Women artists in the Renaissance and the Baroque Northern Europe and Italy.
During the Renaissance and the Baroque era, there were only a few notorious women artists. In her book, Frances Borzello explains that unfortunately, in the 16th century until the end of the 18th century (123), the field of art didn’t welcome women; dominated and supervised by men, only a few women had the opportunity to reveal their talent as an artist. Even in the high society, women were rarely encouraged to develop their artistic skills (12, 15, and 24). Fred Kleiner explicates that to become a professional painter or sculptor, in the Italy and Northern Europe Renaissance, young artists needed to be part of an association of craftsmen or guild who supervise the profession. To enter the guild, young artists needed to train with their master for several years (426). Apprentices were usually housed by their teacher, generally men, a condition that prevented young girls to be trained (426 and 536). However, some women learned with their father or husbands (Kleiner 446), others were taught in convents (Borzello 27), and those born in a wealthy family had private lessons (Borzello 28). Even later until the 20th-century women couldn’t paint nude model (Kleiner 536; Borzello 15), they tend to specialize on portraiture, religious panel (Borzello 15) and later at the end of the 16th-century on still life (Borzello 38). Among these talented women are the Renaissance Italian artists Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, and the Flemish painters Caterina van Hemessen and Lavina Teerlinc. As mentioned by Kleiner in his book, Artemisia Gentileschi was recognized in Europe as the most talented woman artist in the 17th-century (596). Judith Leyster was renowned for her genre scenes and portraitures (621), and in the baroque Northern Europe, Clara Peeters and Rachel Ruysch were famous for their beautiful still life paintings (616, 629).
Sofonisba Anguissola, born in Italy, in 1532, was the daughter of a Senator, she had the opportunity to study painting with the mannerists painters Bernardino Campi and Bernadino Gatti (Carney 14). Michelangelo who noticed her talent might have acquainted her with Philipp II of Spain. She worked as a maid and teacher for the court for thirteen years (Kleiner 542; Vigue? 39; Borzello 23). She painted many portraits and self-portraits, but also religious scenes (Weidemann, Larass, and Klier 10; Vigue? 39; Kleiner 542). Often in her paintings, she depicted the members of her family. In her painting “Three sisters playing chess” (fig. 1), one of her most well-known, she depicted her sisters Lucia and Minerva playing chess. Europa is her youngest sister, she is in the center, taking great delight in watching the game. On the right is the maid paying also attention to the game. The figures are easy-to-read, the viewer can perceive the stupor in Minerva’s eyes who suddenly realizes that her sister Lucia, serene, looking directly at the viewer, is assuring to win (Weidemann, Larass, and Klier 10; Vigue? 40). Kleiner points out that her spontaneity and the charm of her subjects in her paintings explained Sofonisba Anguissola’s success (542). She also painted numerous portraits of the royal court including portraits of the Queen of Spain Elizabeth of Valois (fig 2). She usually depicted her posing formally, in an expensive dress, covered with jewelry, that attest her affiliation to the royalty (Vigue? 42). Later in her life, she met and advised Anthony van Dyck, who became a famous Flemish painter (Kleiner 542).
Lavinia Fontana born in 1552, in Bologna, was also a successful artist of the Renaissance period. She trained with her father Prospero Fontana who was a mannerist and had a painting studio (Vigue? 4; Weidemann, Larass, and Klier 14). Jordi Vigue? describes her paintings are incredibly detailed and elaborated (49). Weideman, Larass and Klier explain that in her first self-portrait (fig 3), painted in 1577, she represented herself as a sophisticated, cultivated woman playing the harpsichord. In the background is her painting studio, and she wrote an inscription stated that she painted herself from the mirror (14). Vigue? outlines in her book that Fontana painted religious pictures, but also mythological artworks, where she included nude females, even if at that period, women were forbidden to paint nude figures (49). She explains, how in her painting “Venus and Cupid” (fig 4), Fontana enhanced the mystic and the sensuality of the scene by painted Venus nude, in a dark background that covered some part of her body (51). Borzello mentions that Lavinia Fontana painted also, on one of her self-portraits, in 1579, nude little figures as she wanted to defy men (27).
The first known Flemish woman artist was Caterina van Hemessen. She made her reputation with her numerous small portraits that sold very well (Weidemann, Larass, and Klier 8). Vigue? mentions that the artist learned with her father who was also a popular painter of the rich city of Antwerp in Netherland (33). Kleiner describes that on her self- portrait (fig 5), painted in 1548, she staged herself against a dark background, as a painter holding her tools, gazing with assurance at the viewer while working at her easel (569). She also painted a biblical scene “The Flagellation of Jesus” (fig 6), in 1955, in a mannerist style, with Jesus awkwardly positioned in the center, his hands attached to a column, behind a crowd raised up to add depth to the scene (Vigue? 38). She also spent some time in Spain under the patronage of the aunt of Philip II in 1956 (Borzello 34; Kleiner 570). Caterina van Hemessen who used to sign her pictures with her full name didn’t let any signed works after her return to Netherland in 1958 (Weidemann et al. 8).
