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By Her Hand, an exhibition cocurated by Eve Straussman-Pflanzer and Oliver Tostmann at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, brought together works by sixteen Italian women artists from 1500 to the late eighteenth century. Some of these artists are well known to art historians and increasingly to the broader public, particularly Artemisia Gentileschi, whose work was celebrated in a blockbuster monographic exhibition in 2020 at the National Gallery in London. Several others will likely be new to many: Roman printmaker Anna Maria Vaiani or Bolognese painter Ginevra Cantofoli, for instance. After the Wadsworth, the exhibition traveled to the Detroit Institute of Art. It is a milestone for both these venerable US art museums, neither of which has previously dedicated a show to European women artists working before the twentieth century. One of the primary contributions of this show is to bring together the works of so many underrepresented and understudied Italian women artists with those of their better-known counterparts and to find common ground among them—and to do so for the first time under the auspices of such prestigious cultural institutions.
In framing this exhibition, the curators have consciously responded to the provocative 1976/77 exhibition Women Artists, 1550–1950 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which assembled an extraordinary range of works by women artists in a broad, diverse survey. One of the curators of that show, Ann Sutherland Harris, concluded her introductory catalog essay with a sort of challenge: “This exhibition will be a success if it helps to remove once and for all the justification for any future exhibitions with this theme” (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976; 44). Alas, as By Her Hand clearly demonstrates, that justification remains more than three decades later. The introductory catalog essay, by Straussman-Pflanzer, clearly articulates why exhibitions focused on women artists remain so vitally important. She cites the low rate of their representation in museums’ permanent collections and exhibitions as well as the shockingly low valuation of their works in the art market compared to those of their male contemporaries. While the specific aim of this exhibition is, as Straussman-Pflanzer states, “to integrate the work of these overlooked Italian women artists into the history of art and into the culture more broadly,” the ultimate goal is to realign “the very fabric and structures of our institutions . . . to become more all-encompassing” (26). Acknowledging the long, painfully slow path toward equity, inclusion, and representation in US museums and exhibition programming, the curators of By Her Hand offer this exhibition as both an update on our current knowledge of early-modern Italian women artists and as an intervention into the state of museum curatorial practice and institutional priorities.
Two other insightful catalog essays by Tostmann and Sheila Barker help to frame the exhibition, elucidating how its artists found shrewd ways to solve the societal and professional limitations they faced as early modern women working in an overwhelmingly male-dominated realm. Tostmann focuses on how women artists often worked on a small scale, not just so that they could practice their art within domestic spaces but also so that they might neatly skirt competition with (and the jealousy of) male artists working on larger, more public works. The exhibition deftly explores one instance of the consequences when a woman artist was perceived to overstep her bounds: Lavinia Fontana’s altarpiece The Stoning of St. Sebastian (ca. 1604; no longer extant, represented in the exhibition by Jacques Callot’s engraving after it made in 1611) for the Church of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome engendered the ire of artist and biographer Giovanni Baglione. Miffed that “the best masters who were then working were overlooked” for the commission, he wrote in 1641 that Fontana had “become confused” by the large scale of the figures required and implied that she would have done better to stick to portraits, “for which her talent suited her” (92). Working small—whether on ivory, parchment, copper, or panel, sometimes with oil or tempera or gouache or pastel—allowed women to establish their own specialized niches through which they might garner a living and even international fame.
Barker’s essay outlines the various restrictions that women faced in their training and their professional affiliations but argues that these limitations also opened alternative paths to artistic production and success. Some artists such as Gentileschi and Fontana did indeed set up professional workshops and managed to operate within the systems of guilds and patronage alongside male artists of their time. However, the exhibition also showcases artists who followed other paths, like Orsola Maddalena Caccia, who worked within a monastery, or Sofonisba Anguisola, who spent several years as a courtier in Spain. These arrangements often resulted in works that have not generally been valued by either art historians or the contemporary art market, as highly as large history paintings or fresco cycles—that is to say, portraits, miniatures, still lifes, prints of lace patterns. Indeed, this exhibition challenges us to recalibrate our criteria of value and accomplishment in early modern art and to broaden our critical scope beyond large-scale history paintings, notwithstanding Gentileschi’s exceptional paintings that form the core of this exhibition.
