The Forgotten Women Artists of the Renaissance, and the Man Who Championed Them

Inside the difficult realm of working as a female artist during the Renaissance.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi.
Judith Slaying Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi. Creative Commons

The history of art can sound like a sausage party. Where are all the ladies? They’re in the paintings, of course, whether as an idealized version of themselves (in formal portraits), as objects of desire (nudes), as objects of veneration (the Virgin Mary), as objects of sado-masochistic, religious interest (martyrdoms of female saints), as goddesses of old (Venus or Diana), or as sexual targets of gods of old (illustrations from Ovid’s Metamorphosis). But what about on the other side of the canvas? Stop just about anyone on the street and ask them to name a great female artist, and chances are they’ll give you a modern name, Marina Abramovic or Tracey Emin, maybe. But could they name someone who lived before the First World War?

I asked some art historian colleagues, and even they have trouble coming up with more than a handful of names (and they also admitted to recalling the names, but not having seen works by the artists). Thankfully, there are some major exhibitions that have brought pre-modern female artists to the fore of late.

New Yorkers will have had the good fortune to attend last year’s Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the biggest name, and perhaps the only female Renaissance artist you might have heard of, is currently featured in a blockbuster exhibit in Rome: Artemisia Gentileschi e il suo tempo at the Museo di Roma at Palazzo Braschi.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) is famous, but mostly for the wrong reasons. Hers is an operatic tale of sex and violence—a real-life Jacobean revenge tragedy, which too often overshadows her paintings. The eldest child of a famous painter, Orazio Gentileschi, she immediately shone as the leading talent of the family, working in her father’s studio alongside her brothers. Because her father, like so many Rome-based artists in the early 1600s, was awed by the work of Caravaggio—his dramatic, realistic, violent, dynamic, spot-lit canvases the talk of Rome, looking nothing like any work that had come before them—she, too, took up this style, and can be considered a second generation of the “Caravaggisti.”

Caravaggio’s style was so new and popular that artists flocked to imitate him—even those trained in the rival, more established academic style promoted by the Carracci Academy in Bologna—something he could not abide. He sued, or threatened and enacted violence against, people who aped his style (or overcooked his artichokes, as one unfortunate waiter found out). Yet of all the imitators, only two (at least in my mind) stand out as having equaled or surpassed Caravaggio himself. Though it is a subjective opinion (but one shared by many), I think that Artemisia was at Caravaggio’s level, perhaps an A to his A+ (I prefer her Judith Beheading Holofernes to his, since it feels more like a castration revenge fantasy, which is of course what that Biblical story is all about). And the only artist who surpassed him was arguably the vastly-underrated Ribera.

While Caravaggio’s life story is one of murder and mayhem, Artemisia’s is similarly dark. Her mother died when she was twelve, and she was the victim of jealousy for her remarkable ability, often accused of having been helped by her father or brothers. But the defining moment of her career was, alas, a terrible one. A painter called Agostino Tassi, hired by her father to tutor her, raped her, along with another aggressor, Cosimo Quorlis. A friend of Artemisia’s, a family tenant named Tuzi, heard her screams for help, but ignored them.

But the story grew more complicated. If Tassi, already married, were to marry Artemisia, then face might be saved (keep in mind this was the 17th century). They continued their sexual relations, Tassi stringing Artemisia along with the expectation of marriage. Her father, Orazio, knew of this but kept mum, in order to preserve the honor of the family. That is, until it became clear that there would be no marriage. At that point Orazio sued Tassi, and a trial that drew intense interest would span seven months.

The trial was a horror show, both literally and in terms of the stories that it stirred to the surface. Tassi, it came out, had made plans to murder his wife and had had other lovers while carrying on with Artemisia. In an extremely perverse practice, Artemisia was tortured to verify her testimony—the assumption being that she would withstand the torture in the name of truth, or admit to lying to escape it. Due to the laws of the time, the Gentileschis had no case unless they could prove that Tassi had taken Artemisia’s virginity, which was akin to ruining the Gentileschi family financially, by rendering the potential dowry-bearing daughter unmarriageable.

The trial ended unsatisfactorily, to say the least. Tassi was sentenced to a year in prison, but served not a day. But Artemisia’s story improved from that dark point on. Just a month after the trial, Orazio sorted out an arranged marriage for his daughter that would prove a fruitful one. She moved to Florence with her new husband, Pierantonio Stiattesi, an artist of little renown, but a supportive figure. They had a daughter, and Artemisia’s career blossomed, now out of the shadow of Rome and her family. She got commissions from the Medici in Florence and Charles I of England. She befriended Galileo, and was the first female inducted into Florence’s Accademia delle Arte del Disegno, which had been founded in 1563 at the instigation of the Renaissance artist, architect and historian Giorgio Vasari.

If not for Vasari, we might have lost track of the very few female artists of the Renaissance. Vasari is best known for having written a group biography of artists, with editions in 1550 and 1568, called Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. This is considered the first true work of art history, and his views on art largely color the way we consider art to this day. Though Vasari lived a generation before Artemisia, it is thanks to him that we know of some wonderful female artists of the Renaissance.

