Italy’s forgotten female artists revealed in new book

“Le donne son venuse in eccellenza di ciascun’arte ove hanno posto cura” (“Women have achieved excellence in all the arts in which they have strove”) declared the 16th century poet Ludovico Ariosto. Giorgio Vasari included this quote in the short biography of Bologna sculptor Properzia de’ Rossi for his famous Lives of the best painters, sculptors and architects (1568). Despite Vasari’s avowed admiration for female artists, De’ Rossi was the only woman to earn entry among the hundreds of male artists he discusses.

There are, of course, historical reasons why women were underrepresented in art: they were excluded from workshops and life-drawing studios, while marital and family obligations frequently prevented them from pursuing a career. professional. By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800, drawing on decades of research, demonstrates that female artists were not so rare. In fact, it is increasingly clear that they were both more numerous and more talented than previously suspected.

The book is uniquely aware of its place in the historiography of the subject, avoiding essentialist claims

This concise but lavishly illustrated publication, edited by Eve Straussman-Pflanzer and Oliver Tostmann, accompanies the traveling exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford and Detroit Institute of Arts (until January 9, 2022 at the Wadsworth Atheneum). Although Artemisia grabbed the headlines with seven works, the exhibition and publication largely focused on other female artists. Some of these names – Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana or Giovanna Garzoni – will be familiar to an informed audience. Others will be completely new, such as the Roman engraver Isabella Catanea Parasole, the Neapolitan polisher Caterina de Julianis or the Florentine portraitist Anna Bacherini Piattoli.

A number of projects have focused on female artists, but By his hand is particularly conscious of its place in the historiography of the subject, avoiding the essentialist claims and mediocre works that have plagued some recent efforts. Instead, it features essays and catalog entries by scholars who have spent much of their careers pondering these same questions. Straussman-Planzer provides a useful historiography of the intersection between feminism and art history in the United States, as well as an analysis of the surprisingly short history of exhibitions dedicated to early women artists. modern. Tostmann’s essay, “The Advantages of Small Painting: Italian Women Artists and the Question of Scale”, is an important examination of small-scale works by women artists, dispelling the myth of miniatures as inherently inferior. Instead, it demonstrates how women have used the reduced format to experiment and innovate while allowing them to bring their works to a wider audience. “Art as Women’s Work: The Professionalization of Women Artists in Italy, 1350-1800” by Sheila Barker shows that, largely due to the limitations placed on their careers, the line between professional and amateur was often fluid for female artists. Some, like Artemisia and the Bolognese painter Elisabetta Sirani, ran large workshops. Others, like Plautilla Nelli and Orsola Maddalena Caccia, pursued unconventional career trajectories within the convent or, like Lucrezia Quistelli, as aristocratic amateurs.

At Elisabetta Sirani Portia injuring her thigh (1664) is among a number of works by the Bolognese painter to feature in the traveling exhibition, currently at the Wadsworth Atheneum Courtesy of Collezioni d’Arte di Storia della Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio

Among the artists represented, Artemisia is naturally in the spotlight, the spectacle thief being her masterpiece. Judith and her servant with the head of Holofernes, (c. 1623-1625, Detroit Institute of Art). Sirani, prolific despite her untimely death, is also well represented with paintings and drawings including the powerful Portia injuring her thigh (1664), as was the star of the Grand Tour portrait, Rosalba Carriera. Inevitably in the current climate, some borrowings have failed to materialize, forcing readers interested in De’ Rossi, Nelli, Venetian painter Giulia Lama, Bolognese polisher Anna Morandi, or the full spectrum of Anguissola’s talents to look elsewhere. These limitations aside, the essays hint at a vast array of forgotten talent and make a vital contribution to a growing field.

• Eve Straussman-Pflanzer and Oliver Tostmann, eds., By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800, Detroit Institute of Art/Yale, 208pp, 141 color and b&w illustrations, £30/$40 (hb), published in UK/US October/November

• Jesse Locker is Professor of Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art at Portland State University and author of Artemisia Gentileschi: the language of painting (Yale University Press, 2015)

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