At the Wadsworth, the exhibition was organized into six themes within a single large room. Self-portraits were featured in one area while other sections focused on “Miracles of Nature” and “Alternative Avenues into the Arts.” The central portion of the gallery offered up depictions of “The Female Hero,” with another smaller niche dedicated to domestic genre scenes, including portraits and still lifes. Tucked in one corner was a small group of devotional paintings, including a surprising (to this reviewer) Holy Family with Saints Anne and John the Baptist (1592), a late work by Sofonisba, who is generally best known for her portraits and self-portraits. Artists like Sofonisba and Elisabetta Sirani were represented in several sections of the exhibition, but given its thematic layout, the show allowed the several works by these better-known artists to hang companionably among those of less familiar artists, many of whom were represented by just a single work.
While the smaller-scale ivories, drawings, prints, and small- and medium-scale paintings were granted more intimate spaces on the side walls and corner niches, the undeniable backbone of the exhibition was indeed Gentileschi’s monumental paintings. In a bit of a coup, especially in COVID times, the show opened with three self-portraits by Gentileschi, one in which she presented herself as a lute player (a painting acquired by the Wadsworth in 2007) and two as Saint Catherine, one from the Uffizi in Florence and the other the recently discovered work purchased by the National Gallery in London in 2017. A media room off the main exhibition space explored the recent X-radiographic evaluations of these three paintings, clearly demonstrating their shared compositional source and helping to date them all to ca. 1615–17, during Gentileschi’s prolific early years in Florence. It was a rare opportunity indeed to study these three works side by side. On the opposite side of this opening wall in the central open space of the exhibition hung Gentileschi’s massive David and Bathsheba (ca. 1636–37) from much later in her career, facing the likewise large-scale Lot and His Daughters (1636–38) from around the same period. The central space also included the Detroit Institute of Art’s Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1623–25), one of most exceptional of the several versions of this subject that Gentileschi painted. Nearby hung her Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (ca. 1620–25), another recent rediscovery that has never before been displayed in the United States. In number of works, placement, and sheer scale, Gentileschi deservedly anchored the exhibition.
That said, revelations abound along the edges. The three meticulous still lifes by Giovanni Garzoni might just have stolen the show. These small works showcased her extraordinary powers of observation and her unique, careful technique of applying tempera to parchment and using stippling to create textural variations in her grounds—her depiction of a hedgehog with a snail and a couple of chestnuts is pure delight. The four pastels by Rosalba Carriera of allegorical figures from the 1720s, two of which were late additions to the show, demonstrated the artist’s capacity for unusual iconographic combinations alongside her consummate skill with a temperamental medium, for which she was internationally renowned. There was an extraordinary album of intimate chalk portrait studies by Fontana, all nineteen pages of which have been digitized and could be scrolled through on a small monitor in the media room. Sofonisba’s enigmatic palm-sized self-portrait medallion boggled the mind with its exquisite delineation of the artist’s delicate features, as did Carriera’s genre-blending miniatures painted with gouache and watercolor on ivory.
One minor disappointment: two women artists, Virginia da Vezzo and Maria Felice Tibaldi, were represented in the exhibition only through portraits of them painted by their husbands, works by their own hands being unavailable for the exhibition. While I understand the desire to somehow include them here, it does distract from the overarching theme of the show and seems a bit of a cheat. Portrayed in the guise of a sexy Magdalene and an elegant socialite, respectively, these portraits tend to obscure rather than highlight the sitters’ identities as artists themselves.
With the exhibition’s move to Detroit, some highlights from the Hartford show did not travel while a handful of new works were added—I am particularly sorry to miss Caterina de Julianis’s multimedia wax sculpture of the Penitent Magdalene and Fontana’s portrait of the haughty widow Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani. Both iterations of the exhibition, however, bear testament to the ingenuity, creativity, and perseverance of early-modern Italian women artists. Here is hoping that one day, as Ann Sutherland Harris hoped thirty-five years ago, the contributions of these and so many other women artists will no longer require such a showcase.
Associate Professor, Art History Department, Hartford Art School, University of Hartford