Home » Woman as painter: an early archetype

Woman as painter: an early archetype

Considering the restrictions put on women in terms of social choices, lack of financial independence, and the religious and moral baggage scattered at their feet, it surprises me that women painted themselves as artists quite as early as they did. This is an archetype one might expect to see as a run-up to suffrage, or post French Revolution perhaps, but not in the early Renaissance – when the contribution of art in society was being defined and the role of individual (male) artists was forged.

I wonder whether the male power-brokers of the artistic world were outraged, whether they perceived women artists as a threat at all, or perhaps they never noticed us dabbling at the edges of portraiture and domestic still-life. Perhaps they were just confident that women artists would remain peripheral. As we still are in many societies. It’s only quite recently that female artists feature amongst the most influential artists of the day. Inevitably, there will be those who argue that despite these female forerunners our profile as women artists has never matched that of men. What’s important to me however, is to see that women were there – painting and exploring the world creatively and that we envisaged ourselves as artists right from the moment Catharina van Hemessen thought to paint herself at that easel. That tradition has continued since.

Self-portrait by Judith Leyster 1630

Here are a couple more to consider.

This is by a well-known female Dutch Golden-age painter Judith Leyster, actively painting during the 1600s. In many ways its a ridiculous painting, showing the artist at her easel wearing the absurd lace collar common to those among the upper classes of Flanders. We shouldn’t take the painting too literally because the intention behind it is to advertise herself as a competent artist while stating her status and respectability. The subject on her easel indicates her versatility and displays her painting prowess – the laughing fiddler being a popular image of the day. So think of it as a large business card!



Sofonisba Anguissola 'Self-portrait painting Virgin and Child'. 1556

Sofonisba Anguissola 'Self-portrait painting Virgin and Child'. 1556

I couldn’t resist adding another piece from Sofonisba Anguissola because she’s my favourite. The delicacy of her touch is portrayed so well in this image – a subtlety that can only have be seen in a positive light.

In Self-portrait painting the Virgin and Child, 1556, the artist takes the opportunity to render flesh and skin on the body of the baby Jesus. It wasn’t considered appropriate for women to paint big history canvasses of myth and action or the large religious pieces for alters and private chapels, so women were largely limited to portraiture and still-life (yawn…). In portraiture, figures could be clad with meters of drapery to cover any discrepancy of anatomy and focus the viewer on the sitter. The difficulty of having to create complex proportion and depth involved in the large history paintings was largely avoided. It’s important to remember that because women were not permitted to take anatomy classes, nor view any of the corpses to which the male artists of the Renaissance were drawn to as reference material, they were not getting the same level of exposure to the human form. So women probably didn’t get the chance to see, let alone paint, flesh and skin other than on hands and faces.

So this piece can be considered not only as a showcase of her considerable artistic prowess, but of Sofonisba’s savvy in communicating to her audience. She paints this image with palpable devotion, probably intended to be read as religious devotion and so boost her approval in the eyes of prospective patrons. I prefer to consider it a declaration of her artistic devotion.

One Response to “Woman as painter: an early archetype”

  1. […] she is painting is blank – absent of any religious scene reassuring us of her piety (as in Anguissola’s work), absent of the popular musical theme that Leyster used as promotion. Gentileschi does not need […]

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