quick reference:Camille Claudel / Sofonisba Anguissola / Judith Leyster / Artemisia Gentileschi / Frida Kahlo



EXAMINING THE EXCLUSION OF WOMEN FROM ART HISTORICAL DOCUMENTATION


Since antiquity, women artists have been creating alongside their male counterparts. Many of these women were highly successful during their lifetimes, yet have been omitted from art historical documentation. For instance, before 1986, all editions of H.W. JansonĖs History of Art (the standard text used in introductory college art history classes), included 3,000 male and no female artists. In the latest version, published in 1991, only 19 women are represented 1 . And the few women whoĖs names we recognize are exoticized as exceptions - a unique status which can be used as a weapon to undermine her achievement. Historical documentation provides only a glimpse of their notoriety as exotic figures in the art world rather than as accomplished artists who deserve recognition. Too often, these women are remembered for the scandals of their lives instead of the body of work they created, a bizarre but all too common transformation of the women artist from a producer in her own right into a subject for representation.

Camille Claudel (1856-1920) When Camille Claudel met Auguste Rodin, she was 19 years old and he was 43. He was to become her teacher, mentor, and lover - and most attention towards Claudel has focused upon their ensuing 15-year relationship. Henrik Ibsen, in example, used their tumultuous relationship as the basis for his play When We Dead Awaken, which opened in 1899 2. The years when Claudel served as Rodin's studio assistant were the master sculptor's most productive; for Claudel they were both instructive and, perhaps, the most destructive in terms of establishing a career independent from Rodin.

The manual work of both of them is very similar. Each sculpts in profile, extracting, like a diamond cutter, the muscular expression of a gesture. There is neither softness nor roundness in the execution, and a Camille Claudel, like a Rodin, has the density of a filled object. Like Rodin, Claudel attacks from the front; she goes straight to the essence without wasting time on unnecessary details. Her courage in both conception and execution of her work so impressed her contemporaries that they attributed it to a "virility unusual in a young woman".

Camille Claudel Bust of Auguste Rodin 1892

The aesthetics of the two artists, however, are quite different. Rodin displays a severity of gesture and movement, and his sculptures burst with energy and tension. Quite to the contrary, Claudel follows a more traditional style. ClaudelĖs works have an air of permanence, a still power, and the essence of her art is itĖs inwardness. Also, Rodin did not sculpt from marble, while Claudel excelled in that practice. Another important difference lies in the very personal manner in which Claudel handles her themes - themes which appear very similar to those of Rodin. The couple and the dance obsessed them both. In ClaudelĖs work, the erotic reveals a tenderness - a far cry from RodinĖs caress, which he transforms into a lecherous grab. And while Rodin's best works are probes into his unconscious, ClaudelĖs best works are the fruits of her research and careful thought. Her art is withdrawn, closed, and has a sadness about it - much like the artist herself.

Camille Claudel, LĖHomme penche (The man bending over) 1886

Rodin's critics agree that the style he developed in the 1880's coincides with his meeting Camille. She was barely 20 years old and at what Rimbaud called "the age of genius," while Rodin was over 40, past his prime and out of touch with his creative sources. All of the sudden he was shown a new path. This symbiosis, unique in the history of art, gave birth to a mixed work. It is said of Camille that she made some Rodin's; likewise, a portion of Rodin's work is said to echo Camille. The small number of statues that Camille actually signed while she was working with Rodin is astounding. By all accounts, she worked long and hard and not just on beginnerĖs exercises but on works of great quality. What happened to all those days, months, years of sculpting unless she was creating works for Rodin?

