A history of art without men?

A Holy Supper painted by a woman? But didn't women artists only represent flowers, portraits and still lifes? Well yes, Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588) painted this moment of the Gospel despite being prohibited from creating large-scale religious scenes because of her sex.

Thomas Osborne
Thomas Osborne
02 December 2022 Friday 23:50
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A history of art without men?

A Holy Supper painted by a woman? But didn't women artists only represent flowers, portraits and still lifes? Well yes, Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588) painted this moment of the Gospel despite being prohibited from creating large-scale religious scenes because of her sex. How could she do it then? Well, thanks to the sorority of her companions: Nelli was a Dominican nun also called for art who created a painting workshop in her convent. There she painted this seven by two meter canvas and made up for her lack of access to male models with other nuns, a fact that is evident in the faces of the apostles, especially Saint John. Oh, how far could she have gone if they had allowed her, as Giorgio Vasari himself recognized in his The Lives of Artists: “she would have done marvelous things if, as men do, she had been able to study and learn to draw and work according to living models ”.

Katy Hessel, one of the most prestigious art critics in the United Kingdom, has had the audacity to write a History of art without men. It can? Of course it is possible. Beginning with Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), the author of some complex illustrations for which she had to ask permission from the Pope himself, names abound until recently silenced and/or forgotten. Let's not forget that the Royal Academy in London will not dedicate a solo exhibition. Kessel elaborates a complete and geographically open timeline that goes from 1500 to 2022; His title already has bite, because it is inspired by the canonical History of Art that E.H. Gombrich first published in 1950 and did not include any women; in the sixteenth edition one already appears. Tremendous.

"Being a woman and being an artist has never been easy." This is how Hessel begins the introduction titled Triumphant Women. Indeed, it was never easy, as shown by the fact that 19th century art dealers crossed out the signature of a female artist and replaced it with that of a male, which explains why many of the artists' works are currently coming to light. Why this concealment? Well, it is clear, and it is that even today, a study published in September by the digital magazine Artnet established that most of the participants preferred works of art made by women, but considered those produced by men "more valuable". Nothing to add.

And yet, despite this historical underestimation, women found a way to become artists, and so, starting in the late Middle Ages, we began to know some names, and again it is worth remembering that the concept of authorship with Capital letters appear in the Renaissance, can anyone say that Altamira's paintings are the work of men? it all adds up so that names of artists barely appear in antiquity. But yes, before 1500, when the chronology of the British author begins, some women begin to stand out from the convent, like Hildegard of Bingen, or from somewhere still in mystery, like Anastasia.

About Anastasia, another of the pioneers, it is known that she worked around 1400 in Paris as a manuscript illuminator, a practice in which Hildegarda also began, but in different aspects, while the nun worked on the main illustration, Anastasia specialized in the borders that that surrounded these and that it is known that they were painted in commercial workshops, since they were very fashionable, especially those that included landscape backgrounds.

Little else is known about the French illustrator, except for the praise that the writer (yes, also a woman) dedicated to her Christine de Pizan in her Livre de la Cité des Dames (1405): "I know a woman today, named Anastasia, who is so wise and skillful in painting manuscript borders and miniature backgrounds that one cannot find a craftsman in the whole city of Paris -where the best in the world are to be found- who can surpass her, nor who can paint flowers and details with such delicacy like her, nor whose work is more esteemed, no matter how rich or precious the book, and I know it from experience, because she has done several things for me, which stand out among the borders of the great masters".

Renaissance and late Renaissance women are already beginning to be known by a broader public, such as the Italians Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, the first to be rediscovered in years; Less popular is Rossi's Properzia, which predates those mentioned, perhaps because her work focused on sculpture. Nevertheless, Rossi (11490-1530) was tremendously acclaimed by her contemporaries and even received commissions that no other woman had obtained before, such as her marble relief sculpture Joseph and Potiphar's wife, which she designed for the then most famous church of Bologna.

It is not a unique case, unfortunately: many women artists who enjoyed wide recognition at the time were later forgotten. Recognition, starting with her own, and thus the Flemish Caterina van Hemessen is accredited as the first person, man or woman, to paint a self-portrait on an easel. It was in 1548 and she then wrote on the canvas "I, Caterina Van Hemessen, have painted myself, here at the age of twenty".

Not only self-portraits and signatures: the also Flemish Clara Peeters managed to include tiny self-portraits in reflections of objects in her still lifes, a virtuosity that we also find in the Italian Fede Galizia, both already in the 17th century. And in the baroque, few art lovers are unaware of the already famous Artemisia Gentileschi, but other painters such as Giovanna Garzoni, Elisabetta Sirani, Judith Leyster, Rachel Ruysch and many others that are non-stop are still almost on the sidelines. Hadn't we agreed that there were hardly any women artists?

Katy Hessel continues her journey to the present, without forgetting the neoclassical, the Pre-Raphaelites... and the artists outside the West. Like the Japanese Katsushika Oi (1800-1866), who achieved great success with her ukiyo-e prints, or the Native American potters. A compendium of creation made by women, a history of art without men.

Equally necessary is that provided by the art historian Elina Norandi in Cent dues artistes, the first essay that exhaustively collects Catalan artists from the 19th century to the present. The volume, large format and carefully edited, traces a genealogy that includes all artistic practices and reproduces more than a hundred works. Because women are only or have been absent in social consideration, mostly masculine, not in art.

Katy Hessel: History of art without men. Translation: Claudia Casanova. Attic of the books. 512 pages. 31.25 euros

Consol Oltra Esteve: When women had to paint flowers. Modernism in Catalonia. salvatella 190 pages. 35 euros

Elina Norandi: Cent dues artistes. Univers. 264 pages. 80 euro