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Female Old Masters Are Finally Getting Major Museum Shows

Lavinia Fontant, Self-Portrait at the Spinet, 1577. Courtesy of the Museo del Prado.

Lavinia Fontant, Self-Portrait at the Spinet, 1577. Courtesy of the Museo del Prado.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait at the Easel, c. 1556–57. Courtesy of the Museo del Prado.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait at the Easel, c. 1556–57. Courtesy of the Museo del Prado.

A spate of major exhibitions across the globe is finally giving female artists of the and eras their place in the limelight. After long being in the shadows of their male peers, it seems museums and galleries have woken up to the quality of these women’s works and their appeal to the public.
The Museo Nacional del Prado is showcasing the work of and as part of its 200th anniversary programming, in order “to bring two noteworthy female painters to light,” according to Leticia Ruiz, the head of the museum’s department of Spanish painting up to 1500. Anguissola was a celebrated portraitist in the late 16th and early 17th centuries whose fame earned her a place as a lady-in-waiting to Isabel de Valois at the court of King Philip II of Spain. Fontana worked around the same time in Rome and Bologna, disregarding the limits of genres imposed on her sex, even painting from the nude—a practice from which women were generally excluded at the time.
Sofonisba Anguissola, Queen Anne of Austria, 1573. Courtesy of the Museo del Prado.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Queen Anne of Austria, 1573. Courtesy of the Museo del Prado.

Sofonisba Anguissola,  Family Portrait, 1558. Courtesy of the Museo del Prado.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Family Portrait, 1558. Courtesy of the Museo del Prado.

“The technical study of the works of Sofonisba started some years ago, but to prepare an exhibition linked with Lavinia Fontana was a decision taken three years ago in order to bring to light the first documented female professional painter of the modern age,” Ruiz said. “The Prado isn’t really the place to look for female artists.”
It was only three years ago that the museum staged its first exhibition dedicated to a female artist, the 17th-century Flemish still-life painter , and although it owns four works by Anguissola, all those by Fontana had to be borrowed.
“There is a constant demand that our museum shows the work of women,” Ruiz added. At the exhibition’s press conference, the Prado’s director, Miguel Falomir, said the museum did want to acquire more paintings by women, but there was a lack of work on the market.
Sales figures for works by female artists still pale in comparison with those of their male contemporaries, but this year saw Sotheby’s pushing once overlooked female Old Masters and achieving record-breaking prices in the process. Growing interest from collectors may make it all the more difficult for museums to acquire such works. In the meantime, the Prado will continue its research on Anguissola in hopes of attributing further paintings to her.
Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts does not have the same problem with its collection. Its current exhibition, “Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age”—which features works by , , and Maria Schalcken, among others—came about because of the museum’s abundance of works by women of the period. It is the first exhibition of its kind in the U.S., and curator Virginia Treanor hopes it will go some way to dispel “the myth of exceptionalism which I think is doing a disservice to many of these artists.”
She said that historical female artists have often been painted with a very broad brush, which draws attention to the fact that “so-and-so is one of the few women artists.” By putting eight female artists in a show together and examining their different paths, Treanor aims to highlight the variety of their experiences, which often had “more to do with their economic and social status than their gender.”
Developing the stories of artists who are already known is one thing; organizing an exhibition on one who is completely unknown is quite another.
Michaelina Wautier, Two Girls as Saint Agnes and Saint Dorothea, 1643–59. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Michaelina Wautier, Two Girls as Saint Agnes and Saint Dorothea, 1643–59. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Art historian Katlijne Van der Stighelen first rediscovered the Baroque painter Michaelina Wautier in the 1990s, but found it impossible to get support for an exhibition as museums would not risk gambling on an unknown artist. It was not until the Flanders tourism department decided to invest heavily in a three-year exhibition program, beginning in 2018 with and Baroque painting, that she finally got her chance.
After pointing out that no major museum show in the region had focused on a female Baroque artist, Van der Stighelen was given the opportunity to present Wautier’s portfolio. “More and more people realized that she was really exceptional,” she said. She was offered a substantial exhibition budget and a venue, Antwerp’s Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), as well as the support of “the complete infrastructure of the cultural department of the city of Antwerp.”
Lavinia Fontana, Mars and Venus, c. 1595. Courtesy of the Museo del Prado.

Lavinia Fontana, Mars and Venus, c. 1595. Courtesy of the Museo del Prado.

Lavinia Fontana, Noli me tangere, 1581. Courtesy of the Museo del Prado.

Lavinia Fontana, Noli me tangere, 1581. Courtesy of the Museo del Prado.

The response exceeded anything Van der Stighelen or MAS could have hoped for. Both the national and international press were attracted by the “surprise element” of an artist so technically accomplished, yet completely unknown. By the time the show came down in September 2018, some 68,000 visitors had seen it—significantly more than the 40,000 visitors typical for a summer show at MAS.
Since the Wautier exhibition closed, the catalogue has continued to sell well, and Van der Stighelen believes Wautier will now be included in future overviews of Flemish art. “She has been added to the canon of 17th-century art,” she said.
’s place in the canon has been secure for some time now, but the story of her rape at age 17 and the torture she endured during the ensuing trial has tended to overshadow her art in recent years. An exhibition at London’s National Gallery next spring will present her more “fully in the round,” according to curator Letizia Treves. She believes that Gentileschi’s strength and originality lies in the “female perspective and sensibility” she brought to her often-vulnerable subjects, which was in marked contrast to that of her male contemporaries.While in no way diminishing the trauma of her rape, Treves wants to show that “so much else happened in her life that also informed her art.”
“She was on her own for a lot of her life, in charge of her personal and professional life,” Treves added. “It was a huge, huge weight on her shoulders, and I feel that in a way is the burden she carries her whole life more than the episode when she was 17.”
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1615–17. © The National Gallery, London.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1615–17. © The National Gallery, London.

The exhibition will feature around 35 works and is intended to be “the best of the best and present her at her best,” Treves added. It will also put the museum’s recent acquisition of Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (ca. 1615–17) in context. “She uses her image a lot,” Treves said. “Like , her celebrity spread through her art and her image.”
With a slew of exhibitions, books, and live performances touching on her work and life in recent years, Gentileschi’s 21st-century fame will continue to spread—and fuel the market for her work. Could she one day have the same appeal as Rembrandt himself? “Maybe not yet,” Treves cautioned. “Maybe in 20 years.” But at least for now, she added, “it’s Artemisia’s moment.”
Cath Pound

Corrections: A previous version of this article contained an error within an image caption, which incorrectly identified Sofonisba Anguissola’s Self Portrait at the Easel as Lavinia Fontana’s Self Portrait in the Studio. Additionally, there was incorrect information about attendance figures for exhibitions at Museum aan de Stroom. The text has been updated to reflect accurate numbers.