Art Fix Friday: December 16, 2016

NPR explores 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s status as a feminist icon.

She is a phenomenon in terms of the history of art, because we really understood her life far earlier than we cared, really, about her painting,” says Judith Mann, a curator of Rome’s exhibition Artemisia Gentileschi and Her Times.

Front-Page Femmes

NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling joined the “Why is Gender Still an Issue?” panel at Art Basel Miami.

Several artists offer free, downloadable, anti-Trump protest images.

ARTnews highlights exciting U.S.-based artists, including NO MAN’S LAND artist Jennifer Rubell.

Artist Nina Katchadourian spent two years exploring MoMA for her new “Dust Gathering” audio guide.

Wendy Red Star explores the intersections of Native American ideologies and colonialist structures.

Annette Messager employs icons of anti-patriarchal anger in her drawings, paintings, sculptures, and installations.

Greek illustrator Meni Chatzipanagiotou creates a series of woodcut vignettes of animals and mountain ranges.

In her “Back to the Future” series Irina Werning re-creates childhood photos with painstaking detail.

Marina Abramović celebrated her 70th birthday at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Andrea Fraser talks about the “growing gap between art discourse and the social and political and actual lived reality of what we’re doing.”

“It’s harder to be taken seriously as a woman,” says artist Zoë Buckman.

New York Magazine interviewed Tschabalala Self, Chloe Wise, and Ayana Evans about the “shifting balance of power at Art Basel.”

Images of Irish artist Eileen Gray and Canadian activist Viola Desmond will appear on new currency.

“There is something both disturbing and inadvertently enthralling about the doughy fleshed out pencil drawings” by Ingrid Maillard in her “Contortion” series.

The Guardian reviews Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women and writes, “The novelist’s smart essays on science and the arts bridge the gap between the disciplines, inviting us to look at the world anew.”

Hyperallergic raves about Muriel Leung’s poems in Bone Confetti.

German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker is the subject of a new film.

Shows We Want to See

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston displays more than 100 works by artist and writer Frances Stark in UH-OH.

Sonya Clark uses hair and combs to explore themes of cultural heritage, gender, beauty standards, race, and identity. Follicular: The Hair Stories of Sonya Clark at the Taubman Museum of Art includes new work and site-specific installations and performances.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hammer Museum announced a jointly-organized retrospective of Italian Arte Povera artist Marisa Merz, focusing on the artist’s half-century career.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Painting with Confidence: Early Female Self-Portraiture

Self-portraits convey more than just appearances—they affirm an artist’s identity. In the 16th and 17th centuries, women artists made portraits of themselves in their studios. Self-portraiture helped legitimize women as artists in a male-dominated profession.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Judith Leyster presented themselves with confidence—they asserted and promoted themselves in eras when society rarely deemed that appropriate for women.

Leyster’s The Concert is currently on view at NMWA, and paintings by Anguissola and Gentileschi recently appeared in Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea. By representing themselves in the traditionally male role of the confident artist, these women created places for themselves within the art world, regardless of their sex.

In Anguissola’s Self Portrait at the Easel, the artist identifies herself with the Virgin Mary on her canvas. Both are women of virtue with a reserved demeanor and simple dress. However, Anguissola’s strong gaze meets that of the viewer. She carries herself proudly as she displays her painting-within-a-painting.

Anguissola adheres to society’s expectations of depicting women modestly, yet she boldly shows that she is also an artist with talents for both portraiture and religious scenes.

Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting exemplifies her assured and dynamic painting style, even when applied to self-portraiture. In the Baroque period, allegorical figures (or people embodying abstract concepts) were generally represented as female figures. Capitalizing on this trend, Gentileschi’s painting goes a step further. She depicts herself as a symbolic representation of “painting.” Using her own likeness instead of an idealized figure, Gentileschi tests the conventions of feminine humility. In her painting, Gentileschi faces away from the viewer, absorbed in her work. Because her working canvas is out of view, nothing distracts the viewer from Gentileschi’s image.

Leyster, a successful Dutch artist, exudes self-assurance in her Self-Portrait. This is one of the few 17th-century depictions of a woman smiling. Typically, smiling or laughing in the art of Leyster’s contemporaries indicated mental instability or drunkenness. Leyster turns that stereotype on its head, along with the stereotype of the talented artist as a man. She shares the delight of the fiddler on her canvas while grinning at those who doubted her artistic ability.

