In search of Old Mistresses

The National Gallery is putting women artists centre stage

Artillery Row

“Where are the Old Mistresses?” That was the cry in the early 1970s among female art historians. The Women’s Liberation movement caused a wave of cultural reassessment to sweep through academia and it had no greater impact than in the field of art history. There was a scramble to find overlooked female artists and balance Old Masters with Old Mistresses. Artemisia, the currently suspended exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654 or later) at the National Gallery, is the most recent attempt to advance the status of women artists. The exhibition is now set to take place at the National Gallery 3 October 2020 – 24 January 2021.

Women artists were being judged by masculine standards designed to exclude them

In 1971 Linda Nochlin published the landmark feminist essay “Why are there no great women artists?”. Nochlin theorised that women’s creativity had been sublimated into craft and that, consequently, Western high art was shaped according to male standards. Finding overlooked women painters and reassessing their abilities was beside the point, Nochlin argued, because the standards were discriminatory. It was a bold statement and strategically astute: women artists could never be found justly neglected due to deficiencies because they were being judged by masculine standards designed to exclude them. Therefore there would never be any Old Mistresses. Nonetheless, every year fresh books and exhibitions about female artists appear, evidence of a compact of curatorial, academic and commercial interests. 

Initial impressions of Artemisia via the catalogue (Letizia Treves (ed.), Artemisia, National Gallery, £30) are unpromising. One scholar warns that “efforts to diminish her artistic reputation persist” but are “misguided”. Artemisia’s personal fortitude is given as reason enough to admire her, regardless of her actual achievements. The Director of the National Gallery writes of the way the nationwide tour of the newly acquired Artemisia self-portrait was targeted at reaching female viewers. This is art curation as a form of restorative justice. 

Artemisia’s reception today is inextricably linked to politicised responses to her life story. Artemisia was daughter of Italian Mannerist painter Orazio Gentileschi and was trained by him. When she was 18, Artemisia was raped by a man named Agostino Tassi, whom she believed would subsequently marry her. When this apparent promise was broken, Orazio brought Tassi to trial for rape and Tassi was convicted. Artemisia’s honour had been violated, limiting her options on the marriage market, although she did later marry. She earned her living as a painter of Caravaggio-style religious pictures. Artemisia is now a feminist icon for painting Biblical scenes in which women murder men, such as versions of Judith and Holofernes. In these realistic pictures, women sever necks of men with the grim determination of an Italian housewife butchering a pig.  

Notwithstanding these powerful detailed spectacles of revenge, the London selection exposes Artemisia’s weaknesses.

Artemisia spares us none of the gore in her violent portrayal of Judith beheading Holofernes. The heroine’s resolve is conveyed through her determined expression and her tensed, outstretched arms. © ph. Luciano Romano / Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte 2016

Her figures are stiff, often lacking presence; bodies are jumbled in compressed space, a common fault of Caravaggio’s followers. We could walk through a gallery of unlabelled Baroque paintings and barely register (or distinguish) Artemisia’s pictures. A few years ago the National Gallery displayed a great (although flawed) painting by Artemisia’s contemporary Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663). Cagnacci painted human flesh and skin with an almost unsurpassed delicacy and understanding. There is a strong case for him to be considered a more original and talented artist than Artemisia, yet Artemisia is in the art history books and he is not.

An exhibition of Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535-1625) at the Prado and a new monograph profile the achievements of the so-called “first professional female artist of the Renaissance”. Anguissola was born into a downwardly mobile aristocratic family in Cremona. Sofonisba and her siblings were taught the classics and the sisters were trained under a professional painter – an exceptionally rare step at the time. The sisters became notable public figures in Cremona, celebrated for their ladylike accomplishment as well as artistic ability. 

Anguissola made her name with portraits and self-portraits. It is supposed that she made so many self-portraits as self-promotion. It could also be due to a dearth of opportunities to tackle more ambitious commissions. Her art exhibits deficiencies in anatomy – attributable to lack of access to nude models – and in perspective, which could have been corrected by consulting the many treatises on the subject. Her compositions are often tentative; her portraits are of erratic quality, ranging from the beautiful and affecting to the frankly inadequate. She was painting tutor and lady-in-waiting to Spain’s Queen Isabel de Valois and her daughters. Anguissola married late and moved to Sicily, with much of her later art being lost, partly due to her rarely signing paintings. 

If feminists insist that sexism curtailed women’s success, how did Bonheur rise to such heights?

Michael W. Cole’s new monograph on Anguissola (Sofonisba’s Lesson: A Renaissance Artist and Her Work, Princeton University Press, £50) revises her corpus of around 150 works and discusses her art in the light of what relatively little we know of her life. The Prado exhibition paired Anguissola with Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) (see Leticia Ruiz Gómez (ed.), A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, Prado). Fontana (daughter of painter) used a competent but old-fashioned style, working in the cultural hub of Bologna. Aside from her religious paintings and portraits, she painted female nudes – perhaps the first female artist of modern times to do so. Fontana was not much more than competent. It is difficult to think of male painters of this period with comparably modest talent who have received as much attention as Fontana.

A much more energetic and impressive painter was Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), subject of a new biography (Catherine Hewitt, Art is a Tyrant: The Unconventional Life of Rosa Bonheur, Icon Books, £20). Bonheur was considered a phenomenon in her lifetime. Aged 19, she won a prize at the Paris Salon, dazzling first France then Britain with her realistic paintings of animals. She earned a fortune and among her patrons was Queen Victoria. Widespread glory, considerable wealth and implacable independence (she never married) made Bonheur a rare female success story and thus problematic for feminists. For how, if feminists insist that rank sexism routinely curtailed women’s success, did Bonheur rise to such heights? 

For every overlooked woman painter, you can find ten overlooked male counterparts

Only in one respect does Bonheur fit the feminist oppression narrative, in her posthumous neglect. How could such a star be excluded from art histories? Realist painting (including animal painting) in the nineteenth century is largely overlooked in general art histories. Have you ever heard of Jules Bastien-Lepage? Unlikely, yet he was a bigger star than Bonheur and a genuine revolutionary, whose naturalism electrified European art. Yet he is almost unknown today, in the way that academic painters William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Hans Makart also are. Art historians favour Courbet and Manet and tell the grand narrative of the rise of Impressionism, distaining realism and academic art. Fashion changes and talented artists (regardless of sex) disappear into obscurity. For every overlooked woman painter, you can find ten overlooked male counterparts of equal ability. Of course, there is no publishing prestige or political imperative in reviving the reputations of Bastien-Lepage and Makart. 

The canon is a distillation of the greatest – a tiny fraction of all art produced. The canon is a mnemonic device for remembering great art and must be small in order to be memorable. This leads to competent artists – some of them acclaimed in their own lifetimes – gradually being neglected and even forgotten. 

The truth is that no amount of Bonheurs and Artemisias will placate feminists. Even heroines are difficult for feminists to accept. Second-wave feminism was inextricably linked to Marxism. Influential feminists warned that replacing male geniuses with female geniuses simply perpetuated privilege. Profoundly suspicious of hierarchy, Marxist feminists claimed the idea of individual exceptionality (i.e. genius) was a fallacy and all canons were inherently exclusionary. Instead, society should venerate groups and collective effort. 

Overall, the picture for women artists is just as it should be. Extensive research shows that once women painters achieved professional status they were treated seriously, collected and earned livings. Although before 1900 they did face major impediments to achieving professional status, once established women professional artists were not overlooked any more than male ones. As for women artists of today, they can do no better than follow the advice of Rosa Bonheur: “Women should seek to establish their rights by good and great works, and not by conventions.”

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