Women in Art

I have mentioned before in my earlier blogs that I take a lot of classes at a place called Oasis.  Actually, it isn’t just a place; it is an institution that has branches in about 17 cities throughout the United States.  The original Oasis was established in St. Louis.  I am a southern Illinois gal who grew up on a farm just thirty miles from St. Louis, so that was our “big city” growing up.  But I moved away from the Midwest thirty-four years ago when I was much too young to avail myself of these classes that require you to be at least 50-years-old to be able to attend.  This is their mission statement: “Oasis is a national education organization dedicated to enriching the lives of mature adults. Offering challenging programs in the arts, humanities, health, science, technology and volunteer service.  Oasis creates opportunities for people to continue their personal growth and serve their communities.”

These classes aren’t for credit and earning degrees.  These are classes that teach current politics, history, literature, music, exercise, computer tech, movie history, art and foreign languages.  That these are so readily available and also relatively inexpensive, made it a perfect fit for me.  Just what I wanted:  being able to learn just for the sake of learning!  Eventually, I also taught classes at Oasis as well. (Goddess classes, Sierra Club Service Trips, Mythology and Ancient Civilizations of the Mediterranean, cultures of Thailand, Turkey, Europe, Hawaii, and others…)  Some of these classes are just an hour or two for one day.  Some last every week for almost the entire semester.

A recent class I took (“From Canvas to Screen:  Films about Art and Artists,” taught by Peter Moller, Emeritus Professor, Film and Television, Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University) included a documentary on “The Story of Women in Art.”  It emphasized little-known Medieval-era female artists.

The first artist Professor Moller shared was Italian female Renaissance sculptor Properzia de’Rossi.  In the sixteenth century, she designed the Grassi Family Crest by carving plum and peach stones and using them as insets in a detailed silver filigree. De’Rossi had been commissioned to create this piece. What brought her initial fame and artist recognition were the exquisite miniature carvings in the fruit pits.

Properzia de’ Rossi, Grassi Family Crest, 1510-30 – silver filigree and carved peach and plum stones BOLOGNA Italy Museo Civico Medievale



She also gained some notoriety as the first female sculptor in marble.  It was said that “She damned herself in stone,” as she knew male anatomy too well! She studied under the Bolognese artist and master engraver Marcantonio Raimondi. Although pitted against male competitors, de Rossi was the winner of a commission for the west façade of San Petronio Cathedral in Bologna. Part of the commission included a marble panel depicting the Biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, often referred to as her most celebrated piece.  She was one of four women included in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists.  However, Vasari’s comments about de’ Rossi make his view clear: sculpting is not an art form that women should attempt.  There was a belief in the Renaissance that women were prone to be overcome and hindered by melancholia. Vasari used Properzia’s San Petronio as an example of how all women, even those who are great artisans, cannot escape their “female” nature.  He claimed that de’Rossi had an unrequited affection for a young nobleman.  Sadly, Properzia died penniless and alone in a debtor’s hospital at the age of 40.



Women in nunneries had the opportunity for art and music.  Nuns created beautiful tapestries and paintings.  The privacy of the convent protected these female artists but also limited them as to subject matter.


Sofonisba Anguissola was another Italian Renaissance painter.  Her apprenticeship with local painters set a precedent for women to be accepted as students of art. As a young woman, Anguissola traveled to Rome where she was introduced to Michelangelo, who immediately recognized her talent, and to Milan, where she painted the Duke of Alba. Anguissola’s apprenticeship with local painters set a precedent for women to be accepted as students of art. Her masterpiece was considered to be “The Chess Game.”  It portrays a group portrait of her three sisters.  Unlike most male art—which represented religious art—this and many other of her paintings portrayed family life. This genre became known as “a conversation piece.”