These three works illustrate the ways that Western self-portraits incrementally became more confident and less demure. Pioneering women of the 16th and 17th centuries proudly painted themselves as artists, paving the way for a long tradition of female self-portraiture—from Elizabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun in the 18th century to Alice Bailly in the 20th century.

—Christy Slobogin is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Recent Acquisitions at the LRC: Spirit of Caesar, Soul of a Woman?

The next time you visit NMWA, come to the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center to see new books on women in the arts, as well as reference books, artists’ books, and more.

Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting
by Jesse M. Locker
Yale University Press, 2015

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) is perhaps the best-known female artist of the Renaissance. Her early life and works have been discussed extensively by scholars, and she is presented as an empowered woman—an evocative figure in the art historical canon. The artist once proclaimed, “You will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman.”

The cover of Jesse M. Locker's Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Paints

The cover of Jesse M. Locker’s Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting

Strangely, very little has been written about Gentileschi’s later years. Existing research predominantly frames her artistic career around the highly publicized trial that followed her alleged rape by one of her father’s studio assistants. Art historians have generally neglected to explore her success in the years afterward. Locker analyzes Gentileschi from a fresh approach in her book Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting. Instead of concentrating on the artist’s early life, Locker examines the artist’s mature years, her poetry, and her passionate love affair with Florentine nobleman Francesco Maria Maringhi.

Gentileschi’s later years were, arguably, the high point of her career. Later works such as Christ and the Samaritan Woman differ in style from her earlier creations, featuring more vivid color. Such paintings, Locker asserts, are more representative of the Gentileschi that scholars and art enthusiasts admire, and they were also better received in her lifetime.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Christ and the Samaritan Woman, 1637

Artemisia Gentileschi, Christ and the Samaritan Woman, 1637

In a noteworthy departure from other scholarly texts, Locker includes Gentileschi’s poetry. Although she had a weak grasp of grammar and spelling, Gentileschi’s poetry was well-regarded by notable literary figures, including Michelangelo. Venetian writers composed poems and letters praising Gentileschi as a figure worthy of remembrance.

Locker’s project contextualizes Gentileschi and her works and challenges prevailing assumptions about the artist’s life and personality. Her book makes considerable contributions to the field of Renaissance studies. Most importantly, it reintroduces us to an artist often pigeonholed by scholars by shining a light on obscured parts of her oeuvre, writing, and relationships with literati. With Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting, Locker presents a more complete portrait of the artist, as evocative and intriguing as ever.

You can find this book, along with other fantastic reads, on the wall display in the LRC’s reading room. If you’re touring the museum’s exhibitions, the library makes a great starting point on the fourth floor. In addition to beautiful books and comfy reading chairs, visitors enjoy interesting exhibitions that feature artists’ books, archival manuscripts, and rare books. Reference Desk staff members are always happy to answer questions and offer assistance. Open Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–noon and 1–5 p.m.

—Bianca Rawlings is an intern at the Library and Research Center. She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts degree in art history with a concentration in late Italian Renaissance and Baroque art, focusing on issues of gender, representation, and marginalization.

The Female Form through Female Eyes

Nearly 300 years apart, Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656) and French artist Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938) both used their perspectives as women to capture the power and complexity of the female form in their art. Although they had extremely different artistic educations—Gentileschi was educated in her father’s Caravaggisti studio while Valadon was a model and student to Parisian avant-garde greats—the two progressively explored the physical and emotional worlds of women in their art.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

Gentileschi and Valadon use drastically different approaches to portray the female state. Gentileschi’s Madonna and Child (1609–10), currently on view in Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea presents an intimate portrait of Mary preparing to breastfeed her infant son. Madonna and Child captures the signature power of Gentileschi’s women through Baroque color and detail. The rich turquoise and pink of Mary’s clothes, as well as the intense use of shadow in the background, create a sense of dynamic realism and naturalism. Rather than overtly sexualizing Mary and constructing her as an object for masculine desire, Gentileschi uses Mary’s partial nudity to emphasize the maternal intimacy of the scene.

Her depiction of the female body’s strength, enhanced by Mary’s large size and dominance of the composition, reveals the reality—and necessity—of women in giving and sustaining life. The use of chiaroscuro also highlights the naturalism of the moment between mother and child, revealing the nurturing and maternal sides of Mary.

