What Happens When We Forget Female Artists?

The art history of the Renaissance is dominated by male artists, but in reality, female artists also enjoyed immense success.

2017 proved itself to be a good year for women in the art world; large exhibitions opened for artists such as Rachel Whiteread and Fahrelnissa Zeid in London, and in December, 63 year old Lubaina Himid was announced as the winner of the Turner Prize, not only being the oldest winner but also the first woman of colour to win. Whilst much more needs to be done to further the inclusion of women in the contemporary art scene, it is not difficult to name a female artist of the past two centuries, with names such as Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe or Tracey Emin coming to mind. However, when we consider artists of the Renaissance period, it is almost always solely men, such as Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci. But why is this? Where are there only Renaissance ‘masters’ and no mistresses?

Whilst it was much more difficult to be a female artist than a male one in the period due to a lack of available schooling and the general misogyny of the 16th and 17th centuries, it isn’t true that there were a lack of female artists. Figures such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Properzia de’Rossi and Sofinsba Anguissola not only matched their male counterparts in terms of skill, but often earned more money for commissions than them. However, instead of discussing these women and their large bodies of work, much of art historical discourse has lead us to view the Renaissance period as more female nudes than female artists; these artists have been “forgotten” and excluded from the established canon of great works of that period. One of the most important accounts of art and artists from the Renaissance period is Georgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, and whilst Vasari has been widely praised for discussing female artists in his series of biographies, in reality he only briefly mentions four female artists, in comparison to the hundreds of male artists he dedicates extensive accounts to. In order to counter this warped view of art history that we are so frequently presented with, a large amount has been done by contemporary scholars such as Joan Kelly, Linda Nochlin and Leeds’ own Griselda Pollock to reconstruct this canon, to rewrite an art history that no longer privileges the white male artist.

Image:Artemisia Gentileschi

As well as being forgotten from the history books, many pieces from female artists of the Renaissance have been left out of displays in galleries and institutions as they are frequently forgotten about, lost or wrongly attributed to male artists. AWA (Advancing Women Artists) is an organisation created by Jane Fortune in 2009 which aims to rediscover these lost women artists by finding their works and restoring them via the use of crowdfunding projects. One of the key pieces that the foundation is currently working to restore is Plautilla Nelli’s depiction of The Last Supper, one of the most difficult subjects of the Renaissance to paint. These efforts by the AWA mean that Nelli’s painting is set to be displayed in 2019 in one of Florence’s most popular museums, that of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Novella.

The role of feminist scholars and organisations such as AWA is a crucial one within the writing, and re-writing of art history as it allows a more realistic view of the Renaissance to be presented one where, whilst still marginalised, many women were able to make a name for themselves as artists. Establishing a recognised history of female artists is also important for contemporary art, as without the representation of women in the past, there are no figures to inspire women of the future to create art and establish their own place within the art world.

Hannah Stokes

(Image courtesy of Sofinsba Anguissola)