Lesson in Perspective

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007

Here's what's not in doubt: In Renaissance Europe, women were basically the property of their fathers and husbands. They had almost no legal rights; they were not supposed to control property or sign contracts. They were the frequent victims of rape and vicious beatings. They had a range of career options: They could be wives, nuns or prostitutes.

But what's still at issue is the precise cultural effect of that oppression. "Italian Women Artists From Renaissance to Baroque," a gripping show staged at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in honor of its 20th anniversary, raises several crucial questions.

Do this show's 67 portraits, flower pictures, still lifes, holy scenes and classical narratives speak to us as special woman's work, or are they just more of what men made? Could a famous artist like Artemisia Gentileschi, by far the greatest talent in this show, benefit from being born a woman or only suffer for it?

By the standards of Renaissance critics -- all of them men -- many of the 15 women in this exhibition don't score particularly high. When it came to realistic renderings of light, space and human forms, and to assembling all three into coherent compositions with attractively brushed surfaces, many Renaissance women were no more than middling good. True, there were plenty of male artists who weren't a jot better. (Including some of the men who trained these women -- struggling fathers, often, who counted on a daughter's skills to stand in for her dowry.) But it's also true that those very few Renaissance artists who did achieve supreme results -- or what art history has chosen to count as such -- were all male.

That could be because only men were taught from childhood to believe they could be great, and then were given exclusive access to the means to greatness. (To drawing from male nudes, among other things.) It could also be statistical: Pure chance would make it more likely to find 10 pictorial geniuses out of the thousands of Renaissance artists who were male than one out of the meager dozens who were women.

A woman artist, however, had something no man could ever have: She owned the fact that she was female, and could make potent art that spoke of that. Even a woman who couldn't score high technical points could hit it big on the unique content of her art, and on her uniqueness as a female artist coming up with it.

The noblewoman Sofonisba Anguissola was one of the rare female stars of Renaissance art. Her talent -- "for a woman" -- was acknowledged in her day. (Her father, faced with finding prospects for six daughters, trained them as artists. He eventually parlayed Sofonisba's talent into a place for her at the wealthy Spanish court and marriage to one of its nobles.) Sofonisba was good, but not great -- and in some pictures pretty bad -- at painting realistic bodies, light and space. Sometime in the 1550s, however, she painted a stunning portrait of Bernardino Campi, the painter she studied with for a few years in the late 1540s, when she was in her teens.

Sofonisba doesn't just show her master at work at his easel, as you'd expect; she shows him at work on and dwarfed by a huge, larger-than-life portrait of her-- which, of course, means that any viewer of her painting of him painting her is actually mostly looking at her portrait of herself.

Sofonisba seems to say that Campi has "created" his female pupil -- you can almost see her curtseying before him as she says it. But if so, her picture adds, he's created a talent that is bigger than him, more splendid in her red velvet and gold than he could ever be in his plain black. (She's such a presence in this picture that the female hand Campi has painted into her portrait seems to cast a real shadow onto the wooden easel he's standing at.) Sofonisba's talent is in fact so big that when Campi tries to capture it, his picture turns out not just to show her but to be by her, too -- and this complexity in turn bears witness to a level of wit and sophistication that the teacher himself, shown dumbly painting a straightforward portrait of his student, could never claim. For an age of women's servitude, that's some pretty strong female empowerment -- but couched, as such things often had and have to be, as tribute to a male.

Other works by Sofonisba aren't quite so involved, but they still show her using who she is to make paintings no one else could make. One drawing by Sofonisba, famous in its day, shows a little boy in tears because an older girl has nipped him with the crayfish she is holding. Rather than fleeing such "nursery" imagery, Sofonisba claims it as especially her own. (She sent the drawing as a showoff gift to Michelangelo; it soon ended up in the hands of Cosimo de Medici, duke of Florence and one of the great art patrons of his day.)

Who and what you are matters to what your actions mean to others. My wife wears a skirt, and no one notices; if I did, I'd have to claim McGopnik blood to get away with it. Every time a woman painted a picture in the 16th or 17th century, what it meant was affected by the fact that she was a woman -- and therefore a veritable "marvel," just for having dared pick up a brush.

Lavinia Fontana, a so-so painter whose artist father wasn't any better, once did a portrait of a bearded woman, one of the best-known "freaks" of the Renaissance world. By virtue of being painted by a woman, the picture comes to be about the very thing its painter was absolutely not allowed to be -- either ugly or mannish -- and thus carries meaning and power that it wouldn't have if painted by a man. It also, perhaps, implies the special sympathy that the female painter, made a social freak by the needs and ambitions of her family, could feel for a woman born into physical freakishness.

In about 1612, the young Artemisia Gentileschi painted a lovely little picture of the classical heroine Danae, naked in bed while being "ravished" by a shower of gold coins. (They're Zeus, in a pricey disguise.) The extra dose of realism in the figure's torso -- details of the folds of skin where breast meets underarm, a tender mound of flesh where breast rests on ribs -- conjures up an intimate knowledge of the female body that gets an extra erotic charge when its painter has breasts, too. For the picture's male viewers, that is, this convincing nude would inevitably have conjured up a wishful image of the notable young woman who painted it. The sight of the naked girl's clenched hand, squeezing a fistful of coins in a spasm of delight, would have also evoked the desires they wished their "painteress" to have.

Your average male collector might not have known what Artemisia or any of her female colleagues looked like, clothed or naked. But once they saw a painting of a naked woman, by a woman -- there are several of them in this show -- it gave them license to imagine. You have to think that female artists were willing to capitalize on such leering male imaginings, or they would not have painted these pictures.

But they could also take their revenge on men in paint, or at least make a splashy show of doing so. Three paintings in this exhibition, by three different artists, are of Judith, the Jewish heroine who enticed and then decapitated an enemy general named Holofernes. These painters and their patrons knew that male necks, and male art, were not at real risk from women. But there was a special frisson to be had pretending the tables could be turned.

Artemisia, who'd been raped by a drawing tutor, then tortured and publicly shamed at his trial, appropriately shows Judith in the middle of the very bloody act, sleeves pulled up and sword half through the dying man's neck. Fontana and her colleague Fede Galizia are more demure; their Judiths are splendidly dressed and hold out the severed head like the latest fashion accessory. The implication of such pictures, known to be painted by women, would have been that once you'd given a woman a paintbrush, you might as well imagine she could wield a sword as well.

Italian Women Artists From Renaissance to Baroque, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, through July 15. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, free for persons 18 and under. Call 202-783-5000 or visit

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