Wednesday, January 18, 2017

One: Women Old Masters

Art from the Beginning:

The Italians more or less invented painting as we know it, way back in the 1200s. At first, painting was mainly church decoration—simplified, flat illustrations of sacred stories and ideas. Artists were merely anonymous craftsmen.

One of the earliest artists to make a name for himself was Cimabue. His most famous work is a large altarpiece now at the Louvre in Paris.

Virgin Enthroned with Angels, c. 1280
Louvre / Jan's photo, 2015

During the Renaissance, basically the 1400s and early 1500s, painters had perfected 3-dimensional modeling of faces and figures, and convincing methods for conveying perspective as well. For the next few centuries, everyone wanted to paint like Raphael.

The Alba Madonna, c. 1510
National Gallery, D.C. / Internet
Women didn't get a foothold in art until the mid-1500s. This is sometimes called the late Renaissance period, but by then the ideal style had become more mannered and ostentatious, and the range of subjects and styles had expanded. One of the foremost mannerists was Bronzino.

Eleonora of Toledo with her son Giovanni, 1545

Late Renaissance

The story of women's role in the art world begins in the late Renaissance period.

The Italians:

1532-1625: Sofonisba Anguissola

• Sofonisba was the first woman artist to establish an international reputation. Her success modeled the possibility that a woman could succeed as a professional artist.

• Her father recognized her talent, secured training for her,  and guided her career until she got established.

• She was court painter to Philip II of Spain for 14 years. When she completed that assignment, she returned to Italy, where she continued to be a leading portrait painter.

• She became financially independent and internationally recognized for her talent.

1552-1614: Lavinia Fontana

• Lavinia was the first woman artist who was able to succeed in the open art market, without a royal patron. At the height of her career, she was wealthy and widely celebrated.

• After 20 years as the favorite portrait artist of the noblewomen of Bologna, Lavinia moved to Rome where she had many important sitters, including the Pope.

• Lavinia's father, Prospero Fontana, was a successful painter. He trained her and managed her career.

• Lavinia was the breadwinner for her family, which included 11 children; her husband managed the household and her studio.

1593-1654: Artemisia Gentileschi

• Artemisia was the first truly great woman artist, and one of the most progressive artists of her time.

• Her father was a great artist named Orazio Gentileschi. Orazio trained her and helped her get her career started.

• Her typical theme was Biblical stories featuring strong female figures. She re-interpreted the old stories from a woman's point of view.

• Artemisia is known as a victim of rape and a barbarous rape trial. She was the first woman to depict stories in which female heroes committed violence upon male villains.

The 1600s:

The 1600s was the Dutch Golden Age, the Age of Frans Hals and Rembrandt.

Frans Hals, 1580-1666
Buffoon with a Lute, 1626

The Prodigal Son in the Tavern,
Self-portrait with Saskia, c. 1635

Art was so much in demand in Holland in the 1600s, that a woman artist was able to build a successful career, despite the intense competition.

1609-1660: Judith Leyster, Dutch

• Judith was a successful painter of scenes from everyday life during the Dutch Golden Age.

• Her career was only 6 years long, ending when she got married to a more famous artist.

• Judith was forgotten as an artist and much of her work was attributed to a more famous artist named Frans Hals. She was rediscovered in the 20th century and 35 paintings have been identified as hers.

A contemporary of Judith Leyster's in France also managed to hold her own, despite the narrow specialty of still life.

1610-1696: Louise Moillon, French

• Louise was a pioneer of still-life painting in France during the 17th century. Her fame was such that she received commissions from the royalty of both France and England.

• She specialized in naturalistic arrangements of fruit and vegetables.

• Her career was only about 11 years long, ending when she married a wealthy timber merchant.


In the 1700s an artist emerged who was a citizen of the world. She was born in Switzerland to Austrian parents, trained in Italy, and achieved significant success in both London and Rome.

1741-1807: Angelica Kauffmann, Swiss-Austrian

• Though her heritage was Austrian, Angelica was the foremost woman painter in both England and Italy in the late 1700s.

 Her speciality was Neo-classical paintings depicting historical scenes. She was also popular as a portraitist.

• Angelica began her career in Italy, and soon became celebrated for her talent and charm in both Florence and Rome.

• When Angelica was invited to visit London, she was quickly recognized by the major artists there, and she had the distinction of being a founding member of the Royal Academy of Art, one of two women in the group. 

• She returned to Italy in middle age, where she continued to be successful and popular.

• Angelica was trained by her father, a minor artist named J.J. Kauffman. He also directed and supported her early career. 


During the 1700s, France began its long domination of art. The monarchy was flourishing and royalty employed the arts for the enhancement of its image. At a bare minimum, everyone who was anyone needed to have their portrait painted now and then, and a steady stream of portrait work could support more ambitious compositions, which in turn might lead to bigger commissions. For portraits, aristocratic women often preferred to have a woman artist—they were cheaper and better company. Thus we have the unusual phenomenon of a group of women flourishing in Paris at the same time. A few of them were even elected to the Royal Academy of Painting, the ultimate pat on the back for a beginning artist.

The first trend to wow the art world during the 1700s was Rococo. It  used soft colors and curvy lines to depict scenes of amorous encounters and light-hearted entertainment. The best known painter of this era was François Boucher. Here's an example of his work.

