female artists

Vasari and Female Artists

I’m in a state of shock. Vasari is best known as the biographer for the great (male) artists of the Italian Renaissance – Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo, etc. But did you know that Vasari mentioned four females in his Lives of the Artists? I had no idea, until I discovered Vasari’s chapter on Properzia de’Rossi the other night. I seriously was dumbfounded – I stared at the word “sculptress” for at least ten seconds.

But don’t get too excited, my feminist art historian friends. Vasari only mentions Rossi in a few paragraphs, and then taps on a few short sentences about three other female artists: Sister Plautilla, Madonna Lucrezia, and Sofonisba Anguissola. You’ve never heard of these artists, you say? Let me show you a sampling of their work:

On the right is Properzia de’Rossi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1520s). Vasari mentions that the subject matter of this panel can parallel the unrequited love that Rossi experienced in her own life. I think this comparison is telling about Vasari’s views on women and feminine nature. The editor of my Lives edition also echoed my thoughts, saying that “while male artists execute works without regard to their personal feelings throughout the Lives, Vasari seems unable to imagine a woman creating a work of art without sentimental or romantic inspiration.”1

On the left is Lamentation with Saints (16th century) by Sister Plautilla (Plautilla Nelli). Vasari mentions that Plautilla was an extremely prolific painter, but surprisingly (or perhaps not-so-surprisingly), only three works are definitively attributed to her today. In an effort to bring public awareness to this artist, the Florence Committee of National Museum Women in the Arts paid to have Lamentation restored in 2006 (see news article here).

I think it’s especially interesting that Vasari doesn’t make any statements about Plautilla’s divine role as an artist or God-given talent (which he makes about the male artists in his book). Instead, he stresses that Plautilla and the other ]female artists learned and acquired artistic skill. Futhermore, Vasari wrote this about Plautilla: “But best among her works are those she imitated from others, which demonstrates that she would have created marvellous works if, like men, she had been able to study and work on design and draw natural objects from life.”2 Plautilla was alive when Vasari wrote her biography, and I wonder if she cringed to know that Vasari thought her best works were those that she copied from the divinely inspired, male artists.

Sofonisba Anguissola is the only female artist with whom I was familiar before reading Vasari. I read about Anguissola when I was doing research on Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard. Several scholars think that Caravaggio’s two versions of this subject were influenced by Anguissola’s Boy Bitten by a Crayfish (also called Boy Bitten by a Crab, c. 1554, on right). Mary Garrard has discussed Anguissola’s drawing in depth. She mentioned how Anguissola painted a picture of a laughing girls, which Michelangelo saw and commented that “the image of a crying boy would have been better.”3 Garrard finds that Michelangelo’s statement implied that boys are better artistic subjects than girls, and tragedy is better than comedy.4 Upon hearing this, Anguissola sent Michelangelo the drawing of Boy Bitten by a Crayfish. However, instead of showing the crying male in a tragic, noble position (and follow Michelangelo’s inferred suggestion), Anguissola shows the boy in an ignoble state with an amused female standing nearby. Wasn’t Anguissola a little sassy? I wonder what Michelangelo thought of the drawing.

Madonna Lucrezia is the other female artist mentioned by Vasari. Unfortunately, there isn’t any (known) surviving art by her. In fact, we know little about Lucrezia beyond that she was active around 1560 and her teacher was Alessandro Allori. It’s sad to think that her work and life is lost to history, most likely because she was a female. I’m glad that Vasari made the effort to mention her and these other females in his Lives, but also disappointed that most females didn’t receive artistic opportunity or art historical attention at the time. It makes me wonder what other female artists have been unappreciated and obscured by historical biases.

Is anyone else shocked that Vasari mentioned female artists in his text?

1 Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, translation by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (London: Oxford University Press, 1991), 565.

2 Ibid., 342.

3 Mary D. Garrard, “Here’s Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist,” Renaissance Quarterly 47, no. 3 (Autumn, 1994): 611.

4 Ibid., 612.


Candida Höfer’s Brazil

I first became familiar with the photographer Candida Höfer through her solo exhibition “Architecture of Absence.” Höfer is particularly interested in photographing public interiors at times when they are devoid of people. I think it’s interesting to see a public place when it is public-less. I really like how the space is magnified within the photographs. In a kind of oxymoronish way, Höfer’s work makes absence become a presence.

Anyhow, while I was looking for some images on a Brazilian Baroque church, I stumbled across a few photographs from Höfer’s Brazilian series. The image above, Teatro Nacional de São Carlos Lisboa I (2005), is another Brazilian photograph by Höfer. Since I found out that Höfer is interested in Brazilian architecture and public spaces, she’s a million times cooler to me. (And she was cool already.) Nice.


Tara Donovan’s Genius

Yesterday J introduced me to the work of Tara Donovan, a contemporary installation artist who uses everyday materials (e.g. straws, adding paper, scotch tape) for her art. The installation shown in the image is made out of styrofoam cups and hot glue.

Donvan was among the recipients for the 2008 “Genius Grant” given by the MacArthur Foundation. You can see some of her work here. I think it’s really stunning. I think my two favorites are this styrofoam cup installation and another installation made of adding paper.

What do you think? Which installation do you like?


