Teaching Women and the Arts

February 17, 2011

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 art
Gender 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”.

Female Patronage
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 Artists
Case 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


Dr. F said...


I know that Titian painted a youthful, idealized image of Isabella d'Este who was advanced in years. But I remember another portrait, not the one you provided. Did he do two?


When did Giorgione paint Caterina Cornaro? Is the portrait extant?


H Niyazi said...

Hi Frank. I included those pics so best I answer the question! The original image I had is known as 'La Bella' and believed by some to represent Isabella, and by others to be her daughter, Eleonora Gonzaga. I have since changed it to the more well known image you have mentioned.

As for the Caterina portrait, Vasari mentioned he sighted this Giorgione work in 1541, and noted it was 'painted from life.' This was also mentioned in the Herbert Cook volume which made your way recently. It is sadly not extant of course.

Titian did paint Caterina at least twice. There is the version above, dressed as St Catherine, but I have also seen one painted quite similarly where she is holding an apple.

Kind Regards

M said...

Great post, Alexandra! Man, I would have loved to sit in this class. You've provided some great materials and information here. Thank you so much - I personally find this information to be really useful. (And I particularly want to read the misogynistic Alberti essay "On Family.")

I'm also curious to read the article by Radke on nuns! I'm familiar with other work by Radke, but I've never come across anything that focuses on women/feminism before.

Did you feel like your unit on witches/lesbians was the most successful one in the course? You mentioned that it was the most amusing, but I'm interested in which unit the students seemed to grasp (and get excited about) the concepts. If not that unit, which one did you feel was the most successful? Why?

Alexandra said...

Oooh great questions here.
@Frank I didn't see the image Hasan provided (I sent him this piece without pictures) but I do believe that Titian painted Isabella twice. My memory is getting seriously hazy on this though :(.

Hi monica! On Family is a brilliant read.
Gary Radke is the reason I ended up in Italy; he led the Syracuse university program the year I did it in 1997 and suggested the renaissance art masters program to me, and the rest is history. He was working a lot on these nuns at the time and in 1999 he taught a course on nuns and art. Dennis Romano, also at syracuse (in NY state, not in Florence) has also written some interesting things about families in Venice.

The witches lesbians nuns unit was really triumphant. I think that by this point they had figured out what I was looking for. I had each student cover a reading and present it to the class and I pretty much hazed the first few who didn't read at all critically or question who the writer was and what journal it was in... heh heh. So by lesson #4 they'd gotten the hang of that. And it was successful because the readings were REALLY HARD, which you'd think would make it a flop, but I had strong points to make about why they were relevant to the course. Most interestingly, they hated Trexler (whom I idolized through undergrad and MA) but then realized just how cool that article is when I explained it. It's a fascinating account of how the women of this "shelter" (by modern terms) were essentially auto-regulated, and the movement of figures within this space has an impact on its material culture (furnishings, art, etc). Lesbian nuns as you can imagine generated amused titters, while witches were interesting although the Neave article is rather superficial. Masaccio and the whole sex/birth/babies thing is always a crowd pleaser.

In general, students seemed to engage well with this material - i also covered some of it in my general 300 level ren survey with good results. It's hard for us to remember that before we learned about this stuff in college we had NO idea of what womens' lives were like before the 20th century, and as our students get younger their grandmas do too, so they don't even have that historical input at home. The day we talked about women in art in my survey course, students were still talking about it an hour later when we met for dinner (it was a residential course in Tuscany). They were really taken by the wetnursing stuff.

M said...

Thanks for the response, Alex! It sounds like your students really enjoyed the course - I'm anxious to implement some of these ideas in a class that I'll start teaching next month. Unfortunately, my course doesn't focus specifically on women (it's designed to be an upper-level course which covers a range of Renaissance art in the North and South), but I'm hoping to try some of your ideas out.

And I had no idea that you know Gary Radke! He was in Seattle a little over a year ago; he helped to curate a Michelangelo exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. It was a traveling exhibition that showed items from the Casa Buonarroti collection. My husband and I were invited to hear Radke speak when the show opened. If I had known the connection with you, I would have mentioned it to him!

Benjamin (Ben) said...

Very nice post and I'm enjoying the discussion, too. Always good to hear about how others have structured and taught an art history course. Your students were lucky.

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