Visual arts review: “By Her Hand” – A show of women artists that surprises and delights

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By Kathleen Stone

There were so many female artists here whose work amazes and delights. And the decision of the Wadsworth Atheneum to present them makes an important contribution to our evolving understanding of art and its history.

By his hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and women artists in Italy 1500 – 1800 at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT until January 9.

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

When Giorgio Vasari wrote his collection of the lives of Italian Renaissance artists, he overwhelmingly favored male artists and included only one woman. The book, first published in 1550 with a revised version in 1568, was instrumental in shaping our perception of the evolution of European art. So it’s no surprise that Properzia de’Rossi, the only woman he included, was seen as the only woman worthy of attention. Now comes the Wadsworth Atheneum and its revisionist exhibition, By his hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and women artists in Italy 1500 – 1800. Its aim is to prove that many more women were accomplished artists throughout the Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque periods.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Handmaid with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1623–25. Oil on canvas. Photo: Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Of the 18 women presented in the exhibition, Artemisia Gentileschi is probably the best known. Born in Rome in 1593, Artemisia first learned painting from her father, who presented it to her friend Caravaggio. He also hired another painter, Agostino Tassi, to teach him perspective. Instead, Tassi sexually harassed and raped Artemisia. The rape was undeniably traumatic, as was the seven month long trial that followed. It included a painful physical exam to prove her virginity before the rape. To what extent did this experience fuel his painting, and to what extent, is it the subject of scientific debate. The Wadsworth Atheneum chooses to minimize the violation and its consequences. Instead, the exhibition focuses on her paintings, where Artemisia is frequently portrayed in her character.

In a photo on display, Artemisia masquerades as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, her hand touching the nail wheel that was believed to be the instrument of her death. The painting captures the moment just before the wheel is destroyed, according to Christian belief, by an explosion of flames sent from the sky. Catherine watches from the web, channeling the courage the saint must summon up in the face of an emperor determined to annihilate Christianity. Perhaps the figure visualizes the strength Artemisia drew on to survive her ordeal with Tassi and the court. In another painting, Artemisia depicts the biblical figure Judith, moments after beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes. Judith and her maid are together in a tent. The heroine holds a long knife that is still dripping blood while her maid stuffs Holofernes’ head into a sack. They hear a noise and they freeze, peering into the darkness that lies beyond the light of the single candle. Artemisia accentuates the drama through the use of extreme chiaroscuro, a technique that suggests she was familiar with Caravaggio’s work. Its composition, with its large arches along a descending diagonal, firmly inscribes it in the Baroque tradition.

Fede Galizia also painted Judith with the head of Holofernes, some 25 years before Artemisia completed her version. Fede’s version is very different, with Judith dressed in jeweled adornments, lazily stroking the hair of the detached head. This Judith has heard no sound of footsteps approaching because she seems totally indifferent. Like Artemisia, Fede was trained by her father, and her fascinating painted details were inspired by her specialties, miniatures, and metalwork.

Sofonisba Anguissola, “The artist’s sister disguised as a nun”. Photo: Southampton City Art Gallery.

Because most artist studios were filled with young men, many women had no choice but to take their art classes at home. It was rare for a young woman to do an apprenticeship outside the family, but Sofonisba Anguissola was exceptional in this, among others. She was born in Cremona around 1535, in a family of lower nobility. With the blessing of her parents, she apprenticed with a painter named Bernardino Campi, whom she later eclipsed. When she was only 16, Sofonisba painted one of the most striking paintings in the exhibition, a portrait of her sister dressed as a nun. The geometry – the horizontal folds of the tunic topped with the triangular tip of the veil and the color – austere black and white – make the painting surprisingly modern, as if Sofonisba knew where the art would be heading, four hundred years in the future. Her talent for seeing beyond the obvious proved invaluable at the court of King Philip II of Spain, where she was acclaimed by painting portraits of the royal family.

Even women who were well known during their lifetime, like Artemisia and Sofonisba, have been forgotten over time. Elisabetta Sirani is another example. Born in Bologna in 1638, she was incredibly prolific, making over two hundred paintings before her untimely death at the age of 27. Some were portraits, but more often she painted religious or secular narrative subjects. In one, she represents Portia, wife of Brutus, who has just stabbed herself in the thigh. Apparently, Portia knew her husband was up to something, although she still didn’t know it would involve Julius Caesar. She wanted to know her secret and demonstrate that she would keep her trust – even if she was tortured – she self-inflicted pain. It’s a dramatic scene, the deep red of Portia’s dress matches the blood on her thigh, and the same color is echoed in the gold woven brocade. Other details are just as important: Portia’s face is calm as she prepares to stab herself again and her shoulder is uncovered, possibly to get her husband’s attention.

What is interesting about these images of Portia, Judith and Saint Catherine is that they represent women doing extraordinary things. Not only did these women not flinch when faced with violence, they were sometimes the source of the violence, for which they always had a purpose. By killing Holofernes, Judith saved her city and the Israeli people. Portia wanted to become one of those who knew about her husband’s insurrection plans. Catherine faced a Roman emperor rather than renouncing her religious beliefs. They were strong women, represented by other women.

Not all of the paintings in the exhibition fit this mold. Some are self-portraits or portraits of lesser-known figures, miniatures and still lifes, including two outstanding examples of the genre by Fede Galizia and Giovanna Garzoni which feature exquisite coloring and extremely fine lines. One might think that painting the Virgin and Child would be in the wheelhouse of women artists, but this prejudice is dispelled here. The exhibit includes a few examples, but none are particularly convincing. Perhaps this is because artistic training and opportunities for women were limited. It is inconceivable, for example, that the Pope had asked a woman to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or that a Grand Duke had commissioned a woman to make an altar triptych. The men, on the other hand, were trained in workshops where such large-scale commissions were common, and they had countless opportunities to work on Madonnas.

Elisabetta Sirani, Portia injuring her thigh, 1664. Museo della Città di Bologna, Bologna, Italy. Collezioni d’Arte e di Storia della Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio in Bologna.

Does the gap in training explain what I found to be the static nature of some of the paintings in the exhibition? Or could it be that the paintings that the Athenaeum could borrow for By his hand are not among the best of every woman’s production? There are also other reasons for the unevenness of the broadcast to be taken into account. But none of these reservations should dampen the enthusiasm of a visitor: there were so many women artists here whose work surprises and delights. And the decision of the Wadsworth Atheneum to present them makes an important contribution to our evolving understanding of art and its history.


Pierre Kathleen is a writer and lawyer. His book, They called us girls: stories of female ambition from suffrage to crazy men, will be released on March 1, 2022. For more information on Kathleen and her work, visit her website. Or follow her on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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