Levina Teerlinc was another talented Flemish artist of the 16th- century. Born in Bruges in 1520, she was a descendant of a family of artists. She studied with her father and demonstrated great abilities. After her marriage with George Teerlinc, she was selected by the king Henry VIII of England to work for the royal court. Greatly appreciated by the King, she gets extraordinary compensations. Even Hans Holbein a famous portraitist who worked also for Henri VIII didn’t receive such return. After the death of Henri VIII, she painted numerous portraits and miniatures for his daughter Elizabeth who became Queen of England (Kleiner 570; Carney 345).
During the 17th-century, Borzello explains that even with the apparition of educational academies (55), women were still put aside, only the upper-class women could reveal their talent (57), often taught by their father or uncles or eventually their mother, aunts or sisters. Also, convents continue to provide women artists (56). Artemisia Gentileschi was one of these women trained by her father, she became a tremendous painter and the first woman entering the academy of design in Florence (The Accademia del Disegno), in 1616 (Kleiner 596; Vigue? 65). Strongly influenced by Caravaggio an eminent Baroque painter (Kleiner 595), Artemisia ‘s paintings are very dramatic and realistic. The painting “Judith Slaying Holofernes” (fig 7) is particularly remarkable. she painted this scene few years after she was raped by a friend of his father, also an artist named Agostino Tassi (Vigue? 65). The painting is very tense, Kleiner explains that Gentileschi chose to depict the moment when the heroic Judith and her maid in the biblical story, are beheading their enemy, the Assyrian general Holofernes tempted by the seductive Judith (597). The scene is brutal, the women look heartless and resolute. The contrast of light and dark and the darkness of the background add a lot of drama to the scene (Kleiner 597; Weidemann et al. 18). Vigue? observes that Artemisia seemed to share Judith’s feeling, communicating in this painting all the rage she resented after being raped and humiliated during the trial that followed (69).
In Northern Europe, some women also showed tremendous talent, Judith Leyster was not the daughter of an artist, his father was the owner of a brewery in the city of Haarlem in Holland. She practiced with the artist Frans Peter de Grebber as an apprentice, and historians strongly believe that she worked with the portraitist Frans Hals’s (Vigue? 85), admired in the Dutch Republic for his group portraits (Kleiner 620). Judith Leyster’s style shows clearly that Frans Hals had influenced her (Weidemann et al. 25); her self-portrait (fig 8) painted in 1633 at the age of 21 was at first mistaken for a portrait painted by Frans Hals (Kleiner 621). In the painting, she poses well-dressed, proudly, in front of her canvas showing a musician playing the violin, as she wanted to show evidence of her talent (Kleiner 621). At the age of 24 years old she was the only woman who entered the Haarlem’s guild of painters and who opened her own studio (Vigue? 85). Another well-known painting of her is “The proposition” (fig 9) where she depicted a man offering money for sexual services to an honorable woman who is sewing by candlelight. The woman is portrayed as a victim rather than a woman of poor morality as women receiving money for such purposes are habitually described by men artists. (Vigue? 89).
While Judith Leyster is known mainly for her portraits and genre scene paintings, other women artists like Clara Peeters and Rachel Ruysch specialized in a new form of paintings called still life, very popular in the Protestant Dutch republic (Kleiner 628).
Clara Peeters was born in the Netherland in 1594, but very few it is known about her, historians believe that she probably trained with the artist Osias Beert a Flemish painter (Weidemann et al. 22). She painted an impressive collection of finely painted still life artworks, composed of various elegant objects, food and flowers, (Kleiner 616; Vigue? 71). In her self-portrait (fig 10) painted in 1640, she depicted herself surrounded by objects on a dark background, and she incorporated, in her painting, some vanitas elements that refer to the impermanence of life such the bubble, the tipped candle holder on the table, or the dead flower in the vase (Kleiner 628; Vigue? 75).
Floral still life paintings were very popular in the Dutch Republic during the 17th century, Rachel Ruysch excelled as a flower painter. Her impressive bouquets mixing all kind of flowers with fruits, nests, and insects were greatly appreciate and pricey. Her father Frederik Ruysch was a distinguished botanist and anatomist in Amsterdam, who most likely initiated her to botany (Weidemann et al. 34). She trained with the talented flower painter Willem van Aelst, and developed an extremely fine and detailed style of painting, very realistic and accurate (Vigue? 129). However, the composition of her bouquets does not strictly reproduce the reality, since the plants she painted all together do not develop flowers simultaneously (Kleiner 629; Vigue? 129). She also introduced vanitas symbols in her pictures. For example, in her painting “Fruits and insects (fig 12), Vigue? explains that she opposed a lizard, “symbol of decomposition” and death with a butterfly “symbol of hope” and life who will die soon (132).
The number of artist women continues to grow throughout the history despite the difficulties they had to overcome. Their talent was too obvious to be ignored, influent patrons and royal courts commissioned these women and allow them to gain assurance and prosper. Even if their work were considered less important than those of men, these women artists, with their determination had inspired other women to enter the profession and will continue.