Cindy Sherman and Madonna

Quatorze asked me to do a post on Cindy Sherman, a photographer whose work I find very interesting. Beginning in the late 1970s, Sherman created a series of photographs which are reminiscent of Hollywood stills – however the “stills” are generic enough in setting and composition that they resist attribution to any specific film.

Sherman appears in her own photographs, often dressed in a wig and costume. She takes the photographs herself, using either a timer or a shutter release cable that she holds in her hand.

These photographs can be seen as a commentary on typical feminine post-war stereotypes of the 50s and 60s. Shown in opposition to the stereotypes that were encouraged by the (male) film industry during these decades, Sherman takes control of her image by chosing and creating her identity within the photograph. Therefore, although her image is still the object of the viewer’s gaze, Sherman is in control of her image and identity and not the viewer.

These photographs are (postmodernly) ambivalent, which has led to many different interpretations by feminists. While many find Sherman’s work to be in resistance to the male gaze and masculine order, others think that she is still working under the masculine construct of society.

I can see valid reasoning for both arguments; my personal opinion of Sherman’s work relating to both male and female paradigms was reaffirmed when I learned that Sherman’s complete set of Untitled Film Stills was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art (1997) under the sponsorship of Madonna. Yep, that’s right, the self-made sex symbol of the music industry sponsored the whole exhibition of a photographer who has been interpreted as resisting the male gaze! Given Madonna’s interest in Sherman’s work, it is obvious to see that her photographs are subject to multiple interpretations.

I find it completely fascinating that Madonna likes Cindy Sherman’s work. This image of Madonna and Cindy Sherman appeared in the Rolling Stone in 1997 (sorry for the poor reproduction – it’s a scan of a microfilm printout!). An interesting interpretation of the photograph appeared in this article in Afterimage, saying Sherman has experienced a role-reversal – instead of playing a starring role in the photograph (as she does in all of her own photographs), she is given second billing to the superstar Madonna. The article then continues to give an fascinating comparison and contrast of Madonna and Sherman, while also discussing the role that Sherman’s work plays in relation to media culture. One thing I found especially interesting was that Madonna is indebted to Sherman in some aspects – apparently many of Madonna’s photographs in Sex: Madonna look similar to Sherman’s film stills.

What do people think about this connection between Madonna and Cindy Sherman? For me, this reasserts that Sherman’s work really can be interpreted beyond a mere resistance of the male gaze. Plus, given Sherman’s interest in fashion (particularly outside of her film stills series), I can understand how she is interpreted as working within a masculine dominated society. But again, I can see her work being interpreted both ways. Just like the Untitled Film Series images resist attribution to a specific film, I guess that Sherman herself resists attribution to a single art interpretation.


Kruger, Mulvey, Feminism, and the "Male Gaze"

I think Barbara Kruger is a really fascinating artist. Most of her work deals with the idea of the female in art, particularly as a commentary on how culture affects the reception of the female image in art. Kruger focuses on empowering her female images as “subjects” instead of “objects.” In this image shown to the right, Kruger empowers her subject by resisting the gaze of the viewer of the work.

This resistance of the viewer’s (specifically, a male viewer) gaze is in direct opposition to how females were portrayed in art for centuries. Since ancient times, the passive female image, particularly the nude female, has served as an “object” for the active male viewer in art.1

Kruger’s work and feminist art historical practice became especially interesting to me during graduate school. As an undergrad, I thought that feminist art historians were rather “angsty” and whiny. I think I came to this conclusion mainly because I was only briefly introduced to a few feminist art historical works, primarily Linda Nochlin’s essay, “Why Have there Been No Great Women Artists?” Although I thought Nochlin made some really good points in this essay, I still came away with the overall impression that feminist art historians just liked to stamp their feet, pout, and demand equality. You have to admit, the title of Nochlin’s essay can come across as sounding a bit whiny…

Anyhow, thanks to two die-hard feminist art historians at my university, I was able to change my opinion. One of my favorite articles that I read in graduate school was by Laura Mulvey, entitled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”2 Mulvey discusses how the female image in visual culture, particularly the cinema, encourages the male voyeur. Specifically, the way that the camera functions in film encourages the voyeur, particularly in the way that the camera captures close-ups of women. (Ha – the word “captures” is really appropriate here!). Think of close-ups in an movie – they will focus on the lips, or eyes, or legs, etc. of the female actress. The actress is not viewed as an individual or human being, rather she is reduced (physically cropped on the film screen by the camera lens) and thus fetishized.

This work by Kruger exhibits well how the fetishization and “to-be-looked
-at-ness” of women occurs in the film industry (how ’bout Marylin’s super-glossy-lips! Don’t they just grab your attention!). And the same thing can be said of many other works of art. In regards to painting, I think that the invention of the photograph (which influenced “cropped” subject matter and compositions on the canvas) also helped support this idea of female reduction and fetishization. During my second semester in grad school, I wrote a paper about how some paintings by Gauguin can fall into this study of cropping and fetishization.

Mulvey’s article is really fascinating. It was probably the first article that truly convinced me that feminist art historical/visual culture studies can be a very scholarly and engaging practice. It’s not just about angst or anger – although I’m sure that one can find bitter-men-haters in any feminist paradigm, if you look hard enough…

1Obviously, not every single image of a nude female has held erotic purpose (for example, representations of Eve in Medieval art).
2 See Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6–18.


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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.