François Boucher
The Toilet of Venus, 1751

Jean-Antoine Watteau was another big name of the era. He frequently dealt with theatrical subjects.

Jean-Antoine Watteau
The Italian Comedians, 1721

The second half of the 1700s was the age of Neo-classicism. Artists were looking to Greece and Rome, or to their idea of classical culture, for themes and styles. The ultimate Neo-Classicist was Jacque-Louis David. Here's an example of his work.

Jacques-Louis David
The Death of Socrates, 1787

David could also paint charming portraits.

Jacques-Louis David
Madame Seriziat, 1795

Between 1780 and 1810, women ranked among the most sought-after artists in Paris, and three of the Academy's four female members regularly exhibited at the biennial Salons.

Royal women were the most important patrons for many women artists. Vallayer-Coster, who joined the Académie in 1770, was chiefly admired for her still lifes of flowers, but it was her figural painting that won her the patronage of Queen Marie Antoinette and the powerful daughters of King Louis XV. Marie-Antoinette also played an important role in the admission of Vigée Le Brun, and the King's daughters named Labille-Guiard as their First Painter.

The simultaneous admission of Labille-Guiard and Vigée Le Brun caused a stir in the art world and beyond, and the press immediately cast them as rivals, pitting Vigée Le Brun’s “feminine” style against the “masculine” characteristics of Labille-Guiard’s paintings.

Although many critics applauded their new prominence, others lamented the immodesty of women who would display their skills so publicly. Indeed, pamphleteers frequently conflated the exhibition of these women’s paintings with the display of their bodies, and they were hounded by salacious rumors.

The onset of the French Revolution in 1789 created difficult conditions for the artists who had established their reputations with assistance from the royal family. Vigée Le Brun and Vallayer-Coster fled the country, joining many of their aristocratic patrons at the courts of England and Russia, and elsewhere in continental Europe. Labille-Guiard, in contrast, remained in France and attempted to redefine herself as an artist in the new Republic. Not only did she exhibit the portraits of Robespierre and other leaders of the Revolution at the 1791 Salon, but she also built on her reputation as a teacher of young women by proposing a new system for educating girls. Yet in 1793, during the height of the Terror, a government committee ordered the destruction of several of her portraits. She survived the Revolution, but her career never recovered.

1744-1818: Anne Vallayer-Coster

• Anne Vallayer-Coster was a renowned still life painter in the late 1700s in France.

• She had particular skill at rendering objects with fool-the-eye realism, but in the middle part of her her career she began to specialize in floral arrangements.

• She was among the first women to be admitted to the French Academy of Art.

• She painted several admirable portraits of the aristocracy, but her figurative work was considered inferior to that of her rivals, and she eventually gave it up.

• Although Anne received the patronage of Queen Marie Antoinette, she survived the French Revolution of 1789 by moving to the country with her wealthy husband.

• When the monarchy was restored, Anne received the patronage of Empress Josephine.

1749-1803: Adélaïde Labille-Guiard

• Adélaïde Labille-Guiard was one of the most prominent portrait artists in France in the late 1700s. In addition to oil painting, she was also a master of miniatures and pastels.

• Although Adélaïde flattered her subjects as required, she still showed a remarkable truth to character, without romanticization. She also excelled at ultra-realistic depiction of objects and furnishings.

• Her career was based on patronage from the ladies of the French court. However, she was sympathetic to certain aims of the Revolution, and after it was over, she attempted to redefine herself as an artist in the new Republic.

• She was also a strong proponent of art training for women and their right to build careers on an equal footing with men.

1755-1842: Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

• Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun was the most celebrated and successful portrait artist of the late 1700s in France. Her work may be seen in museums in the United States and Russia as well as France.

• Her patrons were Royalty. She was the favorite of Marie-Antoinette, and after the French Revolution, she traveled to Italy and Russia and painted members of royal families there. After 12 years of living abroad, she was able to return to France, and continue her career.

• Her portraits have a romantic flair that both flatters her subjects and gives them a special aura. Instead of posing royal women formally in fashionable clothes, she gave them relaxed and appealing poses and contrived marvelous costumes for them; her way with the texture and drape of luxury fabrics was magical.

1761-1837: Marguerite Gérard

• Marguerite was the first French woman to succeed as a genre painter.

• Her most important works are scenes of mothers tending their children or women sharing confidences.

• She was the unofficial apprentice of Fragonard, a major Rococo painter, who was also her brother-in-law.

• Marguerite was not a court painter; her patrons were the upper middle class—wealthy and educated. Thus she was not threatened by the Revolution, and her career thrived afterward.

• Although Marguerite's talent was great and her contribution to painting was important, she fell into oblivion after her death, and even today her work is hard to find.


The first woman to be a successful artist was Sofonisba Anguissola, whose career was in the late 1500s and early 1600s, the afterglow of the Renaissance.

The most important of the early Italian women artists was Artemisia Gentileschi, who lived in the Baroque era, the first half of the 1600s.

In the Golden Age of Dutch Art, the 1600s, Judith Leyster had a successful career despite the high standards set by Frans Hals and Rembrandt.

The first woman to become a star in Britain as well as Italy was Angelica Kauffman.

The most celebrated French woman artist of the late 1700s was Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

Artemisia Gentileschi and Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun are the most important of the Old Master Women.