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Invisible Women

November 6, 2013

I picked up Invisible Women by Jane Fortune in Florence last week and set out to view some of the works by approximately 100 women painters displayed in Florence. Of course, I really wanted to see this picture by Artemesia Gentileschi so I made sure to visit the Caravaggio room in the Uffizi Gallery. Only to find out that the painting is currently in Chicago.

In1971, Linda Nochlin wrote an article titled “Why Have there been no Great Women Artists?” She stated,

The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists, as far as we know, although there have been many interesting and very good ones who remain insufficiently investigated or appreciated; nor have there been any great Lithuanian jazz pianists, nor Eskimo tennis players, no matter how much we might wish there had been.

And concluded,

The question “Why have there been no great women artists?” has led us to the conclusion, so far, that art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, “Influenced” by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by “social forces,” but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast.

I think Jane Fortune and others have proven that Nochlin’s question was poorly worded. It should rather be “Why are we not equally aware of the great women artists as we are of the men?”

Fortune”s book Invisible Women cites over and over, commentary and evaluation by great contemporary artists that many women artists were accepted as equally great in their time. It is history that has betrayed us.  Gentileschi had a successful career, not without difficulties due to her poor background and tumultuous adolescence filled with scandal, but was considered to be one of the more innovative and influential artists of the Renaissance, not just among women artists but among all Renaissance artists, both men and women. She was the first to portray women of the Hebrew Bible as strong and active, with righteous anger and agency, as protagonists equal to men.

Why are Artemesia Gentileschi and other women artists not better known? The answer, I think, stands in the Galleria dell’ Academia – the naked David. This is the dominant work of art in Florence. There is an art hierarchy and the naked male statue is at the top. Male beauty is the dominant value. General sculpture comes next, then paintings of biblical and pagan heroes, often nude or semi-nude, and then portraiture and still life. Women were excluded from dissecting cadavers, and from life drawing classes, which all involved male nudes. Men could sculpt, draw and portray nude men and women, but women could not. Many women artists excelled at portraiture, introducing new ways of portraying the family, women and the very young. But they were excluded from certain areas of art which have dominated historically. I personally can’t say why David and naked male beauty had dominated, but the architecture of Florence demonstrates that it has. I went on quickly to see Botticelli’s Venus, myself.

I believe that Gentileschi’s interpretation of women as protagonists made her art equal to men. But history was unwilling to recognize this as on par with men as protagonists. Not her fault. But this is why women need to engage in biblical studies. Men will not do justice to women on their own. Just won’t happen.

This is all just food for thought. If we didn’t have women artists, then the agency of biblical women would not be fairly portrayed in art form. If we have only male artists, then male bodies dominate. This demonstrates that self worship, not adoration of the opposite sex, is dominant. Gentileschi used herself as model for many of her paintings. Why not? Women need to portray women, and strongly, as she did. Chicago, here I come!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2013 11:47 am

    Why are Artemesia Gentileschi and other women artists not better known?

    For Gentileschi, and so many, she’s in her father’s shadow (at least the Chicago essay “Violence and Virtue” you link to suggests this). And the Web Gallery of Art essay suggests that it’s taken x-rays of her “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (the painting in Naples) to verify that she, and not her father, was the artist.

    And then there’s the question of her motivation for this particular pair of “Judith Beheading Holofernes” paintings. So begins this Web Gallery of Art essay: “As with much of Artemisia Gentileschi’s work, scholars have tried to explain the hair-raising Judith Beheading Holofernes as a personal reaction to her ‘date-rape’ trial of 1612, but, in truth, her….” This Gentileschi website has a page on the Uffizi version ( which invites us to “Compare it to the Naples version.” And there we read the horrors of her sexual harassment, her physical abuses, her rape, her experiences that no doubt found their way into this painting. We wonder if her nude (with sword in hand) Lucretia isn’t a self-portrait. Why can’t she reveal herself this way, and thereby expose her abuse and abuser?

    An interesting study would be to show how Gentileschi represents the naked Bathsheba compared to how men do. (She, or perhaps one of her daughters, did paint “David and Bathesheba” And David, who would not be naked of course, is not even in it. A woman, as you note, could not paint a man nude.) Wikipedia has this

    Bathsheba at her Bath is the formal name for the subject in art showing Bathsheba bathing, watched by King David. As an opportunity to feature a large female nude as the focus of a history painting, the subject was popular from the Renaissance onwards. Sometimes Bathsheba’s maids, or the “messengers” sent by David are shown, and often a distant David watching from his roof. The messengers are sometimes confused with David himself, but most artists follow the Bible in keeping David at a distance in this episode.

    Paintings with articles include:

    Bathsheba at Her Bath ([the man] Rembrandt), Louvre, the most famous painting of the subject.
    Bathsheba at her Bath ([the man] Veronese), 1575, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, France. Atypically, Bathsheba is clothed in this.

    What makes Gentileschi conspicuously invisible here is that no article on her Bathsheba at Her Bath painting is included in wikipedia. Rather, there is just an image of her painting.

    And not to shift the subject too terribly, Rod at Political Jesus has this important post, in part, on how men even tend to read the Bathesheba and David story in a sexist way:


    When we first meet the biblical heroine Bathsheba, she is a law-biding, faithful Israelite woman. According to the Law, in order to be a part of the religious assembly, women had to be ritually clean from that awful PMS (see passages such as Leviticus 12). Being in the presence of YHWH was a really big deal, so Bathsheba did what was required of her, and bathed. One night, a lawless man looked out from his rooftop and gazed upon Bathsheba’s body uncontrollably. He’s a man. He’s a visual creature, he could not help himself but to lust after her. She was being indecent, after all. David uses his position of authority over Bathsheba, they have sexual relations, and she gets preggers, and eventually loses the child as a consequence. David sins, the woman pays the consequence.

    It has been my experience that when ever I am taught the story of King David in the variety of Christian contexts, his story is told rather uncritically. Bathsheba’s obedience to the law (her very agency) is ignored because our current USian hermeneutic would prefer to talk all about the Kings, and especially King David, so we can Jesus-juke our way out of the “Old” Testament. It is a male-centered and exclusive narrative being passed down, one that is not the whole story. Fortunately, we have the early Church Fathers those like Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, who recognized that we could not discuss the humanity of Jesus without talking about women, that there is no way we could get to the idea in Romans of Jesus as the Davidic King without the Ruth and Bathsheba parts of our story….

    Men could sculpt, draw and portray nude men and women, but women could not.


  2. November 6, 2013 11:28 pm

    There is an art hierarchy and the naked male statue is at the top. Male beauty is the dominant value. General sculpture comes next, then paintings of biblical and pagan heroes, often nude or semi-nude, and then portraiture and still life. Women were excluded from . . . certain areas of art which have dominated historically.

    Ohhh, good point.

    You might enjoy Melissa Huang’s blog, What is Talent? Musings on Art and Gender. In particular, she has for the past few months been running a Female Gaze Friday feature, which display works of art created by a woman that depict a man.

  3. November 7, 2013 10:51 pm

    I hope you enjoyed all of your time in my wife’s home city. But this reminds me that she too is an artist, and a representative of a long line of Italian women artists. It is just that these artists have expressed themselves more in music, theater and dance than in painting. Despite what Linda Nochlin may be saying, “artist” means a lot more than “painter” and “sculptor”. Now I am sure there is another story about women in the performing arts in Italy, and it may not be much better than the one about painters. But it is a different story.


  1. Women artists’ history | Dear Kitty. Some blog
  2. Women artists from the 16th till the 20th century, exhibition in Milan, Italy | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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