First ladies of art: three trailblazing female artists from history

Amanda Vickery speaks to Charlotte Hodgman about three remarkable women who beat the odds to achieve artistic fame...

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

Stroll through the halls of the world’s most famous art galleries – the Louvre, the Uffizi, the National Gallery – and you’ll no doubt be surrounded by glorious images of women, painted across the ages. But what you won’t see, says historian Amanda Vickery, are many paintings by female artists – less than 5 per cent in some cases, she claims.

Why has women’s artistry historically been – and continues to be – so vastly underrepresented in artistic institutions? “Becoming a professional female artist was once a nigh-on impossible goal – particularly in the Renaissance,” says Vickery, “yet in every century I’ve discovered extraordinary women who overcame opposition to become celebrated artists in their own right." Here, she introduces three remarkable artistic women...
 

The improper Impressionist

Berthe Morisot (1841–95)

The first female school of design opened at Somerset House, London, in 1842, with the aim of enabling “young women of the middle class to obtain an honourable and profitable employment”. Were women finally being offered acceptance as professional artists? Not exactly, says Vickery.

“The mid-to-late 19th century was a time of change for women,” she says, “and they could now attend university and study the arts. But underlying attitudes had not changed a great deal, and female artists still struggled to establish themselves in what was still essentially a male-orientated sphere.”

It was against this backdrop that French artist Berthe Morisot attained a position as copy artist at the Louvre, alongside her sister, Edma. But where Edma sacrificed her career for marriage, Berthe became one of a handful of women to be accepted into Impressionist circles – a radical group of artists who broke with traditional artistic conventions of the day.

Berthe painted the world around her which, as a 19th-century woman, centred mainly on the home – a recurrent theme in her works. But despite her obvious talent, she was often labelled as ‘improper’ and failed to achieve widespread recognition in her lifetime.

 

The Renaissance trailblazer

Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614)

  
The Gozzadini Family, by Lavinia Fontana. (Getty) 

As one of the first women in history to execute large, publicly commissioned figure paintings – working alongside male counterparts – Lavinia Fontana, daughter of painter Prospero Fontana, was a rarity in Renaissance Italy. “Female artists were most likely to be daughters of artists,” says Vickery, “often where there were no sons, or where a daughter was seen as the family’s best economic hope.”

Lavinia, like other artists, used her creative skills to convey specific messages. Her 1584 painting of the Gozzadini family, shown here, subtly reflects the misfortunes of its patron Laudomia Gozzadini (in the red dress), who commissioned the piece. Laudomia’s father (seated) had promised his fortune to the daughter who could produce a grandson first. As his possessive hand placed on her arm shows, it was Ginevra who inherited, and Laudomia was subsequently beset with financial and marital problems.

“Unlike some of the women I examine in the series, Lavinia was a hugely successful artist in her lifetime, but has since been neglected,” says Vickery.

 

The ‘unladylike’ sculptor

Anne Seymour Damer (1749–1828)

 
Damer’s c1788 bust of actress Elizabeth Farren. (National Portrait Gallery) 

Sculpture, with its physical demands, masculine tools and need for detailed anatomical knowledge, was historically considered the most ‘unladylike’ of artistic genres. And without access to tutors or materials, many aspiring sculptors had to make do with what they had – in the case of Renaissance artist Properzia de’ Rossi, this meant fashioning small-scale works from the stones of apricots and peaches.

“Some women did have support from their family,” says Vickery, “such as Anne Seymour Damer who took lessons in anatomy, modelling and sculpting.”

By 1784 Anne was an honorary exhibitor at the Royal Academy, but her talent was frequently over-shadowed by speculations about her sexuality. “But the rumours were more than likely fuelled by feelings of discomfort at the success of a female sculptor in what was seen as a ‘man’s art’,” says Vickery.

Amanda Vickery is professor of early modern history at Queen Mary, University of London.

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