Many great women artists have become "invisible" because of misattribution. In her book Women, Art, and Society, Whitney Chadwick states "Our language and expectations about art have tended to rank that produced by women as below that produced by men in "quality", resulting in a lesser monetary value. This has profoundly influenced our knowledge and understanding of the contributions made by women to painting and sculpture." (17) She continues "Since the monetary value of works of art is inextricably bound up in their attribution to "named" artists, the work of many women has been absorbed into that of their betterknown male colleagues . " (22)

Sofonisba Anguissola Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Auguissola

late 1550Ės

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1632) is considered the first woman artist of the Renaissance and one of the most famous women artists in history. She was the court painter for King Phillip of Spain, lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabel, received a papal commission in 1561, and had a commemorative medal erected in her honor, something reserved for military rulers or great contributors to society. Her great success inspired other women of the Renaissance to pursue the career of artist. Her style has similarities to the contemporary Italian and Spanish portraitists of her time. Unfortunately, this has led her work to be confused and attributed to Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Giovanni Battista Moroni, Anthony Van Dyck and others.(3) In spite of her international acclaim, papal and royal endorsements, and influence of younger male and female artists, history has not been kind to her. Until only very recently, she has been virtually omitted from all major historical accounts of the Renaissance. In addition, many biographies talk about her colorful life rather than her accomplished artwork 3.

Marietta Robusto Tintoretto (1560-1590), a Venetian painter, was the eldest child of Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto, and a full-time apprentice in his studio for fifteen years. A painting of Marietta's entitled Portrait of an Old Man With Boy, long attributed to her father and considered one of his finest portraits, is now only recognized as Marietta's work after her monogram was discovered in 1920 4. She died in childbirth at age 30, and her fatherĖs production dramatically decreased. Historians attribute this fact solely to as father's mourning over his daughterĖs death, instead of recognizing that some of the work which came from the father's studio was surely Marietta's.

Judith Leyster (1609-1660), one of the best known painters of 17th Century Holland, was almost completely lost from history from her death until 1893, when her monogram was discovered on The Happy Couple (1630) which had just been sold to the Louvre as a Frans Hals. She achieved notoriety again when The Jolly Topper, when acquired by the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin, and thought to be another Hals, turned out to be a Judith Leyster.

Judith Leyster The Proposition 1631

In addition to the confusion of misattribution, misinterpretations of work by women artists deny the gender-specific struggles of the artist in their work. Male art historians have commented on Leyster's The Proposition, 1631, as reflecting a "powerful image of temptation and resistance" and that the young woman's virtuousness "would appeal to men and attract many suitors," implying that Leyster's interest was more on the male market and less on reflecting a womanĖs discomfort with unwanted male attention 5.

Another example of denying a great painter recognition of her work and itĖs meaning lies in the story of Artemisia Gentileschi and one of her earliest paintings, Susanna and the Elders, which was attributed to her father, Orazio, until 1977. Susanna and the Elders is one of several of Artemisia's works to be misattributed to her father. (Recently, Danae, a painting at the St. Louis Art Museum previously attributed to Orazio Gentileschi has been reattributed to her 6. Gentileschi, born in 1593, was brought up in an unquestioned patriarchal world. She was - and through her work continues to be - a symbol of female defiance and capability. She drew from her experiences and humanized the female icons represented in her paintings. Susanna and the Elders was painted during a time when Gentileschi was raped by her teacher, Agostino Tassi, and threatened with sexual blackmail by the accusation of sexual relations with others. This scenario parallels the theme of the painting: Susanna, wife of Joachim, was the victim of blackmail-for-sex by two Elders of the community. They sprang upon her while she bathed, demanded her sexual submission, and threatened to denounce her publicly with accusations of an adulterous relationship - accusations that could bring about a sentence of death with a conviction. She resisted the Elders demands, was brought to trial and subsequently sentenced to death, but was saved at the last minute by a man who claimed she had been convicted by false witness. A sexually distorted and spiritually meaningless interpretation of the theme has prevailed because most artists (and patrons) have been men, drawn by instinct to identify more with the villains than with the heroine.

