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Week 3: Objectification of Women in the History of Art and Society (Part 1)

I have made some interesting observations when working on my research about objectification of women in history of art and society. The information I’ve found is not new but increasing my awareness of it made me feel like I’ve been living obliviously and thought that my freedom to create art goes without saying. There have been many paintings and other forms of art in the history where the main subject depicted was a woman. Yet, there are not as many forms of art created by women. For women in the past it was quite unusual to be an artist. For centuries (reaching from the ancient Greece to the 19th century) women were inferior to men and didn’t have the same opportunities and rights as men. The world of art was a male dominated world. History painting was the most highly rated art in 18th century Europe. That's a classical biblical or historical scene on a broad canvas. It was supposed to be founded on philosophical understanding and abstract thought. Things women were believed incapable of. History paintings were packed with full-length figures in dynamic poses. A convincing attempt required detailed knowledge of human anatomy. - Professor, Vickery, Amanda, The Story of Women and Art But to understand the human anatomy would require to study the naked body – something unthinkable for a woman to do. Women were supposed to do their female things – be mothers, look after their family and household. The only form of craft where female creativity could shine were tapestry and needlework. But these were overlooked and were not considered to be art. There were female artists that succeeded in the field of art, though they had to overcome many obstacles, go against the flow and challenge the conventions of what women were expected to do those days. They were famous in their days, later they fell into obscurity. There are many women worth mentioning, although I have chosen three women to illustrate the struggle of being a female artist. Women artists in the Renaissance were unusual but women sculptors were unheard of. - Art history professor, Bohn, Babette Properzia de’ Rossi (1490–1530) was an Italian sculptor and the first great female artist of the Renaissance. Women were seen to lack both the physical strength and the intellectual vigor for such a virile art. - Professor, Vickery, Amanda, The Story of Women and Art

Properzia‘s artistic development is unfortunately unknown. However, there is an evidence that she began her career sculpting fruit pits - out of necessity. Later in her life she was commissioned by one of the most important churches in Bologna, above male artists.

De'Rossi's public life and role as a female artist as also her ultimate demise because her career has been overshadowed by her death around age forty.

- Murphy, Caroline P, The Economics of the Woman Artist

Figure 1: Unknown, portrait of Properzia de Rossi

Figure 2: Properzia de Rossi, 1510-30, Grassi Family Coat of Arms at the Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna, c.. Courtesy of Irene Graziani at the University of Bologna

Figure 3: Properzia de Rossi, 1510-30, Detail of St. Peter in Properzia de’ Rossi, Grassi Family Coat of Arms

Figure 4: Properzia de Rossi, Relief of Joseph and Potiphar's wife, in the Museum of San Petronio in Bologna

Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625) was an Italian female painter. She impressed Michelangelo in her yuth by a drawing of a crying child and in her nineties she won the homage of Anthony van Dyck. She worked for the Spanish court, yet as a woman she couldn’t be officially recognised as a court painter – her title was lady-in-waiting. She was one of the first known female artists and one of the first women artists to establish an international reputation. However, she could not sell her artwork as it would be inappropriate with her social status.

For over a century, she was ignored by many historians and unknown to the general public. Anguissola’s works were even misattributed to male artists like Titian and Giovanni Battista Moroni.

- Mcguire, Nneka, These Female Artists Were Forgotten

Figure 5: Sofonisba Anguissola, 1556, Self-Portrait, Lancut Museum, Poland

Figure 6: Sofonisba Anguissola, 1555, The Chess Game, National Museum in Poznan

Figure7: Sofonisba Anguissola, Elizabeth of Valois, 1561–1565, El Prado, Madrid, Spain Artemisia Gentileschi (1593- c. 1654) was the most celebrated female painter of the 17th century. At the age of 17 her first painting was ‚Susanna and the Elders‘ – subject very popular amongst the male artist. I will get back to this painting later.

A year later she was raped by her father’s friend Agostino Tassi. The seven months long trial dragged her reputation through mud. Tassi was found guilty, however the punishment was never enforced. Following the trial, Artemisia left Rome for Florence where she became the first women to gain the membership to the Academy of Arts of Drawing. Then she settled in Naples where she ran a successfull studio. Though, her past of being a victim of sexual violence often overshadows her paintings.

Until recently, many of Artemisia's paintings were attributed to male artists, only some of whom she collaborated with. Previously neglected, art historians have reclaimed Artemisia as a genius whose talent overcame the sexism of her day.

- Repaint History, Artemisia Gentileschi

Figure 8: Artemisia Gentileschi, 1638–39, Self-Portrait

Figure 9: Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614–1620, Judith Beheading Holofernes

Figure 10: Artemisia Gentileschi, 1610, Susanna and the Elders, earliest of her surviving works, Schönborn Collection, Pommersfelden Why have these Old Mistresses been forgotten? Some tallented female artists quit their careers before they could pursue their talent - when they started having families.

But the denigration of women by historians is concealed behind a rigidly constructed view of art history. ‘This is not simply to accuse art historians themselves of bias or prejudice, but concerns the significance of the typical forms of art history, the survey history of art’s evolution independent of social forces, the catalogue raisonné and the monograph on a single artist’s work’

- Parker, Rosika and Pollock, Griselda, 1981, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology

Finding overlooked women painters and reassessing their abilities was beside the point, because the standards were discriminatory. Women artists could never be found justly neglected due to deficiencies because they were being judged by masculine standards designed to exclude them. Therefore there would never be any Old Mistresses.

