We pass likenesses of other history-shaping female rulers, too. Like Hatshepsut, Julia Avita Mamaea ruled Ancient Rome as regent and retained authority even after her son, Emperor Severus Alexander, took power. Mamaea set up the principles of his rule, advised him on military campaigns, and was the first woman in Ancient Rome to be named consors imperii, or the Emperor’s “partner in rule.”
While Ancient Roman women were often granted great power, especially in the Severan dynasty, Ancient Greece operated quite differently, preferring a more oppressive approach. There are staggeringly few women with any power or personality represented in Ancient Greek art. They did, however, pay homage to mighty female goddesses like Athena, who advised men, and scare figures like Medusa and the Amazons, who were the Greeks’ most tenacious foe.
A stone statue of a wounded Amazon commands one room of the Met’s Ancient Greek Hall. As Lear points out, she is represented simultaneously with strength, female features, and rich emotions. She is not shoehorned into a single role, as most women in Ancient Greece were, but is represented as a complex figure.
All of the women Lear highlights across his tour resisted or transcended the limitations that traditional gender roles have enforced across centuries. And some of them actively fought the gender inequalities of their times.
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, represented in an imposing self-portrait in the museum’s 18th-century French galleries, actively campaigned for more women to be admitted into the French Académie Royale, where she studied painting. When she attended on the dawn of the French Revolution, only four women were allowed into the school at a given time. Lear notes that this painting likely doubled as propaganda for her crusade. It shows Labille-Guiard at her easel, accompanied by two female students eager to absorb her expertise.