Sofonisba Anguissola, and her three sisters, Lucia, Minerva, and Europa, lived and worked in Cremona. Of Sofonisba, Vasari wrote: “I saw in her father’s house a painting by her hand made with great diligence showing her three sisters playing chess, and with them an old housemaid, with such diligence and attention that they truly seem to be alive and missing nothing but the power of speech.” He went on to write that she “has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavors at drawing; she thus succeeded not only in drawing, coloring and painting from nature, at copying excellently from others, but by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings.” Vasari’s praise of female artists is tinged with a level of misogyny, sure (he sounds almost surprised that she, as a woman, could create her own “rare and very beautiful” paintings). But he did recognize her talent.

The Anguissola family were Cremonese aristocracy, which can be inferred by the fact that they had time to study painting and play chess at all. Their father, Amilcare Anguissola, was not an artist, unlike in the case of most pre-modern artists. Rather he was a wealthy, loving father who gave his daughters a brilliant education and encouraged their skills in the arts without worrying about their marriageability—a luxury that their wealth and nobility allowed. Sofonisba would travel to Rome to meet Michelangelo, and later became a court painter to King Philip II of Spain. She lived a long, rich life, including booting her first husband to marry a sea captain, with whom she remained for 40 years. At the age of 92, she sat for a portrait by the young Antony Van Dyck during his stay in Genoa.

Sofonisba is mentioned in Vasari’s account of another woman artist, Properzia de’ Rossi of Bologna (forgive Vasari his misogyny, if you will—it was quite feminist of him to include female artists in his history at all): “Nor have [women] been ashamed to put their tender white hands to mechanical things, and amid the coarseness of marble and the roughness of iron to follow their desires and bring fame to themselves, as did our Properzia de’ Rossi, a young woman talented not only in household matters, but in infinite forms of knowledge that are the envy of men as well as women.”

Properzia had a frankly weird, but remarkable, specialty: she could carve tiny figures into peach pits. One of Properzia’s most intricate works involved carving “the whole Passion of Christ, wrought in most beautiful carving, with a vast number of figures in addition to the Apostles and the ministers of the Crucifixion.” Properzia’s Passion Pit would make a great name for a female artist’s night club.

But why, exactly, were there so few female artists prior to the 20th century? There is an obvious reason, and a somewhat less so reason. The first is that women engaged in only a limited number of professions until the Industrial Revolution, and really into the 20th century. Crafts, like painting and sculpture, were a man’s job almost exclusively, for no particularly good reason other than custom. Women of the Renaissance were usually nuns, wives and mothers, prostitutes, or had very occasional other positions (nurses, maids, ladies-in-waiting, laundresses, seamstresses, etc.)

The less obvious reason has to do with the studio system, which was in place and prevalent among artists until the Industrial Revolution, and in some cases beyond. Most artists throughout history train as apprentices, often starting as early as age 8, living and working with a master. Aged 16 or 18, they were given the option of staying on as a paid assistant, or striking out on their own, to form their own studio. In order to start one’s own studio, a young aspirant had to submit a “masterpiece” to the local branch of the painter’s guild, a sort of proto-union that controlled the quality and quantity of artists at work in their region (usually called the Guild of Saint Luke, who was patron saint of painters). This is the proper definition of “masterpiece”: the one work by which an artist is judged, in order to determine if they are good enough to become a “master” and open their own studio.

Apprentices and assistants, living and working together 24 hours a day, might be awkward and not conducive to work if the situation we co-ed, considering the raging hormones of 12-16-year-olds. So unless a young woman were wealthy enough to have a hired art tutor, or unless she was in the family of a working artist, she would not have the chance to practice art. Until the 19th century, when artist materials began to be factory-produced, pigments, canvases and panels were expensive, often prohibitively so, unless purchased as part of a paid commission. Thus there was no tradition of doing art just for fun, due to the cost involved. So it is not surprising that there should be relatively few renowned female artists prior to the modern era, when the field of art, like most professions, opened up with an ever-increasing level of equality.

Studios still exist (consider Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons today, the two best-selling artists in history, who design and supervise the creation of their artwork, but do not actually make it themselves, their team of assistants doing most of the hands-on work). But the old guild system dissolved with the Industrial Revolution, and artistry no longer is locked to one gender or the other.

It’s perhaps ironic, but just, that the vast majority of art historians are women. Though women artists of past eras were precious few, women lead the study of art by a huge margin, now, and outnumber men in major auction houses (though not always at the very top). So perhaps in the future, we’ll learn even more about the women artists of the past.

This is the latest in Observer Arts’ new series Secrets and Symbols, by author and art historian Noah Charney. His next book is about Giorgio Vasari and his influence, and will be published by Norton next Fall.

The Forgotten Women Artists of the Renaissance, and the Man Who Championed Them