Art Herstory: The Women of the Renaissance

Art Herstory: The Women of the Renaissance

Words by Tara Parmar

When we think of the renaissance a wealth of biblical scenes often come to mind, along with a long list of Italian names we can barely pronounce. But of those names, how many can you recall that are female? Though all the most well-known figures of this artistic rebirth are all men, surely there must have been a talented female or two during the whole 300 year span of the renaissance?

For the budding young female artist in the 1500’s opportunities were scarce and often discouraged. Instead women were seen to pursue the role of a mother and homemaker, but never artist. However, like in any good story there’s always a dark horse – and in this one there’s more than one.

Portrait of Caterina Micaela of Spain, 1591. Sofonisba Anguissola.

Portrait of Caterina Micaela of Spain, 1591. Sofonisba Anguissola.

One of the most notable names was Sofonisba Anguissola. Born with a highly encouraging father who sought to have all of his four daughters educated, Sofonisba couldn’t have flourished without his support.

Since it was seen as unacceptable for women to view the naked male body, she like many other female artists, were unable to study anatomy. Not only this, but they were also refused the right to work on many notable commissions for the church or aristocracy. This however, worked in their favour since it afforded them the freedom of subject matter; leading to Anguissolo’s specialisation in portraiture.

Regardless of these numerous limitations, her career continued to develop as she went on to meet Michelangelo and even received a commission from the Pope. Gaining such encouragement in the pursuit of her skills, was not a common circumstance. But her talent and accomplishments set the stage for many more female artist to come.

Though slow, the encouragement and recognition in female artists saw progress throughout the three centuries of the renaissance. As we see in the works of Vasari, biographer of renaissance artists; he mentions one female artist in his first edition but by the following edition that number rose to thirteen.

Portrait of a Noblewoman, c.1580. Lavinia Fontana

Portrait of a Noblewoman, c.1580. Lavinia Fontana

Lavinia Fontana, equally so, broke the mould and paved her own path as an artist. Learning from her successful artist father, Prospero Fontana, she quickly took hold of the family business going on to support her thirteen children though her painting.

And it wasn’t just in the Italian renaissance that females were seeing recognition, but in the developing schools of the low lands too. Caterina van Hemessen also learnt through her father’s tutelage. Her skills equalled if not rivalled her father’s which gained the respect of her contemporaries so much so she took on the role of teacher to three male students.

This sudden rise in acknowledgement of female artists was in large due to the influence ofHumanism. This promoted the education of both men and women in the arts, and not just the visual arts, but literature and music too. The cultural shift slowly improved not only the treatment of women, but the education of the general population.

Women were not given the rights to arts education until the nineteenth century, though late, this, nor the equal freedom female artists now experience, to paint, sculpt or perform, couldn’t have happened without both the development in humanist thought and this unsung foundation of unknown female renaissance artists.

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