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Early Italian Feminism

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Major Exhibit Highlights Women Painters from Renaissance to Baroque

The male Italian painters—Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Michelangelo—have long garnered the acclaim, but as a new exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts makes clear, Italian women also created stunning art from the Renaissance to Baroque periods.

The expansive exhibition—which celebrates the museum’s 20th anniversary—demonstrates that many female Italian painters were classically trained and powerfully talented. The more than 60 paintings and works on paper by 15 major women artists are organized around five main themes: “Giorgio Vasari and the Renaissance Virtuosa, “Education and Training,” “Marketing Strategies,” “Patrons and Power,” and “Public Identity.”

It is worth noting that the first respectable professional women in Europe were artists, and this exhibition demonstrates that some of Europe’s greatest hailed from Italy. In fact, the fathers of some of these prodigious female painters recognized their daughters’ talents and nurtured it as a way to pay the dowries needed to land them suitable husbands.

The exhibit’s organization is essentially chronological, taking visitors from the origin of an artist’s career through her maturation to the final legacy each artist left behind. The museum has billed the exhibition as the “first comprehensive survey of paintings, prints and drawings by women artists of early modern Italy, the period roughly encompassing the 16th and 17th centuries.”

“Our overarching objective is to eliminate the idea that women artists disappeared from view and the art historical record because of the quality of their work,” said Jordana Pomeroy, co-curator of the exhibit.

“Women really came into their own during the Renaissance and Baroque periods,” added Judy Larson, director of the museum. “For the first time in history, you can attach the names of women to specific works of art. And, for the first time, women had the freedom to compete successfully with men in a marketplace as demanding as any in history.”

Perhaps the most visually arresting painting in the exhibition is that of Artemisia Gentileschi, whose work depicts the biblical heroine Judith as she beheads Holofernes, an Assyrian general. At the time, the Israelites had invaded Bethulia, and Judith commits the grisly act with cool determination. In the background, a maid helps to accomplish the deed. The painting gives rise to the notion of female empowerment.

In another work, “The Chess Game,” Sofonisba Anguissola depicts a lively game of chess played by her sisters, conveying their curiosity and intellect with convincing realism.

Several portraits by Lavinia Fontana are notable for their exquisite attention to detail. “Portrait of a Noblewoman,” for example, features a woman regally attired in shades of crimson as her jewels shimmer in the light. Fontana manages to depict the different textures of satin, velvet and lace. Later scholarly examination revealed the rendering as the woman’s wedding portrait, and the small dog climbing into her lap was a common symbol indicating marital fidelity.

Although some of the works are excellent, others seem middling. But the great Italian masters—all men—enjoyed encouragement and early training that eluded most of these women. The exhibition is inspiring because it shows how a few Italian women—whose career options were essentially limited to that of nun, seamstress, maid or prostitute—could transcend the limitations of their time and excel on the same plane as men who had far more advantages.

Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque through July 15 National Museum of Women in the Arts 1250 New York Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999