Saturday, August 8, 2009

Great Women "Rulers" of Art

A friend gave me a wooden ruler printed with a list of "Great Women Rulers of Art". Glancing at it recently I realized there were many names new or only vaguely familiar to me, especially those from pre-1800. Suddenly I had a research project ahead of me. The first few artists were hard to find; no easy answers on Wikipedia, just occasional fragments from Google Books results.

Ende was a manuscript illuminator in northern Spain during the 10th century. Probably a nun, she working alongside a monk named Emeterius. Ende's name is inscribed in manuscripts as a painter and "helper of God".

Ma Shouzhen (China, 1548 - 1604) was a courtesan, a poet and painter. From what I can tell, she is known for her paintings of orchids and bamboo, often on fans, and her work can be found in the Shanghai Museum. Someone should write a novel about her; she sounds like a colorful character!

Artemisia Gentileschi (Italy, 1593 - 1652) was one of the first women to paint historical and religious paintings. She studied technique with her father, a painter in the style of Caravaggio. Often people did not believe that she as a woman had actually painted anything. After a difficult adolescence including a rape trial, the young painter married and left her home city of Rome to live in Florence, where she became accepted into the Academy of the Arts of Drawing. Her style is characterized as dramatic realism, with accomplished use of chiaroscuro. Ultimately the city of Naples became her home, the place where she found the most success and acceptance. Her paintings of women are praised for their exuberance and strength. Publication of historical fiction such as The Passion of Artemisia (Viking, 2002) by Susan Vreeland and Artemisia: a Novel (Grove Press, 2000) by Alexandra LaPierre shows that the painter's fame and celebrity have grown. There is also an Agnes Merlet film, "Artemisia", released in 1997.

Judith Leyster (Dutch, 1609 - 1660) had a six year period of painterly productivity before she married and had as many as five children. Her canvases capture domestic subjects and thus are considered genre paintings because they depict everyday life. This Dutch domestic genre would become more popular a few decades later with the work of Vermeer. Often Leyster's work was misattributed to Frans Hals, who was probably her teacher. A slide show of her work on the New York Times website shows her subjects were often making merry in the form of playing music or drinking in taverns.

Louise Moillon (France, 1610 - 1696) was another painter who did the majority of her work before she married, turning out exquisitely detailed still lives of fruit and vegetables. I didn't think I knew the name, but when I saw the paintings, they looked familiar (and good enough to eat).

A few years back, I enjoyed writing an reader's advisory article for Library Journal, "With Brush in Hand: Women Painters in Print". I find women artists of all kinds fascinating, perhaps especially because they have often been in the minority. More "Women Rulers of Art" to come in future posts.....

Photo: Postcards and Ruler by KAO

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