female artists

Lavinia Fontana Post on 3PP!

Hello everyone! I wanted to let people know that I have written a guest post on Lavinia Fontana and self-portraiture at Three Pipe Problem. This fantastic art history blog is regularly featuring posts about women artists, and I was very pleased to contribute to the series.

This post was very fun for me to write; I regularly discuss Fontana’s self-portraiture (including her Self-Portrait at the Spinet, 1577, shown left) with my Renaissance students. If you want to see a sneak-peek at some of the topics that I discuss in my classroom, check out the post!


Renaissance Art and Conception!

I hope the title of my post grabbed your attention! I’ve been reading a terribly interesting book this afternoon: Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy. This book includes a chapter by Caroline P. Murphy, a scholar on 16th century artist Lavinia Fontana.1 Murphy’s chapter discusses how art was used in conjunction with the conception and delivery of children, and it’s absolutely fascinating.

To introduce this aspect of her argument, Murphy mentions how people in early modern Europe were both “appalled and fascinated by the birth of monstrous children” (e.g. children with severe birth defects).2 It was believed in order to avoid the conception of a monstrous child, a woman should look at pictures of beautiful figures. In essence, this beautiful image was supposed to have “a positive morphological effect on the child in [the woman’s] womb.”3 Consequently, some pictures with beautiful figures were designed so that they could be placed over a bed or attached to the bedframe (since the bed was the place where sexual intercourse would take place). In addition, a pregnant woman would spend much of her time resting on the bed, and she would have additional opportunities to look at the beautiful figures (and positively affect the growth of the child).

So what constituted a “beautiful figure” in 16th century Bologna, the city in which Lavinia Fontana worked? You may be think that such figures were mythological, such as Venus or Cupid. Actually, due to the Counter-Reformation and promotion of religious imagery, it is more likely that women looked at images of Mary and the Christ Child. Murphy mentions a few Holy Family paintings by Lavinia Fontana which were probably bought for married couples, one being The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (Boston Museum of Fine Arts).

However, I think there is one more painting by Fontana which should be added to Murphy’s discussion. Given Murphy’s emphasis on childbirth, I think it’s surprising that she did not discuss Fontana’s Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis (1578, shown right) in her article.* Not only do these beautiful figures fit with other Holy Family images that Murphy discusses, but this painting also includes a depiction of Saint Margaret: the patron saint of childbirth! (Saint Margaret is identified on the left, through her symbol of the dragon.)

Couldn’t this image have been a source of comfort to pregnant women at the time? Murphy mentions how some images of the Holy Family include St. Elizabeth; the inclusion of St. Elizabeth would have been comforting for a female viewer, particularly a woman who was attempting to get pregnant (since Elizabeth conceived in old age). Although this painting does not depict Elizabeth, I think this inclusion of St. Margaret in this painting would have served as a source of comfort too (and it seems to be an even more appropriate connection, given St. Margaret’s role and patronage!).

Interestingly, the Davis Museum and Cultural Center of Wellesly College (which has this painting on loan), does not make any mention of Murphy’s argument in their webpage for this painting (and their bibliography does not cite Murphy). I’m going to have to write them – I think they need to slightly modify their discussion of this painting!

*Update: the comments section for this post discusses Murphy’s reasoning for not including this painting in her argument.

1 Caroline P. Murphy, “Lavinia Fontana and the Female Life Cycle Experience,” in Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, edited by Geraldine A. Johnson and Sara F. Matthews Grieco (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 111-138.

2 Ibid., 120.

3 Ibid., 121.


Strange and Unusual Portrait by Fontana

Yesterday I came across the strangest portrait I have ever seen. Take a look at Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez (also written as “Gonzales,” c. 1595, on left). At first, I didn’t know what to make of this painting. Was it a joke? Why would young girl be depicted with a hairy face?

This is no joke, my friends. In fact, it’s a rather unusual story. Antonietta Gonzalez (as well as her father, two sisters and other family members) had hypertrichosis (also commonly called “werewolf syndrome”). This is a rare genetic disorder which causes an abnormal amount of hair on the body. (You can read more about the disorder and see some interesting images here.) Antonietta’s father, Pedro (sometimes written as Pedrus) Gonzalez, was the first known person to be affected with this disorder. Given the rarity of the disease, it seems a little surprising that so many people within the Gonzalez family were affected by hypertrichosis. One writer noted that in terms of pathology, “the Gonzales sisters were one in a billion – all three of them.”1

Luckily, though, Antonietta and her sisters were not shunned by society, but welcomed into the courts of Europe. Although I’m sure that these girls served as objects of curiosity to some degree, they also were subject to medical investigations and, obviously, portrait sittings. Antonietta explains a little of her personal history in the handwritten note which she holds in the portrait: “Don Pietro, a wild man discovered in the Canary Islands, was conveyed to his most serene highness Henry the king of France, and from there came to his Excellency the Duke of Parma. From whom [came] I, Antonietta, and now I can be found nearby at the court of the Lady Isabella Pallavicina, the honorable Marchesa of Soragna.”2

Historian Merry Weisner-Hanks has speculated that Lavinia Fontana met Antonietta in Parma. I hope to find more information about the portrait in The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their World a relatively new book by Weisner-Hanks. It looks really interesting.

Okay, so here’s my question: do you know of a portrait more unusual or strange than this one? Let’s make it a little game; I’m curious to see what people might submit. And I’ll let you, dear readers, decide what constitutes “unusual” or “strange” (e.g. the sitter, the artistic presentation of the sitter, the medium, etc.).

