Why have there been no great women artists?

From the 15th through the 19th century the nude was essential to art, especially to grand history paintings.  Doing history paintings helped establish the stature of an artist.  However, women were barred from studying the human nude regardless of gender; even when they were permitted to join the academies on quotas, they were restricted from such training.  By the time the restrictions were lifted by the end of the 19th century, the nude was no longer central to painting’s subject matter.  Nochlin discusses this issue extensively.

She writes, “I have gone into the question of the availability of the nude model, a single aspect of automatic, institutionally maintained discrimination against women, in such detail simply to demonstrate both the universality of this discrimination and its consequences, as well as the institutional rather than individual nature of but one facet of the necessary preparation for achieving mere proficiency, much less greatness in the realm of art during a long period.”

She goes on to add that one could have examined the apprenticeship system or other mechanisms for success for artists from which women’s participation was restricted.

She discusses the 19th century social atmosphere that supported women’s participation in painting as a matter of “self-indulgence” and not a thing to be taken on seriously, especially at the expense of family.  For instance, she cites two passages from Mrs Ellis’s The Family Monitor and Domestic Guide (an 1844 text noted as popular in both England and the United States).  The passages would offend 21st century sensibilities greatly.  They do not advocate that a woman pursue excellence in any area lest the admiration and flattery that follows corrupt her.  Nochlin’s highlighting of Ellis’s text in her discussion helps us to understand why many women may have approached art making as they did.

Nochlin mentions women whose works are discussed in art history texts.  She also notes that for these women to have achieved as they did, meant each had to have had “a good strong streak of rebellion in her to make her way in the world of art at all, rather than submitting to the socially approved role of wife and mother […]”  She discusses at length the story of Rosa Bonheur, famed artist of The Horse Fair.

Nochlin’s essay opened an entirely new field of enquiry – feminist art theory, which allows for gender-related pressures, limitations and restrictions to be taken into consideration when evaluating a work of art.  These considerations help us to understand why there is no female equivalent to Michelangelo or other notable male art historical figures.  It also allows for the rediscovery and insertion of women into the western art historical narrative, many of whom had been known and celebrated in their time as artists.
After surveying some of the discourse emerging out of the question ‘Why have there been no great women artists,‘ we understand why there are no women who have attained the stature of great artists although the ongoing art historical revisions help us to see that within the context of their production there are some women who ought to qualify for such stature.
Furthering the discussion on the under-representation of women’s art in art history texts and in galleries and museums, it is worthwhile to discuss not only the restrictions they encountered in accessing training during the Renaissance to the 19th century but also the restrictions they faced in establishing themselves and gaining stature, and how some were able to work around these to establish lucrative practices.

In the text Italian Women Artists from the Renaissance to Baroque, Claudio Strinate in his essay notes that Giovanni Baglione in his 1642 text The Lives of Painters, Sculptors and Architects writes that in ancient times, women were recognized who were skilled “following the families’ artistic achievements and who received valuable instruction, particularly from their famous fathers.”

Baglione notes the continuation of this custom in his times, and mentions the wife of Maurizio Parmigiano, Ippolita, whose Mannerist landscapes were indistinguishable from her husband’s.  Baglione suggests that she may have worked on frescoes with Maurizio as it was her custom to work alongside him.  Women were restricted from fresco painting.

Today, Ippolita’s work is little known, if at all, and work attributed to Parmigiano finds appearances in surveys of this late Renaissance period.  Hence, while Ippolita was able to work around the restriction, her work has been subsumed in the body of work produced by her husband because she was unable to be known as its creator.

An unfortunate but not surprising source of challenge came from the Church.  In an age when the Church was a major art patron, women were not usually given commissions.  Often commissions were for frescoes.  These, because of the logistics of executing – having to climb scaffolds, were deemed inappropriate for women to do.  As they were restricted from studying perspective they were also technically disadvantaged to do frescoes.

As if these restrictions were not enough, Pope Urban VIII (Pope from1623-44) was dismissive of the art of women and warned against giving praise to “mere copyists.“  Such a statement was significant since women were restricted from academic training, and through informal training (ie, working with artist fathers or husbands) were not permitted to study anatomy, perspective and fresco techniques in optimal ways.  To study anatomy and perspective women often copied the drawings of men.  (The chances are the drawings of anatomy were censored – draped ones.)

However, these areas were needed to create large-scale images of religious or historical importance.  And these were the type of painting one needed to do to be well regarded; one’s professional life was defined by doing such work

Also since ‘greatness’ was conferred upon those who could succeed in achieving a life-like quality in their work the labelling of women artists as copyists effectively negated their efforts and put categorization as ‘great artist’ out of reach.

In selling and promoting their work, women typically had to manoeuvre around restrictions also.  They could not sell their work, like their male colleagues, on the open market.  Often their work was subsumed as part of the output of their artist fathers or husbands, much like Ippolita.  These women thus lost production ownership of their work.  In some instances too, women could not travel freely to meet clients and therefore sell work.

Circumventing these restrictions, women depended on a network of prominent acquaintances to establish independent careers; they depended on word-of-mouth and social networking.  Payments for art often came in the form of expensive gifts.  Fortunately, as ‘professionals‘ women could use their art to gain favour with noble families thus influencing their social status, or articulate desires for marital alliances.

To be continued

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