Sofonisba Anguissola's The Chess Game(1555) is a family and self portrait
Teaching Women and the Arts
Hasan asked me to write about a female artist for his series, and proposed Artemisia Gentileschi since I have written an encyclopedia entry on her. But that was about five years ago, and as I prepared to sit down and write something, I pulled out my old article and materials and frankly it didn’t seem current enough.
What I proposed instead was a summary of a syllabus I prepared for a course on Women and the Arts in Early Modern Italy in 2009. Why? Because before we read about specific women artists, I figure a little context is in order. You could use this list as a path to learning on your own; or it might be useful to students doing term papers or to professors deciding how to assemble their own syllabus on women and art. I realized that I did not want to teach a course on women artists (I’m not really into biography), nor on the image of women IN art (my main interest, but too limited). I ended up developing three main themes that were explored in 2-3 seminar sessions each (the rest of the term was taken up by assignments, exams etc.). Here is the descriptive blurb from the syllabus:
This course will situate the role of women in Renaissance and Baroque Italian art: as persons depicted, as patrons, and as producers. The first third of the course will provide an overview of the moral, social, and religious models for women as they were constructed both implicitly and explicitly through visual art and literature. Second, a study of female patronage will help establish the limits to which women were subjected in this field of public expression. Finally, in our last few weeks, consideration of select biographies of and works by female artists will provide insights into their career strategies and will reveal the different ways in which they managed to overcome the social and professional restrictions particular to their gender.
I still maintain that to understand female artists in any period we should take into account the various social factors through history that still tend to impact how and what women paint (or sculpt or create). While this course focused on Early Modern Italy, I think you could expand this structure to fit Northern Europe of 20th Century America.
There is a huge body of literature available on the topic of women in/and art, especially when we take this expanded approach. For readers who are particularly interested, I provide a full bibliography on arttrav. Below is your topical reading list. Enjoy!
Representation of women in artGender roles in modern and past visual culture
We opened the class with a discussion of Female “nature”: Biblical, Mythical, and Medical origins of the perception of woman in history.
i. Dale Kent, “Women in Renaissance Florence” (a general overview of womens’ lives in this period, written by a historian).
Outer Beauty, Inner Virtue, and Neoplatonist ideals
In class we looked at images of Female portraiture and the careful construction of virtue and beauty.
i. Agnolo Firenzuola, “On the beauty of women”, pp. 3-15 (A fictional dialogue, written 1541. Observe what the character Celso says, but also what role his female audience plays.)
ii. Paola Tinagli, “Profile Portraits in the Quattrocento” (Book chapter surveying the depiction of women, pp. 47-79)
Marriage, sex, and birth
i. Jackie Musacchio, The Art and Ritual of Childbirth (pp. 1-31).
ii. LB Alberti, “On Family” (An unabashedly misogynistic treatise written 1434-7. Read pp. 110-122 about picking a wife and conceiving an heir, or read the whole thing 'cuz it’s so much fun!)
The further marginalized “other”: lesbians, witches, and the elderly
This was the most amusing unit in the whole course! I gave the students a whole SLEW of difficult reading and asked them to consider: Why are these categories “others”? Do we see them in art?
i. Trexler, “A Widows’ Asylum of the Renaissance: The Orbatello of Florence” (pp. 66-93: A riveting interpretation of archival data about an early modern old age home for women. Trexler does not discuss any imagery, so think about how this material relates to art!)
ii. Brown, “Lesbian sexuality in renaissance Italy” (The case of a lesbian nun prosecuted in the early 17th century. The author brings up the problem of historical voices in telling this story; pay careful attention to this. What of homosexuality in art?)
iii. Dorinda Neave, “The Witch in Early 16th century German Art” (gives a short 7p introduction to the connection between witches and women, and some related imagery).
iv. Patricia Emison, “Truth and Bizzarria in an engraving of Lo Stregozzo”.
Renaissance Women Patrons – an attempt to outline trends and limitations
i. Gary Radke, “Nuns and Their Art: The Case of San Zaccaria in Renaissance Venice” (a well-written case study about art in a place we can visit together in Venice).
Case studies: Isabella d’Este and others
Lecture: Isabella’s art and education (and some other “exceptions” to the trends)
i. Rose Marie San Juan, “The court lady’s dilemma” (11 dense pages on the way that historians have interpreted Isabella d’Este’s collecting practises.)
ii. Joyce de Vries, “Caterina Sforza’s Portrait Medals” (7 short pages on an exception to the rule)
Titian's portrait of Isabella d'Este
Female ArtistsCase study: Artemisia Gentileschi
i. Entry on Artemisia Gentileschi in Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance, by Alexandra M. Korey and/or entry on Artemisia Gentileschi in Dictionary of Women artists by Elizabeth Cropper (ed. Gaze).
ii. Mary Garrard, multiple books on Artemisia
iii. Watch film Artemisia (Agnes Merlet, 1997, French with english subtitles, 98 mins) and consider what aspects of this artist’s life are highlighted by fictional authors.
The new canon of female artists
For this class I had students read T. Cohen, “Reflections on retelling a Renaissance murder” (Tom Cohen’s evocative 10 page prose recounts a wonderful story of adultery and murder, and re-considers how the historian might tell it.) I asked them to use this as a reflection to help them think about how to tell an artist’s story in video while being aware of their own position and biases. Students were then assigned the project of researching a female artist other than Artemisia and creating a historically correct film about her. This is one of the student videos that resulted.
If you have questions feel free to contact me. Bibliography available online at arttrav. An extended preview of Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance can be accessed here.
Caterina Cornaro is a fascinating Renaissance woman. She was Queen of Cyprus during its Venetian occupation, and was painted by none other than Bellini, Dürer, Giorgione and Titian (pictured) -hn