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January 2022

Vol. 164 / No. 1426

By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500–1800

Reviewed by Elizabeth Cropper

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford (30th September 2021–9th January 2022)

Museum acquisitions can be transformative and often lead to exhibitions that stimulate research in new directions. The purchase by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, of Francesco Salviati’s portrait of the medical doctor and academician Carlo Rimbotti in 2017 provided the impetus for the recent exhibition of Medici portraits.(1) The acquisition of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-portrait as St Catherine by the National Gallery, London, in 2018 was celebrated with a tour of the painting to several underserved communities and prompted an ambitious exhibition of Artemisia’s work.(2) Four years earlier, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, had purchased a work now seen to be closely related, Artemisia’s Self-portrait as a lute player. In Hartford Artemisia’s painting joined one by her father, Orazio (Judith and her maidservant with the head of Holofernes), whereas the National Gallery had to wait until 2019 to secure Orazio’s Finding of Moses. In both cases the Gentileschi, father and daughter, found their appropriate places beside Michelangelo da Caravaggio.

The Wadsworth Atheneum, founded in 1842, prides itself on being the first civic fine arts museum in the United States, and it holds a remarkable collection of European paintings. Yet, as Eve Straussman-Pflanzer points out in her essay in the catalogue,(3) it has never presented an exhibition devoted to European women artists of the early modern period and owns few works by early modern Italian women. This also holds true for the Detroit Institute of Arts, where the exhibition will also be seen (6th February–29th May 2022).

Hartford’s 2014 purchase prompted this joint endeavour, which includes seven outstanding works by Artemisia, including the newly identified Mary Magdalene in ecstasy (c.1620–25; Palazzo Ducale, Venice; cat. no.28). Conservation analysis and cleaning of Judith and her maidservant with the head of Holofernes from Detroit (no.27; Fig.1) have confirmed its high quality and the level of care and expense involved in the production of this masterpiece. The presence on the opening wall of the National Gallery’s Self-portrait (1615–17; no.25), St Catherine of Alexandria from the Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence (1615–17; no.26) and the Hartford Self-portrait as a lute player (1615–17; no.24), reconstitutes for the Hartford public the trio of early works based on a shared template exhibited in London. Here, however, Artemisia is seen in the context of an anthology of over sixty works by some eighteen other women, from the now well-studied Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, Giovanna Garzoni (Fig.2) and Elisabetta Sirani to such less familiar figures as Isabella Catanea Parasole, Ginevra Cantofoli and Caterina de Julianis. This list of ‘unknowns’ is rapidly growing shorter: Suor Orsola Maddalena Caccia, for example, is now represented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by a significant group of works, although her oeuvre remains to be established.

Straussman-Pflanzer’s catalogue essay, ‘Why have there been no exhibitions of early modern Italian women artists in Hartford or Detroit?’, refers overtly to Linda Nochlin’s essay ‘Why have there been no great women artists’, published in 1971 and celebrating its half century of influence in a new edition that appeared last year. Nochlin was as dedicated to undermining the power of the myth of the ‘Great Artist’ and ‘the white western male’ as she was to promoting the work of women, while decrying as ‘swallowing the bait’ (by answering the question as posed) earnest attempts to rehabilitate ‘modest if interesting careers’ or to ‘rediscover forgotten flower painters’.(4) In 1976 she joined Ann Sutherland Harris in organising an equally influential exhibition, Women Artists: 1550–1950, which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Covering a wide chronological and geographical span, that exhibition and its catalogue deliberately challenged art historians, curators and collectors alike to make it the last exhibition of its kind.(5)

Yet the inequities for women that generated the women’s movement persist, and anthological exhibitions of women’s work still serve a purpose. The questions have changed, however, from negative challenges to more positive inquiries. One recent example was Les Dames du Baroque, an exhibition presented in 2018 at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, by Francesco Solinas and his colleagues.(6) Eight artists, from Anguissola to Sirani, were introduced without apology to a Northern European audience more familiar with Judith Leyster and Rachel Ruysch, setting them in the context of the Counter Reformation and religious struggle in Europe. These strong women each had a role to play on the European stage and they were by no means modest.

