What was the role of women artists in Late Renaissance and Baroque Italy? How did they come into their own artistically in a male-dominated world? Such is the premise of the fall exhibition of the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK). Featuring some fifty paintings, the exhibition sheds light on the critical role of women painters in Italy from 1580 to 1680.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652), arguably the most famous female artist of 17th-century Italian art, figures prominently in the exhibition, which compares her work with that of her female contemporaries. The inclusion of decorative art objects from the period serve to contextualize the works of these women.
Women artists in the 16th- and 17th-century
During the 16th and 17th centuries, women artists in Venice, Rome, Naples, and Bologna undeniably shared a common ground that earned them their own place in the Baroque aesthetics. These women chose to dedicate themselves to painting and, consequently, to compete with accomplished male artists and their studios.
They were the daughters, sisters or wives of well-known artists, or in some cases nuns. Their works displayed a conceptual and formal coherence that formed a sharp contrast to the diverse styles of the period. By using bold treatements and brilliant pictorial devices, they circumvented – delicately when needed, forcefully if possible – the rules and practices imposed by the Counter-Reformation, a movement advocating a spiritual renewal within the Catholic Church.
Artemisia: the fight against authority
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652) figures prominently in archival documents and literature. Like her father Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia was a proponent of Caravaggio’s dramatic realism. Her work placed her in direct competition with her male contemporaries, and she enjoyed significant success.
Artemisia gradually rose above her station and came to symbolize the fight against artistic authority: firstly, against her father’s authority, and later, vigourously, against the lack of freedom for women.
Reinterpreting the champion of women painters
In order to better understand Artemisia’s work, we must refrain from over-interpreting certain events in her life, such as her rape as a young woman. In the past, her unique artistic position was at times too easily linked to these stories. The MSK exhibition will endeavour to qualify this perception by examining the conditions under which women artists of the Late Renaissance and Baroque lived and worked. Artemisia was far from the only woman to champion the cause of female painters.
From La Tintoretta to Elisabetta Sirani
Marietta 'La Tintoretta' Robusti, Sofonisba Anguissola, Giovanna Garzoni, Lavinia Fontana, Fede Galizia, as well as Orsola Maddalena Caccia, Virginia da Vezzo, and Elisabetta Sirani: according to the mores of the times, all these women had to make do with portraiture and allegorical paintings featuring fruit and flowers. However, they were quick to flout these restrictions, using the themes that were forced on them as powerful instruments: they displayed remarkable freedom in the face of the strict gender rules.
The undeniable portraits and self-portraits behind their allegorical, mythological, and religious figures are imbued with an astonishing naturalistic presence. That same naturalism is to be found in their flower and fruit arrangements. These women transformed the traditional symbols of the transience of objects and of fertility into powerful instruments of defiance and opposition.