to be a parallel with baptism) and felt like her resistance of temptation prefigured the Church’s redemption of original sin.3 It seems to me that images of Susanna, therefore, served as a way to claim the innocence of the Church against the pestering and corrupt Protestants.

My ideas about Susanna and the Counter-Reformation sentiment are further supported by Edward J. Olszewski’s connections. He noted that Martin Luther and other northern Reformers had considered the story of Susanna to be apocryphal, which led to the exclusion of the story in the 1611 version of the King James Bible. In the Catholic Bible, however, the story remained as an apocryphal addition to the Book of Daniel. As a result, this apocryphal story seems to have been conscientiously depicted in Italian art as a visual assertion of the correctness —  one could even say the “naked truth” — of the Catholic Bible.4

1 Edward L. Olszewski, “Expanding the Litany for Susanna and the Elders,” in Notes in the History of Art 26, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 46.

2 Ibid.

3 Mary Garrard, “Artemisia and Susanna” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982), 152. See also Olszewski, p. 42.

4 Olszewski, p. 46. It is worth noting, too, that “Susanna and the Elders” paintings were also created by Northern European artists, such as Rembrandt and Rubens. I believe, though, that the subject matter of Susanna and the Elders would have held particular meaning to a Counter-Reformation audience.

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“Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence” by Jane Fortune

"Invisible Women: Forgotten artists of Florence" by Jane Fortune. The Florentine Press, 2010

I recently have had the pleasure of reading Jane Fortune’s book, Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence. The next time I visit Florence, I want to take this book with me! Jane Fortune explores some of the lesser-known female artists, whose works are located in some of the great galleries and institutions (and their storage vaults, unfortunately) in Florence. In addition to discussing the lives of these artists, the book aims to introduce the reader to the restoration and rediscovery of unknown or famous works by women artists.

Invisible Women is divided into very short chapters that are dedicated to a particular artist, or a short theme (like the restoration for a work of art). However, even though the chapters are short, they provide a wealth of information about female artists who lived between the 15th and 20th centuries. I was continually surprised at learning new facts and information about these female artists, even though some have long been familiar to me. I also was pleased to see how the book included a range of artistic techniques and traditions, including those of Dutch and French artists.

Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Self-Portrait at an Easel, 1790. Uffizi Gallery, Vasari Corridor

To give somewhat of a sense of the book, I thought that I would write down some short facts that I learned while reading the book (loosely similar to how Fortune presents different artists in short chapters):

  • Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun (self-portrait shown above) painted no less than 600 portraits (and her oeuvre is about 800 works). Her rise to become the court painter for France is very impressive, considering that Vigée-Le Brun was primarily self-taught by copying the masters (p. 73). It has been remarked that the woman depicted on the left side of Vigée-Le Brun self-portrait resembles Marie Antoinette, Vigée-Le Brun most famous subject.
  • Angelica Kauffmann was conned into marrying a man who fraudulently posed as a count from Sweden. Given her friendship and connection with the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, Kauffmann was able to avoid the social stigma of separation. Years later, after her charlatan-cum-husband passed away, was Kauffmann free to marry again. She married the Venetian painter Antonio Zucchi (p. 77).

Wallerant Vaillant, Maria van Oosterwijck, 1671. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

  • Maria Van Oosterwyck (shown above) weaseled out of a marriage proposal to fellow floral painter Wilhelm Van Aelst. Maria originally accepted the proposal with a few conditions. The marriage could take place after the following: 1) Van Aelst needed to work for one year, working 10 hours days at his studio and 2) Van Aelst could not display his affections for Maria at any time. At the end of the year, Maria “cunningly refused his proposal, showing him her ticks for the times he had failed to maintain his part of their pact” (p. 93).

Drawing of Sofonisba Anguissola from Van Dyck's sketch book, 12 July 1694

  • Near the end of her life, Sofonisba Anguissola was the tutor to the 24-year old Flemish painter, Anthony Van Dyck. Anguissola was losing her eyesight (possibly due to cataracts), but still continued to advise Van Dyck on his painting technique. Later, Van Dyck remarked “that he had learned more from a sightless old woman than from all the master painters in Italy” (p. 146).
  •  Artemisia Gentileschi didn’t learn to read or write until she was an adult (p. 157).
  • Artemisia Gentileschi was commissioned to make a painting (one of the first in the cycle of 15) to commemorate the life of Michelangelo. The Allegory of the Inclination (c. 1615-1616) is part of the Casa Buonarroti collection.