In her painting, Gentileschi isolates the figure of Susanna against a rigidly structured frieze which contains the body in a shallow and restricted space, reinforcing a sense of discomfort and illustrating the strict confines in which a woman was forced to exist. She is physically active in her resistance of her oppressors, and conveys through her awkward pose and her nudity the full range of feelings - anxiety, fear, shame - experienced by a victimized woman faced with a choice between rape and slander. Male possession of the female body (women were considered the property of their fathers/husbands) is illustrated in the lechery of the conspirators. Like Susanna, Gentileschi had two assailants: it was revealed during the trial that Tassi had been joined in his assault of Artemisia by a man named Cosimo Quorli. In her Susanna and the Elders, a thick-haired, younger man - an interpretation unique to Gentileschi - whispers into the ear of an older man, and the triangle focuses Susanna as the object of the conspiracy.

Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders 1610

Gentileschi's image of Susanna is a model of the emotional struggles the artist experienced as she began to contemplate her surroundings. The painting gives us a refection of how a young woman felt about her own vulnerability. It is not about the violence of rape, but instead the threat of rape - and is a sober metaphoric expression of a much broader situation: the reality of a woman's confined and vulnerable position in a society whose rules are made by men. Richard Spear, Baroque scholar, argued in the Times Literary Supplement (June 1989) that compared with versions by male contemporaries, Gentileschi's naked Susanna is "more voluptuous .... Her fully lit, generous breast is exposed to all." He goes on to assert that Gentileschi, aware of the desires of her male patrons, "pandered more overtly to ... male voyeuristic pleasure." Knowing that at the time of the paintingĖs creation she had been raped by her teacher, subsequently tortured with thumbscrews for five months during the ensuing trial, and subjected to a public gynecological examination, it's unlikely she would be concerned with "pandering to male pleasure." If the inherent qualities of art are it's passion and expression, there is something crucial to be gained from the viewerĖs grasp of a realistic and honest interpretation of it's theme. This specific interpretation could only be painted by a woman.

In her work, Gentileschi preferred biblical and mythological subjects for her heroines, or at least themes where the woman had a major role, such as the Old Testament heroines - Judith, Esther, Bathsheba, Susanna. She is credited with bringing the Caravaggesque style - strong lights and darks used to illuminate the forms - to Florence, Genoa, and Naples 7. Like any woman artist, she had to battle against the unexpressed absolutes of her culture, which included the belief in a "natural" inferiority of women, and this may have fueled the fire in which she depicts Judith Slaying Holofernes.

A popular subject for male and female painters of the Renaissance and Baroque, the depiction of Judith and Holofernes was produced by Gentileschi in six known variations. The story is of a beautiful Jewish widow, Judith, who saves her town under siege from the Assyrian army headed by the general, Holofernes. After assuring the general's intoxication and with promises of seduction, Judith and her maidservant cut off his head with his own sword. Afterward, both Judith and the maidservant cross enemy lines with the generalĖs head in a basket. The next day the deed is discovered and the Assyrian army retreats in terror.

GentileschiĖs Judith Slaying Holofernes shows Judith at the moment of decapitation. The head is being visibly sawed off and blood jets from the severed arteries and flows down the mattress. There is nothing in the history of Western painting to prepare us for GentileschiĖs expression of female physical power, brilliantly captured in the use of a pinwheel composition in which the interlocking, diagonally thrusting arms of the characters converge at HolofernesĖs head. Her interpretation of the storyĖs characters are practical and honest, intended to be convincingly real.

Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes 1618

Unlike other versions, Artemisia's Judith is a solid young woman, with the muscle power to tackle a beheading. The coy glances and averted gazes of Western paintingĖs female figures are missing here. Unlike most artists before and after her, Gentileschi portrays the female form in a way to stress the psychological drama rather than the physical charm of the subject. She also has a tendency, whenever she shows a woman vindicating her rights, to paint a self-portrait. Judith looks very much like Artemisia: heavy, not so much pretty, but instead clever, alert and energetic.

Gentileschi employed sophisticated methods to portray a sense of vulnerability and strength in her female subjects. She strongly identified with Michelangelo, as well as Caravaggio, as is evident in the treatment of the drapery, and use of light and dark to create passion and intensity. The atmosphere of menace and horror is thickened by the heavy darks. The source of light is unseen, but it is perhaps a single candle which casts the rich shadows against the faces of the women as they perform the deadly act. The effect of this single source of illumination is like a brief burst of light in a pitch-black room where violent acts are transpiring.

