Female Incapacity for Greatness?

The use of the masculine term ‘master’, or idea of ‘male genius’ encapsulates much of the assumptions of Western historical ideas of ‘the artist’.

However, the view that women artists absence from the canon is due to their incapacity for greatness has been challenged in recent years, citing lack of recognition. Talented Western women artists have always existed….. but often against all the odds….

The existence of women artists has to be recognised in a highly significant historical/social context of restricted female access to public life, lack of economic independence, education, art academies, patronage, family limitations and so on.

The very ideals of Western art were formalised in institutions in which women were excluded. This has, in turn, greatly impacted on ideas surrounding women artists, included notions of women’s creativity being afforded a lesser cultural status. In turn, male artists have created and controlled female representation, often coded as passive, decorative or sexually objectified, to suit a male consumer of art. This was both an image and a social landscape at odds with that of a capable, intelligent and professional female artist.

During the Renaissance, a sixteenth century Italian female context was one of extreme restriction, enforced dependence, and life within the limited arena of the family. In an era emphasising learning and the academy, female artists had to rely on the cooperation and kindness of male relatives to provide tutorage in the home, due to lack of access to public education.

As male artists began to increase their wealth, power and status separating from craft, there was a corresponding strengthening hostility towards women in the arts. As females were perceived to lack the ability for ‘genius’ of their male counterparts, they were largely excluded from highly regarded fields/genres and therefore high artistic merit.

Women had commonly portrayed themselves in needlework, for example, in humble religious poses. Male creators of art however began to produce self-portraits as signatures or bystander portraits reflecting status and accomplishments, to gain patronage and individual recognition.

As a trend for portraits of the wealthy (from the fifteenth century) began, ideas of femininity were embedded by male artists reflecting contemporary gendered social mores. Women were depicted by promoting their dependent status as decorative appendages, maidens, wives or widows (highlighting passiveness, modesty, honour, attractiveness, availability, for the ‘male gaze’/gendered viewer).

Although the act of painting was itself often personified as female, the tradition for depicting the male as artist (including the self-portrait) continued to develop however.

Despite this, women artists did exist at this time. If we compare the artwork of female artist Lavinia Fontana, Self Portrait (1579)….

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…..and male artist Cornelis Cort, after Jan van der Straet An Ideal Roman Acedemy (1578), we are able to gain some interesting insights.

Fontana’s artwork is itself representative of a gendered restriction to the field of painting (rather than sculpture) and the lesser valued genre of portraiture. It is however, also a rare and challenging reflection of female artist within this historical, social, cultural context.

It is a particularly small painting, linking to the idea of female restriction, women’s tradition for embroidery and miniature painting. Fontana also conventionally reflects her respectable married status and wealth by foregrounding her wedding ring and (sexually modest) wealthy apparel.

As the painting was intended for display amongst male scholars (a rare honour) and aimed at a male audience, Fontana constructs her own image with significant care. Her outward direct gaze suggests control as she engages the viewer’s eye. By emphasising her knowledge and skill, placing herself within a defined scholarly and scientific space with classical statuettes and anatomical casts, she portrays herself as learned artist rather than crafts-person.

In production and representation Fontana cleverly and complexly depicts herself as both woman within the limitations of her society and artist.

Fontana’s work emphasises that the female artist has portrayed herself in a limited, isolated and introspective space. In contrast, Cort’s engraving reveals a hectic scene of exclusive male learning, interacting and skill sharing.

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Cornelis Cort (Netherlandish, Hoorn ca. 1533–1578 Rome) The Practioners of the Visual Arts, 1578 Netherlandish, Engraving; sheet: 16 7/8 x 11 1/4 in. (42.8 x 28.6 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953 (53.600.509) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/369581

Cort’s composition and theme emphasises new hierarchical ideas of genres. The artist reflects much iconography of Renaissance humanist ideas. The acquirement of artistic skill and study is portrayed, for example, as learning anatomy from a flayed corpse, (reflecting one of many areas from which women were excluded).

Females are represented within the work only as objects/sculptures reflecting beauty (mid-right) and allegorical figures (top right). Cort presents the ‘ideal’ Renaissance academy, as the title reflects, a gendered model reflecting intrinsic assumptions for much future artistic practice in Europe, further embedded by male discourses on art (promoting the male artist and genre/canon hierarchies reflective of male dominance).

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A comparison of the work with Natoire’s The Life Class at the Academie Royale, Paris (1746) (above) reflects such influence. Here men are also presented as active participants requiring and sharing artistic skill and knowledge, while women are absent or only represented as decorative allegorical objects/sculptures. The representation of females in terms of beauty or mythological status interpreted for the presumed male consumer of art  is also reflected in Zoffany’s The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-7) (below).

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Cort’s work may be considered therefore, as aiding in the creation of a gendered view of the artist and artistic practice, and the exclusion of females except in terms of passivity, objectification, idealisation which still informs contemporary ideas on femininity and masculinity within art and wider cultural values.

 

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