I noticed that Jane Fortune focused her book on artists who made two-dimensional art (like paintings or pastels). This made me wonder about female sculptresses who worked in Italy (such as Properzia de’ Rossi) between the 16th and 20th centuries. Would there be enough information to write another book on sculptresses (whose works are in Florence or elsewhere in Italy)? Painting and drawing seem to have been a more popular and accessible activities for women during that time, but perhaps I only make that assumption because there isn’t much written information about sculptresses.

Anyhow, this book was very interesting and fun. The chapters are written in a warm, approachable tone which compliments the beautiful color reproductions. The book is written in both English and Italian, so it has appeal to a broader audience. The other great thing about this book is that is provides “The Women Artists’ Trail Map” at the end of the chapters, so that a visitor to Florence can easily locate paintings by female artists that are currently on public view. Isn’t that neat?

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in art or women artists. The proceeds from Invisible Women goes to support projects funded by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation and the Florence Committee of National Museum of Women in the Arts. What great causes!

Thank you to Linda Falcone and The Florentine Press for the review copy of this book.


Female Artists and Nativity Scenes

Evie Hone, detail of "Nativity," 1946. Stained glass window located at Saint Stanislaus College, Tullabeg

Keeping in line with the theme for this week on female artists (in connection with my ongoing GIVEAWAY!), I wanted to write a Christmas post on female artists who painted Nativity scenes. This was a much more frustrating project than I anticipated; it was difficult to come up with examples to share. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that there aren’t too many (extant) examples out there, but I am a little disappointed. In some ways, it seems a little ironic that the most famous artistic scenes about birth were created by men!

One of the examples that I enjoyed discovering was the Nativity window located at Saint Stanislaus College in Tullabeg, Ireland (see detail above). This window was created by the artist Evie Hone in the mid-20th century. Originally trained as a painter, Hone turned toward stained glass later in her career. S. B. Kennedy writes that this change to stained glass “gave [Hone] free rein to her growing power as a colorist.”1

There are a few contemporary nativity scenes which I think are interesting. Janet McKenzie was commissioned to create The Nativity Project. I think her painting Mary and the Midwives (2003) is quite interesting, not only in terms of style but also subject matter and composition. I also think Flor Larios’ Nativity Star (n.d.) is fun, as well as the Nativity scenes by Valerie Atkisson.

As for more historical art (pre-20th century), I have learned that most of the nativity paintings either longer exist (or are not available online). For example, a Nativity by Lucrina Fetti (17th century) was destroyed during the Napoleonic era.2  Similarly, I can’t find any location for the nativity scene that was made by Victorian artist Eleanor Vere Boyle (etched in brown ink on vellum).Another “untraced” painting was created by the discalced Carmelite nun, Maria Eufrasia della Croce painted a nativity scene for the church San Giuseppe a Capo al Case. The painting received quite a bit of praise. In the 17th century, Filippo de Rossi said that this painting was created by “a most excellent nun and painter of the place.”4 Even Bruzzio was able to drum up some praise for this painting, saying that “even if it is by a woman it is not a displeasing work.”

It is disappointing that these works don’t exist anymore. However, don’t let this thought keep you from enjoying the Christmas holiday, friends! Do you know of any other nativity scenes (or “Adoration of the Shepherds” scenes) created by female artists? Please share! One of the only other examples (which is kinda-sorta similar to Christmas nativity scenes) is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Birth of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1635).

Happy holidays!

1 S. B. Kennedy, “Evie Hone,” in Dictionary of Women Artists, vol. 1 (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997), p. 402. Available online here.

2 Myriam Zerbi Fanna, “Lucrina Fetti” in Dictionary of Women Artists, vol. 1 (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997), p. 520-21. Available online here.