P.S. As I was finishing up this post, my two-year-old looked at the Fontana portrait and said, “Hey, is that you?” Ha ha! I didn’t realize that I was having such a bad hair day!

1 Jason Zasky, “Hair Apparent,” in Failure Magazine (n.d.), located here (accessed 12 January 2011).

2 Merry Weisner-Hanks, “Hairy Marvels and Beastly Sex,” in National Sexuality Resource Center (1 October 2009), located here (accessed 12 January 2011).


Painter + Sculptor Collaboration (and a Little about Luisa Roldán)

I thought I’d keep on the theme of polychrome sculpture this week, given my earlier post on painted classical sculpture.  Recently I’ve wondered whether classical artists would sculpt and paint their works, or if the work was divided between specialized painters and sculptors. Consequently, I began to think of polychrome baroque sculpture in Spain, Portugal, and Brazil; such sculpture is often painted (by a specialized painter) after the physical piece is created by a sculptor. (As a graduate student, my research on Brazilian art included the Passion sculptures at Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos (Congonhas do Campo), which were sculpted by Aleijadinho but later painted by Manoel da Costa Ataíde).

One striking example of painter and sculptor collaboration is St. Gines de la Jara (c. 1692, shown above). This work was sculpted by Spanish Baroque sculptor Luisa Roldán and then painted by Tomás de los Arcos (Roldán’s brother-in-law).  Arcos did an amazing job creating lifelike appearance of veins on St. Gines de la Jara’s hands, using a technique called “encarnacion.” The technique involves applying thin layers of glue and gesso.  Arcos then painted layers of beige and blue oil paint to suggest veins. (You can see a great detail of the veins and hand here. Also, you can learn more about this sculpture here, since it is the centerpiece of an ongoing Getty exhibition about Luisa Roldán.)

Does anyone know more information about the Spanish/Portuguese tradition of having painters and sculptors collaborate?  Off the top of my head, I would guess that this practice may have come out of the medieval tradition of wooden sculpture, but I couldn’t say for sure.  So much medieval sculpture was created by anonymous artists; it’s probably difficult (or perhaps impossible) to know if medieval painters and sculptors collaborated on three-dimensional work.  Perhaps medieval artists were trained to both paint and sculpt, and there was no need for collaboration?

On a side note, I’m glad that my friend Shelley recently introduced me to Luisa Roldán (who is affectionately nicknamed “La Roldana,” on the right is her presumed portrait by Antonio Rotondo, 1862).  I’d never even heard of La Roldana until a few weeks ago, but I immediately feel in love with her because 1) she’s a Baroque sculptor, 2) she’s Spanish (and Spanish sculpture often reminds me of the wooden baroque sculpture from Portugal and Brazil) and 3) she’s a woman.

Like many other female artists from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, Roldán’s father (Pedro Roldán) was also an artist. Roldán was an extremely successful artist (a great feat in the male-dominated profession) and worked as the court sculptor for Charles II.  (In fact, St. Gines de la Jara was probably a royal commission.)  Roldán was quite famous and successful during her lifetime, but seems to be relatively obscure today. Sigh – I wish she was discussed more in art history textbooks.


Lygia Clark: (Non)Interaction within the Museum

I was first introduced to the artist Lygia Clark by chance.  I was doing research in Brazil several summers ago, but arrived in Rio de Janeiro to find out that the Ministry of Culture was on strike.  All cultural institutions in the city were closed – including the National Library, where I had intended to do most of my research.  Argh!  Long story short: I discovered that the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro was open (they must receive private funding and not be associated with the Ministry of Culture), I subsequently discovered Lygia Clark in the Tropicália exhibition, and luckily I was able to complete my research a few days later.

I think that Clark is a really interesting artist.  Much of her early work revolved around participation of the viewer.  In order to truly experience her art, Clark wanted people to touch, manipulate, and sometimes wear (!) her sculptures.  In one piece, Diálogo: Óculos (“Dialogue: Glasses”, 1968, shown left), two people were supposed to wear a set of goggles.  The goggles constrained the individuals to maintain eye contact, and thus forced a type of dialogue to ensue between the two people.  It is the experience created by the goggles that is the work of art, and not the actual object itself.

Unfortunately, museum display and security don’t allow Clark’s work to be interactive (or even to function, really).  With art museums as a “no touch” zone, most of Clark’s interactive work is stuck on pedestals and behind glass cases.  (Although, to be fair, in 2008-09 the SFMOA had an exhibition called “The Art of Participation” which allowed visitors to interact with works of art, including Lygia Clark’s Diálogo: Óculos.)

But the mentality behind the “The Art of Participation” show isn’t found everywhere.  Consider the particular irony of this clip from the Walker Art Museum, in which the curator explains and demonstrates how the sculpture is supposed to be experienced, but then shows the Bicho (“Bug,” 1960) sculpture placed behind a glass case:

Obviously, I understand why works of art need to be placed behind protective glass.  I understand the element of preservation too, since constant handling of any sculpture will cause wear and tear on the piece.  And, to be fair, the SFMOA blog has some great reasoning about institutional limitations in regards to participation, which was posted in conjunction with “The Art of Participation” show. (This blog post also includes a link to this video of people turning Lygia Clark’s Rede de elástico (“Elastic Net”) into a jump rope within the gallery, which is kinda fun but obviously dangerous in the gallery space.)

Still, institutional limitations aside, I wish that there were more shows like “The Act of Participation” in the museum world. Then Lydia Clark’s art would actually be able to function, instead just being a neat thing to talk about.


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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.