There is an added poignancy in that Artemisia herself had been raped, which must have left her with a special insight into violence and betrayal. In her book Sister WendyĖs Grand Tour; Discovering EuropeĖs Great Art, Sister Wendy Beckett describes ArtemisiaĖs Judith: "There is a secret personal power that makes the story far more real to her - and to us - than it could have ever been for a male artist 8.

Frida Kahlo paints herself cracked wide open, weeping beside her extracted heart, hemorrhaging during a miscarriage, anesthetized on a hospital trolley, sleeping with a skeleton, and always - even when she appears beside her pets or her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera - she looks fearfully alone. "Frida," Rivera said, "is the only example in the history of art of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings ..... a superior painter and the greatest proof of the renaissance of the art of Mexico." 10

The majority of Frida Kahlo's paintings are self-portraits. The Broken Column was painted in 1944 during a five month period in which the artist, because of declining health, was forced to wear a series of orthopedic corsets to support her back.

Frida Kahlo The Broken Column 1944

In her book entitled Frida Kahlo: The Paintings, Hayden Herrera describes the painting:

In The Broken Column Frida's anguish is communicated in the most physical and harrowing way, by nails stuck into her face and flesh and by a split in her torso that resembles an earthquake fissure. The opening is echoed in the dark ravines cut into the earth behind her, and it suggests the horror of surgical intervention. Inside the gap, a cracked Ionic column replaces her own deteriorating vertebrae. (180)

 

Thousands of women artists have made important, unequaled contributions to the history of art. The majority of these works have been perceived as marginal, often in direct reference to gender. If a person interested in art history doesn't dig deep to find these missing pieces - and also address the closely related issues of ethnicity, class, and sexuality - they are only seeing a distorted, fragmented version of the whole picture.

 

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Bibliography

 

Beckett, Sister Wendy. Sister WendyĖs Grand Tour: Discovering EuropeĖs Great Art. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1994.

Broude, Norma, and Mary Garrard, eds. Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1990.

Garrard, Mary. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Herrera, Hayden. Frida Kahlo: the Paintings. New York: Harper Collins, 1991

Paris, Reine-Marie. Camille Claudel. Washington, DC: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1988.

Paris, Reine-Marie. Camille: The Life of Camille Claudel, RodinĖs Muse and Mistress. New York: Seaver Books, 1984.

Stapen, Nancy. "Who Are the Woman Old Masters?." Artnews v93 March 1994: 87-90.

 

Endnotes

1"Facts About Women in the Arts." Women Artist Archive. Online. Sonoma State University. 15 April 1997. Available HTTP: libweb.sonoma.edu/special/waa/facts.html

2"Artist Profiles: Camille Claudel." National Museum of Women in the Arts. Online. 27 Feb 1997. Available HTTP: www.nmwa.org/legacy/bios/bclaudel.htm

3"Biography: Anguissola, Sofonisba." Women Artist Archive. Online. Sonoma State University. 7 May 1997. Available HTTP: libweb.sonoma.edu/special/waa/ArtistList/biolist1.html

4"Biography: Tintoretto, Marietta Robusti." Women Artist Archive. Sonoma State University. 16 Feb 1997. Available HTTP:

libweb.sonoma.edu/special/waa/ArtistList/biolist2.html

5Nancy Stapen, "Who Are the Women Old Masters?," Artnews, March 1994: 94.

6Judith Mann, "The Gentileschi Danae in the St. Louis Art Museum: Orazio or Artemisia?," Apollo, June 1996: 39

7"Biography: Gentileschi, Artemisia." Women Artist Archive. Online. Sonoma State University. 16 Feb 1997 Available HTTP:

libweb.sonoma.edu/special/waa/ArtistList/biolist2.html

 

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