In the current exhibition the question is different again: what does it mean that such a collection of work by Italian women is being seen in these two venerable civic institutions for the first time? What might the inclusion of these works tell us about their institutional histories, and what might come of this in the future? Without doubt the exhibition disturbs the parameters of tradition and encourages the public to see their museum in a historical light: in the United States the history of early modern European art and its collecting has been as influenced by the Vasarian narrative, compounded by later academic principles, as in Europe. Yet all the women included here somehow found a place to thrive, whether in a convent, a court, a collector’s cabinet or the marketplace. And even if their education often depended on family relationships, they learned how to conduct themselves in society as well as practise their art, and they often married and had children. Straussman-Pflanzer reminds us, however, that no matter how successful they were in their own times, the posthumous reputations of early modern women artists were generally short, lasting at most through the eighteenth century. Collecting practices, art history, connoisseurship and the market all combined with modern gender bias and deep-rooted misogyny to exclude women from view in modern times.

The women artists in the exhibition are well served by the catalogue. The entries are written by a group of experts, with full biographical information and new bibliography. The attention to provenance and exhibition history is especially welcome, given that the history of collecting and display is central to the argument. Freed in this way from the limitations of individual monographic treatments, the curators could focus on a series of themes introducing the public to unfamiliar territory. Anchored by Gentileschi’s magnificent paintings, and supported by outstanding contributions from Anguissola, Fontana – whose Annunciation (c.1575; no.12) and Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani (c.1594–95; no.17), both in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, will regrettably be shown only in Detroit – Sirani and Rosalba Carriera, all four of whose female allegories in pastel of the mid-1720s are fortunately reunited for the Hartford venue (only two of which are catalogued, nos.52 and 53, both private collection), the thematic sections of the installation encourage a rethinking of the history of women artists that also brings significance to lesser known figures working in a variety of media.

Under such headings as ‘Alternative Avenues’, ‘Miracles of Nature’, ‘Domestic Genres’, ‘The Image of the Female Hero’ and ‘The Female Self’, Diana Scultori, Catanea Parasole, Anna Maria Vaiani, De Julianis and Veronica Stern Telli, none of them primarily easel painters, find their place in a history that is not anachronistically determined by the hierarchical categories of the French Academy. It was the great collector Vincenzo Giustiniani, after all, who reported Caravaggio’s statement that a good painting of flowers was as demanding as a painting of figures. In addition to their friendship with Artemisia, both Galileo Galilei and Cassiano dal Pozzo, members of the Accademia dei Lincei, Rome, promoted Garzoni and Vaiani (Fig.3), who were notable for their attention to the representation of natural history. Without wavering from the central theme of women artists, the organisers pay attention to recent studies of visual representation that lie outside the traditions of art academies.

The exhibition Women Artists: 1550–1950 opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on 21st December 1976, exactly one month after the closing of the museum’s Two Centuries of Black American Art, curated by the late David Driskell.(7) In the intervening fifty years much has changed, but much in art history and collecting has not. The reexamination in Hartford and Detroit of an artistic situation, not of individuals only, and of the rules of the game, provides a signpost to ways in which categories of art can be redefined.(8) And when the self-portrait by the twenty-year-old Gentileschi returns to the walls of the gallery, it will present a permanent question mark that challenges every visitor to wonder what else has been excluded and why.

1. Reviewed by Robert B. Simon in this Magazine, 163 (2021), pp.843–45.

2. Reviewed by Aoife Brady in this Magazine, 163 (2021), pp.168–71.

3. Catalogue: By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500–1800. Edited by Eve Straussman-Pflanzer and Oliver Tostmann. 208 pp. incl. 122 col. + 19 b. & w. ills. (Detroit Institute of Arts and Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2021), $40. ISBN 978–0–300–25636–9.

4. L. Nochlin: ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’, Art News 69, no.9 (1971), pp.22–39.

5. See A. Sutherland Harris and L. Nochlin: exh. cat. Women Artists: 1550–1950, Los Angeles (County Museum of Art), Austin (University Art Museum), Pittsburgh (Carnegie Museum of Art) and New York (Brooklyn Museum) 1976–77.

6. Reviewed in its Milan version by Jörg Zutter in this Magazine, 163 (2021), pp.934–37.

7. See D. Driskell: exh. cat. Two Centuries of Black American Art, Los Angeles (County Museum of Art), Atlanta (High Museum of Art), Dallas (Museum of Fine Arts) and New York (Brooklyn Museum) 1976–77.

8. For Rozsika Parker on changing the rules of the game, see G. Pollock: Vision and Difference, London and New York 1988, p.23.