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The Renaissance Women Who Painted Against the Odds

HARTFORD — As early as 1971, with her landmark essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” the art historian Linda Nochlin made it clear that if you go hunting for forgotten female equals to Michelangelo or Poussin, you are going to be disappointed. European women were of course painting, drawing, sketching, weaving, but — much more than their literary counterparts — female artists faced institutional obstacles to their development that outweighed any individual gift. No admission to life drawing classes. No apprenticeships in large studios. No easy hobnobbing with patrons. No access to prizes or residencies, or even sometimes paint.

If the sexism of art was structural, then the solution would have to be structural too. Raising a few lesser-known (and, to Nochlin’s eye, less significant) women to the canon of old masters was not going to cut it. A feminist art history would require a critique of the very idea of “greatness,” and a root-and-branch reconstruction of how we assign artistic value: what the feminist art historian Griselda Pollock would later call “differencing the canon.”

Still, there were more women than we’ve known who beat the odds to become professional artists before the age of revolutions. In 1972, just a year after Nochlin’s salvo, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore presented the exhibition “Old Mistresses,” which brought to the fore Lavinia Fontana, Angelica Kauffman, and other European women. Larger and more influential was “Women Artists: 1550—1950,” organized by Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris, which connected painters from Artemisia Gentileschi to Alice Neel at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976 and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1977. The last four years have brought monographic museum exhibitions — the standard application format for canon membership — of not only Gentileschi and Kauffman but Fede Galizia, Michaelina Wautier, Elisabetta Sirani and Giovanna Garzoni.

“By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500—1800,” on view for a few more weeks here at the Wadsworth Atheneum, is the most significant American show of women of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque eras since 2007, when the National Museum of Women in the Arts hosted “Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque.” (The current show has been organized with the Detroit Institute of Arts, to which it will travel in February.) Its titular painter may draw the most attention: Artemisia, star of her very own movie and several based-on-a-true-story plays and novels, may very well have displaced Caravaggio as 17th-century Italy’s most bankable art star.

Yet this show has paintings, pastels and drawings by sixteen women, many drawn from private collections or else not seen in America for decades. (Two other women are seen through portraits by men, as the curators were unable to obtain suitable loans.) Some of these artists, like Gentileschi and Sirani, were renowned in their day. Others, notably those in religious orders, worked in total obscurity. I had never heard of a solid third of them.

No denying that Gentileschi dominates the show, starting from a central wall in which she stares us down in three tightly cropped self-portraits in three-quarter profile, each done in Florence in 1615—17. In the recently rediscovered “Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria,” lent by the National Gallery in London, the artist wears a red gown and a crown wrapped in a turban. In her right, drawn to her heart, she holds a palm. Her left hand grazes the spike of the wheel on which she was tortured.

A similar pose recurs in another Saint Catherine, lent from the Uffizi. The confident gaze matches the Wadsworth’s own “Self-Portrait as a Lute Player,” in which she wears a blue dress with substantial décolletage: an unprecedented self-portrait of a woman depicting herself as sexually desirable.

Gentileschi used representations of herself, both secular and allegorical, not only as painterly formats but vindications of her learning and sophistication. These self-portraits were methods of self-promotion, which helped win her commissions for larger projects from the kings of England and Spain. (The invocation of Saint Catherine also had a public element; at the notorious trial of Gentileschi’s rapist in 1612, she endured torture to “prove” she was telling the truth.) Multi-figure works by Gentileschi here, such as the grand and grisly “Judith and Her Maidservant With the Head of Holofernes,” display a staggering ambition right down to the paint handling; look at the slashing whites in Judith’s shirt sleeves and her servant’s kerchief.

No other artist in “By Her Hand” matches Gentileschi in scale or number. This show’s curators, Eve Straussman-Pflanzer and Oliver Tostmann, have thus wisely staged the show in a single open room with a structure of open walls, encouraging you to bounce back and forth among artists and centuries. Gentileschi’s three-quarter self-portraits find an echo in a later painting by Elisabetta Sirani of the Egyptian queen Berenice. Gentileschi’s decapitation scene hangs near a slightly earlier painting of the same subject by the Northern Italian Fede Galizia: stiller, more exacting, but no shier about equating art and violence. The artist signed her name on the steel of Judith’s blade.

Gentileschi, Sirani and Galizia were all the daughters of painters. Indeed just about every female artist before the 19th century had a father in the profession. One who did not — and my No. 1 draft pick for canon membership, if we’re playing that game — was Sofonisba Anguissola, a minor Lombard noblewoman who received an art education before becoming a lady-in-waiting at the Spanish court. She was a fiend at self-portraits, which the artist and her family distributed to hoped-for patrons, and which made her among the most famous artists of the late 16th century.

This show has three of them, including a stunning miniature, lent by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in which the young Sofonisba gazes sternly while holding a giant medal in front of her chest. Her gaze is one of both youthful confidence and utter command, with the humanistic mastery of a true Renaissance woman.

“By Her Hand” does feature some drawings, watercolors and woodcuts, though it does little to displace oil painting from its place at the top of the mountain. (There are no female sculptors here; they were rarest of all, though when this show travels to Detroit it will introduce a diorama of wax, glass and feathers by the Neapolitan artist Caterina de Julianis.)

A beautiful quartet of pastels by Rosalba Carriera, of 18th-century Venice, has a hard time standing out; rather generic 18th-century pastels and oils by Marianna Carlevarijs, Veronica Stern Telli and Anna Bacherini Piattoli get lost entirely. It’s totally fine that some art here looks great and some looks workaday. The mix of quality enlarges our view of Italian art, and with the evidence finally before us we can make our own judgments. But beyond this initial encounter lies the larger task that Nochlin and Pollock and so many other feminist art historians taught us decades ago, to rethink artistic value as something less canonical, and less dependent on the conceit of artist as individual genius.

I’ve worried a lot lately that our increasing attention to gender, race, sexuality and other forms of difference is pushing museums to privilege contemporary art above all — simply because, after 1900, it’s so much easier to find (named) artists who aren’t straight white men. But “By Her Hand” at least points to how encyclopedic museums can speak seriously in the present without ignoring the past. A similar impulse animated the Brooklyn Museum’s recent show on gender fluidity in ancient Egyptian art; the Rijksmuseum’s blockbuster on slavery in the Dutch Golden Age; or the landmark show at Columbia University and the Musée d’Orsay on Black models in 19th-century French art. Those shows and this one all have their place in a more fluid and networked art history, where the meaning of “greatness” is still up for grabs.

By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi & Women Artists in Italy, 1500—1800
Through Jan. 9. Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main St., Hartford, Conn., (860) 278-2670; thewadsworth.org.

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