3 Ellen Creathorne Clayton, English Female Artists, vol. 2, p. 358.

4 Marylin Dunn, “Convents,” in Dictionary of Women Artists, vol. 1 (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997), p. 26. Available online here. See Franca Trinchieri Camiz, “Croce,” in Dictionary of Women Artists, vol. 1 (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997), p. 421. Available online here.

5 Camiz, 421.


Book Review and Giveaway: “Irene Parenti Duclos: A Work Restored, an Artist Revealed”

Cover image of "Irene Parenti Duclos: A Work Restored, an Artist Revealed"

Over the past few weeks I have had the pleasure to read a new book on a female painter, Irene Parenti Duclos. This book, Irene Parenti Duclos: A Work Restored, an Artist Revealed, was published by the Florentine Press in October 2011. I wasn’t familiar with Duclos before reading this book; she was well-respected female painter in 18th century from Florence. This book was written (in part) to discuss the restoration of Duclos’ copy of Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna del Sacco (18th century, detail of Duclos’ copy appears on book cover above). Coincidentally, the restoration of the Duclos canvas occurred at the same time that Andrea del Sarto’s original fresco (1525) underwent restoration (compare del Sarto’s pre-restoration fresco to the restored version). Scholars were able to collaborate and learn more about Duclos (and the del Sarto fresco) during this restorative period. You can read a little more about the Duclos copy and restoration here.

Duclos' "Madonna del Sacco" (18th century) in the Accademia post-restoration

This book is great for a lot of different reasons. For one thing, I like that this book was written and promoted with the help of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation. (What a great cause!) I also like the book has appeal to a lot of different types of people: art historians, feminists, connoisseurs, and restorers. The book pages are divided to accommodate text in two languages (English and Italian), and therefore appeals to an international audience.

Book chapters are divided into different topics of interest. Some of the chapters are more technical than others (especially the last two chapters, which discuss the restoration of the canvas and the digital microscopy used in the process). Although these last two chapters were the most difficult for me to read (my art-historical brain isn’t used to scientific language!), I still thought the discussion was interesting.

As a feminist art historian, I was particularly interested the discussions on female artists. I liked reading a little bit more about Angelica Kauffman, Elizabeth Vigeé Le Brun, and other Italian female artists with whom I was not familiar before. Although Duclos was a painter in the 18th century, the discussion of female artists even expands to include the Renaissance artist, Suor Plautilla Nelli. I was happy to see that Nelli was discussed in detail; I learned just a little about her when I read Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, but I’ve had difficulty learning more biographical information about her. I also appreciated that this book served as a call to action. Nelli’s large-scale painting from the 16th century, Last Supper (which is the only known version of this subject matter produced by a female artist) is in dire need of restoration. Hopefully this publication will bring more exposure to the works of female artists that need preservation and attention.

Johann Zoffany, detail of "The Tribuna of the Uffizi," 1772-78

I also enjoyed reading the chapter on the fondness for copying art during the 18th century. Today I think that artistic copies often are viewed with some disdain, implying that the copy is of lesser quality than the original work of art. In the 18th century, however, copies were seen in a much more favorable light. The collecting of copies was seen as a mark of respectability and prestige. One of the paintings which typifies the 18th century rage for Italian works (and the copying of such paintings) is Zoffany’s The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-78). Not only did Zoffany copy many great works of art to produce his final canvas, but he also includes an artist in the process of copying a work of art (see above)!

Along the lines of copying and prestige, though, I found it interesting that the book emphasized that 18th century female artists received acclaim as copyists and portrait artists.1 While I do think that this is true, I think it is also important to emphasize that women were still not considered capable of the highest level of achievement (i.e. history painting) as their male artistic counterparts. It seems to me that women only were acclaimed for the types of art which men found them capable of producing. A woman might be able to impressively copy or paint what she saw in front of her (as is the case with portraiture), but it seems apparent that women were also thought (by men) to lack the imagination and intellect necessary to create large-scale history paintings.