- Nochlin, Linda, in her essay “Why are there no great women artists?”

However, I do want to mention that this is just one side of the coin. For every overlooked woman painter, you can find ten overlooked male counterparts. But it is also known that when people think of the greatest European painters of all time, they’re thinking of male artists.

Now I would like to go back to Artemisia’s painting of Susanna and the Elders. As I mentioned above, this was a subject very popular amongst men. Therefore it is very interesting to compare her version to the ones made by male painters.

But before getting to that it is good to know the biblical story about Susanna and the Elders.

A fair Hebrew wife named Susanna as she bathes in her garden, having sent her attendants away, two lustful elders secretly observe her. When she makes her way back to her house, they accost her, threatening to claim that she was meeting a young man in the garden unless she agrees to have sex with them. She refuses to be blackmailed and is arrested and about to be put to death for adultery when the young Daniel interrupts the proceedings, shouting that the elders should be questioned to prevent the death of an innocent…

In the depictions made by men Susanna‘s body language is inviting and her facial expression is lacking the aversion she should be feeling. She is rather seductive and coy than frightened.

Figure 11: Alessandro Allori, Susanna and the Elders

Figure 12: Antoine Coypel, Susanna and the Elders

Figure 13: Jan Matsys, Susanna and the Elders

Figure 14: Jacob Ernst Thomann von Hagelstein, 1620s, Susanna and the Elders

Whilst in Artemisia’s depiction Susanna is portrayed differently. She is shrinking away in disgust and horror, twisting her body awkwardly and not enjoying anything about being harassed by two old men.

Figure 15: Artemisia Gentileschi, 1610, Susanna and the Elders, earliest of her surviving works, Schönborn Collection, Pommersfelden At the tender age of 17 Artemisia Gentileschi is trying to give expression to the violence of the male gaze. A stark judgement upon men. - Professor, Vickery, Amanda, The Story of Women and Art So what is this male gaze and objectification of women in art? The objectification reflects on the position of women in the society. As I mentioned above, women were inferior to men. And we also know that majority of the artists were men, too. Women were mostly the subject.

In European oil painting there was one category where females were the ever-recurring subject – the nude.

The female form is often celebrated as an object of beauty, but when we look back on history, we see that women rarely have been in charge of how they’re portrayed. When it comes to such representation, it’s important to think not only about who is being represented but who is creating the representation.

- Associate Professor of Art History at MU, Schwain, Kristin

According to John Berger women were depicted by men for men – by the male painter for the male owner.

In the average European oil painting of the nude the principal protagonist is never painted. He is the spectator in front of the picture and be is presumed to be a man. Everything is addressed to him. Everything must appear to be the result of his being there, it is for him that the figures have assumed their nudity. But he, by definition, is a stranger - with his clothes still on.

- Berger, John, 1972, Ways of seeing

Depiction of the woman is designed to flatter the male spectator. These women are usually idealised, stripped off of their body hair and often portrayed passive and timidly looking away – never directly at the spectator.

Why is that? The passivity is signifying submissivness and shying away makes it ‚easier‘ for the male spectator to gaze upon them.

Also if you remove the body hair, you are also stripping away what the hair represents – passion and sexual power. According to Berger ‘the woman’s sexual passion needs to be minimized so that the spectator may feel that he has the monopoly of such passion. Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own.’

Figure 16: Alexander Cabanel, 1875, The Birth of Venus

Figure 17: François Boucher, Venus playing with two doves

Figure 18: Titian, c. 1510, Sleeping Venus

Figure 19: Diego Velázquez, Venus at Her Mirror Of course there were exceptions in the depiction of women – a great example would be Manet with his Olympia. I have already written an article about a similar topic and Manet. You can read it here:

Now the question is, what impact does such objectification have on women? Women have learned to see themselves the same way men see them. In order to explain I will use John Berger’s words.

Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

- Berger, John, 1972, Ways of seeing

Berger is basically saying that for women to constantly watch/survey themselves has always been embedded in the society. They grow up in an environment that teaches them that the way how they appear to others but mainly to men is crucially important in their lives. He also says that ‘Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.’

Is this why there are so many women obsessed with their looks? Is this also why these women are such big consumers of many beauty products? Those that promise them youthful skin, shinier hair, longer eyelashes, etc - products that are predominantly made for women.

I’m planning on researching what impact objectification of women has on advertisement and commercial world. However, my next post is going to be a follow-up article to this post.

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Figure 19: Resources

Amanda Vickery:

Properzia de’ Rossi:

Sofonisba Anguissola:

Artemisia Gentileschi:

Old Mistresses and Objectification of Women in Art:

Sussana and the Elders:

John Berger:

431 views2 comments


Lucie Nechanická
Lucie Nechanická
Oct 17, 2020

Thanks Owen! :)


Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Oct 17, 2020

It's a shame female artists couldn't be recognised as court painters or able to make money from their paintings. Despicable. It's good you mention men also had their paintings overlooked, but the point stands; women were mostly cast aside.

It's an interesting conclusion and excellently written! Look forward to next article.

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