“Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400–1800”

Two generations ago, pioneering feminist art historians presented previously neglected or ignored female artists. Ann Sutherland Harris’s and Linda Nochlin’s pioneering Women Artists: 1550–1950, 1976, gave serious attention to many such painters, Sofonisba Anguissola, Rosalba Carriera and Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, to name just three. And of course, also to Artemisia Gentileschi, who has become an art world star. Right now, concerns of feminist scholarship are very much in the air. “Making Her Mark” extends this tradition in an important, radical way, considering not only painting but also the decorative arts. Presenting more than 200 objects, accompanied by a substantial book co-published by the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario and Goose Lane Editions, it urges that we radically revise our received ideas about how to understand pre-modern European art. Traditionally the decorative arts, like female artists, were marginalized. But now, just as some historians have argued that it’s not only the privileged rulers but also the men and women who were improvised outsiders who deserve attention, so art history, it is urged, should consider not just painting, traditionally the most prestigious artistic medium, but also decorative works.

Unknown Maker, Men’s Nightcap, c. 1580, linen plain weave embroidered with silk, metallic thread, metal sequins, and trimmed with metallic thread lace, height 25.4 centimetres. Collection of Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, Helen M Danforth Acquisition Fund. Courtesy Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, and Baltimore Museum of Art.

“Making Her Mark” opens with an enormous tapestry, Apollo and Attendants Flaying Marsyas, c. 1662, a product of the Barberini Tapestry workshop directed by Maria Maddalena della Riviera, and Gentileschi’s now famous Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1623–25. Then, in galleries organized in a conceptual framework are some 200-plus objects. You see book arts, botanical illustrations, ceramics, furniture, history painting, lace, porcelain painters, portraits, prints (and images of the printshop), still life painting and textiles. These objects are very varied. I was especially fascinated by Giovanna Garzoni, Portrait of Zaga Christ (Sägga Krəstos), 1635, the first European portrait miniature depicting a named African, who was an Ethiopian visitor; by a painting attributed to Katharine Read,_ British Gentlemen in Rome_, c. 1750, showing men on the grand tour; and by the Portrait of Marquess Massimiliano Stampa, 1557, by Anguissola. It’s often been said that female artists didn’t draw the nude. The drawings of Giulia Lama, 1681–1747, and Catharina Backer, 1689–1766, demonstrate that this isn’t correct. Also important is Giulia Lama’s Sketch of a woman reclining, first half of the 18th century. She is a recently rediscovered Venetian painter. It is also sometimes claimed that women didn’t paint history scenes. But María Josefa Sánchez, Crucifixion, 1646, oil on a cross-shaped panel, shows that this is mistaken, as does the work of Elisabetta (later Isabella) Piccini, 1644–1734, a Venetian engraver who became a nun and illustrated historical texts.

Hester Batemen, Cruet Stand, 1784–1790, silver and m_ahogany, 22.5 × 20.3 × 12.7 centimetres. Collection of Baltimore Museum of Art. Gift of Elizabeth F Cheney, Oak Park, Illinois, 1981. Photo: Mitro Hood. Courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art.

As my very incomplete list of names makes clear, “Making Her Mark” reveals the variety of art produced by European women. There are fascinating miniatures. Rosalba Carriera, A Woman Putting Flowers in Her Hair, c. 1710, is one. Important still life paintings like Louise Moillon’s Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus, 1630, is a good example. In women at work, a less familiar category, we find Louise Adéone Drölling, Interior with Young Woman Tracing a Flower, c. 1820–1822, and Anne Guéret, Portrait of an Artist with a Portfolio (Self-Portrait?), c. 1793. There are varied self-portraits including Judith Leyster’s painting Self-Portrait, c. 1630, and Anna Maria van Schurman, Self-Portrait, 1633, which is an engraving. There is also a great deal of anonymous work. Straw Embroidered Holy Water Stoup for Private Devotion, 1700, by an unknown nun is one example. And most of the lace was made by anonymous artists, or rather, artists who went unnamed. The lives of these female artists were as varied as their artworks. Vigée Le Brun, who was privileged, fled the French Revolution, which significant event also opened up careers for other women. And while the show presents only European artists, prints made by some of these artists travelled outside Europe, as did a few of these female artists; there’s a substantial showing of Catholic missionary art here.

Rosalba Carriera, Allegory of Painting, 1730s, pastel and red chalk on blue paper, mounted on canvas, 44.3 × 34.1 centimetres. Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H Kress Collection, 1939. Courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art.

The decorative arts have often been unjustly marginalized. When, not so long ago, I taught in Cleveland, where the Cleveland Museum of Art did display its decorative works, it was only when the curator forcefully drew my attention to Carlo Bugatti’s silver and ivory Tea and Coffee Service, c. 1907, that I noticed this obviously magnificent artifact. Some excellent exhibitions present previously neglected artists or schools of artworks. “Making Her Mark” does something more: it asks that we decentre and radically revise the practice of art history. Much of the material here is on the borders of traditional art history. Elizabeth Hawkins, Map Sampler, 1797, wool embroidered in silk, is an example. So too are the numerous botanical illustrations. Once we look seriously at the work of these female artists, we find that the history of painting is not the whole story of art. And then the traditional histories of art, modelled on the accounts of Giorgio Vasari and Ernst Gombrich, will seem limited. A traditional history of painting can be organized to display the perfection of naturalism, but a story that includes decorative art cannot. My present analysis has been influenced by Edward S Cooke Jr’s Global Objects: Toward a Connected Art History (Princeton University Press, 2022), which, because it has some important ideas about how to theorize decorative works, nicely supplements the exhibition catalogue. ❚

“Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400–1800” was first exhibited at Baltimore Museum of Art from October 1, 2023, to January 7, 2024, and travels to the Art Gallery of Ontario from March 27, 2024, to July 1, 2024.

David Carrier’s most recent book is Philosophical Skepticism as the Subject of Art: Maria Bussmann’s Drawings, 2022. His In Caravaggio’s Shadow: Naples as a Work of Art, 2025, is forthcoming

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