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.
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!