Although Anguissola enjoyed significantly more encouragement and support than the average woman of her day, her social class did not allow her to transcend the constraints of her sex. Without the possibility of studying anatomy or drawing from life (it was considered unacceptable for a lady to view nudes), she could not undertake the complex multi-figure compositions required for large-scale religious or history paintings. Bologna University in Italy allowed women to have access to oils, pigments, brushes and TRAINING!


At the Spanish court she painted Isabel de Valois, the third wife of Phillip II.  She lived to be 96-years-old with all her faculties intact.


You can view many more of her paintings here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MEkfGQaZmjc


It is a wonder that this next lady ever had time to paint as she had eleven children! Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) was a Renaissance painter who received commissions to make not only portraits (the typical subject of female artists) but also religious and mythological themes, which sometimes included female nudes.  She became famous and is regarded as the first woman artist, working within the same sphere as her male counterparts, outside a court or convent. Her fame spread to Rome, where she then moved and became a portraitist at the court of Pope Paul V. She received many honors.  Meanwhile, her husband, also a painter, became a bit of a house husband, assisting his wife and managing their growing household. She painted almost 300 paintings—most with sumptuous detail.


Portrait of a Noblewoman illustrates Lavinia Fontana’s ability to render sumptuous clothing and jewels in astonishing detail.


Action and drama fill the canvases of Artemisia Gentileschil.  She was the daughter of an artist. Born July 8, 1593 – c. 1656, she was an Italian Baroque painter, today considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation following that of Caravaggio. In an era when women painters were not easily accepted by the artistic community or patrons, she was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.

She painted many pictures of strong and suffering women from myths and the Bible – victims, suicides, warriors. One of her more famous paintings is “Susanna and the Elders.”

Her best-known work is “Judith Slaying Holofermes,” a well-known subject in medieval and baroque art which “shows the decapitation of Holofermes, a scene of horrific struggle and blood-letting”. It was painted as part of the group of subjects called “The Power of Women,” which show women triumphing over powerful men.  The subject takes an episode from the apocryphal Book of Judith in the Old Testament.  It recounts the assassination of the Assyrian general Holofermes by the Israelite heroine Judith.  In this painting, she is helped by her maidservant to behead the general after he has fallen into a drunken slumber. 

That she was a woman painting in the seventeenth century and that she was raped and participated in the prosecution of the rapist long overshadowed her achievements as an artist. For many years she was regarded as a curiosity. Today she is regarded as one of the most progressive and expressive painters of her generation. Gentileschi drew herself as Judith and her mentor Agostino Tassi, who was tried in court for her rape, as Holofermes. Gentileschi’s biographer proposed that the painting functions as “a cathartic expression of the artist’s private, and perhaps repressed, rage.” During the trial, Artemisia was subjected to a gynecological examination and torture using thumbscrews to verify her testimony. At the end of the trial Tassi was exiled from Rome, although they never carried out the sentence. The trial influenced the feminist view of Artemisia Gentileschi during the late twentieth century.

Gentileschi painted two versions of this work: the first is at a museum in Naples, and the second is at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence—which I got to see while racing through this amazing museum on my one day in Florence many years ago. I was in the vicinity because I had taken a week’s trip to a contessa’s villa above Siena, where I took classes in print, yoga and meditation.  This artsy trip HAD to include Michelangelo’s “The David,” and the Uffitzi! (I sold my first painting there—for 100,000 lira–which only amounts to $50)!

After her death, Gentileschi drifted into obscurity, her works often attributed to her father or other artists. Yet, she was one of the world’s greatest female artists.  In recent years the world has recognized her talent. There are books, a documentary, a play and a films about her.

This is another example of “The Matilda Effect,” named after Matilda Joslyn Gage.  Gage spoke and wrote about the many women of accomplishment in all fields, including art, who had not been paid their due.  Often, this was because their work was attributed to husbands, or, as in Gentileschi’s case, her father.

I had not heard of any of these women artists before taking this class.  Yet their contemporaries (Michelangelo, Caravaggio, etc.) are very well known.  These paintings are magnificent and I am so glad to have discovered them.