I’m guessing that if you were to ask 100 random people to name an historical (as opposed to contemporary) female painter, some at least would answer ‘Artemisia Gentileschi’ (1593–?1654), who has been in the public eye (in the UK at any rate) recently because of the purchase by the National Gallery of her self-portrait as St Catherine of Alexandria, its subsequent road-trip, and the upcoming exhibition of her works.
Sadly, of course, she also fits the current depressing Zeitgeist because of her well-documented rape at the age of 17 by Agostino Tassi, an acquaintance of her father who was apparently hired to teach her perspective. (Tassi, naturally, although convicted at his trial, got away scot-free.)
Alternatively, there’s a possibility that someone might name Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807), a founding member of the Royal Academy (along with the much less well known Mary Moser).
Both ladies are immortalised in Zoffany’s famous group portrait of the Academicians (and visitors, including Mr Chitqua), but as pictures on the wall in the life-drawing class, neither (Heaven forbid!) having the display of naked male flesh in their sight-line.
Or there’s Rosalba Carriera (1673–1757), Venetian miniaturist and artist in pastels, whose portraits of Grand Tourists and others live and breathe. Look at the famous soprano Faustina Bordoni Hasse in Ca’ Rezzonico, or the self-portrait in the Accademia …
Another Italian who might be mentioned is Elisabetta Sirani of Bologna, who died mysteriously at the age of 27 – she may have been poisoned by her maidservant, but more likely was made physically ill by stress after becoming the main breadwinner for her family when her painter father died.
And I’ve also recently come across the remarkable natural history studies of Giovanna Garzoni (1600–70).
From the Low Countries, there are (among many others) Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) and Clara Peeters (fl. 1605–21), the former a superb flower painter, the other specialising in still lives – both, of course, genres which were thought appropriate to women.
Judith Leyster (1609–60) broke out of that mould – but for her pains, many of her works were later attributed to Franz Hals. In Germany, consider the wonderful Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), naturalist as well as painter, and her daughters Dorothea Graff and Johanna Helena Herolt. And, later, in France, there are Vigée Le Brun and her less famous contemporaries. (This is to ignore – for now – the female British painters of the period.)
A woman (previously unknown to me, but that’s a very low bar) who features in the superb exhibition ‘From Titian to Rubens’ (at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice until 1 March) is Michaelina Wautier (1617–89), whose beautiful and melancholy ‘Two Girls as Sts Agnes and Dorothy’ lights up its room.
The girls are not the saints, but dressed as them: an important distinction. They stand close, but do not meet each other’s eyes, nor the eyes of the viewer: Agnes strokes her lamb but does not look at it either, and Dorothy is turned away from her fruit and flowers. Their sadness anticipates the coming martyrdom, with no hint of the joyful ascent to Paradise afterwards. (See also Caravaggio …)
Wautier has been almost invisible – she lived with her painter brother Charles, and her self-portrait of 1649 was long (and ironically) attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi.
Her ‘Triumph of Bacchus’ was unusual for the period – not in its subject-matter as such, but because a woman painter had dared to depict a licentious scene with an (almost) male nude. The woman in pink staring out at the viewer may be a self-portrait.
Most of these painters were, so to speak, born to the profession, with painters as fathers (or stepfathers) and teachers. Carriera is one exception – she developed her skills in painting and pastel after having begun her career designing patterns for her lace-maker mother; Wautier learned from (or was taught alongside) her brother.
Also during our hols, I came across two more women painters with painter fathers: Marianna Carlevarijs (1703– after 1750) and Barbara Longhi.
As well as being the daughter of Luca Carlevarijs (163–1730), Marianna was a pupil of Rosalba Carriera. I had always assumed from his unusual and (to me) Flemish-sounding surname, that Carlevarijs had migrated south to Venice – and he had, but only the 130-odd km from Udine, up near the Slovenian border. He is regarded as the inventor of the famous Venetian veduta, the cityscape which was later brought to perfection by Canaletto and Guardi, and without one of which in his luggage no self-respecting Grand Tourist could possibly return home.
Carlevarijs was also famous for his etchings of views and buildings in Venice, including this one of the church of St Geminiano, designed by Sansovino and demolished at the demand of (who else?) Buonaparte in 1807.
His daughter produced mostly pastel portraits in Carriera’s manner: perhaps the best known are those of four members of the Balbi family, which now hang in the Querini Stampalia.
Barbara Longhi (1552–1638), examples of whose work you can find in the Museo d’Arte della Città di Ravenna, was her father’s pupil. Very little is known about Barbara’s life – she probably never left Ravenna, but she was clearly admired both by Vasari (who mentioned her favourably (when she was only in her teens) in the second edition of the Lives of the Artists, 1568) and by the poet and playwright Muzio Manfredi (1535–1607), who was educated in Ravenna and subsequently made his living by revolving round the ducal courts of Italy, writing sonnets and tragedies.
Of her works, only 15 have survived which can be definitely attributed. There is one portrait, of a Camaldolese monk: it is virtually impossible to photograph because of the lighting and reflections on the glass: my effort was unusable, but this one from the web is a bit better.
Her father depicted her, seated at the front of the table and looking out of the picture, in his ‘Wedding at Cana’ on the wall of the former Camaldolese monastery in Ravenna.
He also painted her as St Catherine of Alexandria, and so did she: the two portraits hang side by side.
Her output seems to have been mostly devotional paintings, and most of them Madonnas, Bambini and saints, though there is a ‘Judith and Holofernes’ in Ravenna.
And you won’t be surprised to learn that Ravenna has a Via Luca Longhi, but (as far as I can find) no Via Barbara Longhi yet.
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