But enough of my little rant. This book is very interesting and an informative read. I highly recommend it. And now for the big news: a GIVEAWAY! I am able to offer a copy of this book free, thanks to the generosity of the Florentine Press. Local and international readers may enter this giveaway. I will be randomly selecting one winner (using this site) on December 31, 2011. So you have ten days to enter this giveaway! You can enter your name up to four times. Here are the ways you can enter: 

1) Leave a comment on this post!

2) Tweet about the giveaway (be sure to include my Twitter name: @albertis_window in your tweet, so I can find it). After tweeting, leave a comment on this post to let me know too, please.

3) Write about this giveaway on your own blog, and then include the URL in a comment on this post.

4) Become a fan of The Florentine on Facebook and enter your email address here (so we can cross-check it with your other entries) in the giveaway for a book by Linda Falcone – this way you have a chance to win yet another book! Please also leave a comment on this post, to let me know that you became a fan on Facebook.

While you wait to find out if you won a free copy of the book, check out this nice video of the book presentation.

1 Linda Falcone, ed. “Irene Parenti Duclos: A Work Restored, an Artist Revealed,” (Florence: Florentine Press, 2011), 18, 27.

Thanks to the Florentine Press for supplying the review copy of this book. Those who are interested in purchasing a copy of “Irene Parenti Duclos: An Work Restored an Artist Revealed” can find information here.


Kauffmann and Female Empowerment

This afternoon I’ve been thinking about Angelica Kauffmann’s painting, Self-Portrait Hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting (1791, shown left). I can relate to this painting quite well: during my first year and a half as an undergraduate, I couldn’t decide whether to major in music or art history. I play the piano and studied classical voice for several years. At the beginning of college I continually felt compelled to study vocal performance, music education or choral conducting. In some ways, I still wish that I had kept up with my classical singing, especially when I listen to singers like Renée Fleming or Patricia Petibon (the latter is a recent discovery – she’s fantastic!).

In the end, though, I decided to major in art history and minor in music. With only a minor in music, I felt like I could still learn and refine my singing skills but remain somewhat distant from the discipline. I’ve found that my enjoyment of music lessens if I focus on theory and technique too much; I end up overanalyzing musical scores and critiquing performances instead of just listening. However, my enjoyment and love for art (and art history!) doesn’t ever seem to go away, despite how much I learn or how critically I think. So, in the end, I art history was the best choice for me.

Kauffmann was an accomplished musician; she played the zither and clavichord. She also was said to have an extremely beautiful, agile singing voice. Kauffmann had to choose between music and art as a career, and she depicts this decision in her painting. Obviously, Painting won her over. It appears that Kauffmann’s career choice was influenced (at least in part) by a priest who convinced Kauffmann and her father that an operatic career on the stage would lead to a faithless, debased lifestyle.1 (On a side note, I wonder what Painting is pointing at in the distance, beyond the canvas of Kauffman’s painting. Great heights? Achievement? Music seems much more passive of a figure, being seated on the left.)

Not only do I love this painting because I relate to Kauffmann’s interest in music and art, but I also love the idea behind the painting’s composition. Here, Kauffmann is shown in an empowering position between the two arts: she has the ability to choose either career path. Instead of the many depictions in art that show women in helpless or subordinate positions, Kauffmann advertises “publicly her ability as an individual to choose.”2 Another painting by Kauffmann also hints at this same topic of female choice and empowerment: Venus Induces Helen to Fall in Love with Paris (1790, shown right) shows Helen contemplating the decision to fall in love. For Helen, love seems to be a conscientious choice and she has the ability to make that choice. What a dramatic departure this is from depictions of swooning women in art (see here and here and here), who are rendered as helpless subjects!

Do you know of other examples in art where a female figure is represented with agency or ability to choose? Or, do you know of any other examples of swooning and/or helpless women?

1 Frances A. Gerard, Angelica Kauffmann: A Biography (London: Ward and Downey, 1893), 18-21. Available online here. Gerard relates that a handsome, promising (male) musician was one of the individuals who actively tried to convince Kauffmann to study music. It is related that Kauffmann’s depiction of Orpheus in Orpheus Leading Eurydice out of Hades (located in a private collection) is a portrait of the handsome musician.

2 David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past Art Present, 6th edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 406.


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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.