Suzanne Valadon, The Abandoned Doll, 1921; Oil on canvas, 51 x 32 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Suzanne Valadon, The Abandoned Doll, 1921; Oil on canvas, 51 x 32 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Valadon also explores the physical and psychological depth of women in The Abandoned Doll (1921) part of NMWA’s collection. In this secular scene, a mother dries off her naked adolescent daughter as the girl turns toward her handheld mirror, musing over her own reflection. Through the use of thick contours, intense color, and flattened planes characteristic of Post-Impressionism and Fauvism, Valadon constructs a modern representation of female identity. The unidealized figures of the mother, child, and the doll tossed on the floor represent three distinct stages of life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Reaching puberty, the girl disregards her doll and instead focuses on her reflection.

Although the viewer’s eye is drawn to the girl’s exposed breasts, she is not objectified. Instead, other elements, such as her hair bow and the bow of the doll, play off of each other to create an atmosphere that is more about the loss of youth than sexualizing the female body. Valadon’s perspective as a woman aided in this poignant physical and psychological depiction. By having the girl stare into the mirror, Valadon hints at both the vanity of youth and the psychological interiority of women, an idea that is even more striking given the figure’s nudity. Like Gentileschi before her, Valadon transformed the female body into a tool for providing insight into women’s experiences and perspectives.

—Margie Fuchs is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 

Don’t miss your chance to visit NMWA and see Picturing Mary, on view through April 12!

Blood and Milk, Science and Culture: The Virgin as a Nursing Mother

The figure of the Virgin Mary has been used in art as an ideal woman, poetic beauty, and perfect mother. Young girls in the Italian renaissance were told to look up to the examples of the saints, particularly the Virgin, to guide their behavior. Her portrayal provides clues to the theology and culture prevalent at the time.

An example within Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea of the Virgin as exemplary mother is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Madonna and Child (1609–10), which shows the Virgin Mary with an exposed breast, nursing her son. This image reveals Renaissance ideas about the exemplary woman and the concern about nourishment and breastfeeding.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

Earlier images of the Virgin with one exposed breast may have been especially poignant in times when Florence was affected by famines and food shortages. In 14th-century Italian images, the single exposed breast of the Virgin was a frequently defined part of Mary’s body. Viewers would not see her breastfeeding as a moment of exposure, but rather as a moment of nurturing and providing.¹ Between bouts of plague and food shortages in the face of a rapidly increasing population, diet and malnutrition were a considerable concern. The health and nourishment of children, especially a male baby such as Christ, would have struck viewers as an utmost concern.

This 17th-century Gentileschi image differs from the common medieval type. The body of the Virgin is clearly formed beneath the fabric of her gown; Christ sits between her knees and her trailing gossamer hair ribbons draw even more attention to her flesh. Her bare feet connote her humility and connection to the earth. Here, Mary is a humble mother who cares for her corporeal, human son by giving him the nourishment of her body. The child’s limbs are chubby, and his pink face suggests that he is healthy, well-fed, and cared for by his attentive mother.

Even as Gentileschi was painting this image, concerns about nutrition and breastfeeding within Renaissance culture were numerous. Humanists had rediscovered the antique medical theories of the Greek physician Galen, whose beliefs about reproduction gained attention. Rather than contributing to the matter or spirit of the child (this was attributed to the father only), Galen believed that the mother’s main contribution came from the breast milk that a child consumed. Further, he believed that the breast milk was heated, purified menstrual matter, and that it contained properties that could shape the personality and physical appearance of the child. An infant’s proper consumption of milk was seen as important.

For many upper-class Renaissance families, this concern about nutrition was directed toward finding a suitable wet-nurse, as her breast milk would be ingested. No matter what, people were concerned about the baby imbibing good traits rather than monstrous ones. Gentileschi’s Mary is obviously an elite woman, from her clothing, but the fact that she’s nursing her own baby could be seen as another sign of humility.

As Christ is nursed here by his mother, he not only imbibes her good qualities and exemplary characteristics, but her humanity. The image and their interaction would remind the viewer of Christ’s sacrificial flesh, and the Virgin’s own part in his passion.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.


  1. Miles, Margaret. “The Virgin’s One Bare Breast: Nudiity, Gender, and Religious Meaning in Tuscan Early Renaissance Culture.” In The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History, by Norma and Mary D. Garrard Bourde. Westview Press, 1992.

5 Fast Facts: Artemisia Gentileschi

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (Rome, 1593–Naples? 1656), whose work is currently on view at NMWA in Picturing Mary.

1. Wunderkind
Gentileschi completed several of her best-known works, including Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino) (1609–1610) and Susanna and the Elders (1610) before her 18th birthday. Check out Madonna and Child at NMWA in Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, December 5, 2014–April 12, 2015.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

2. Baroque, not Broke
Considered the only female artist to follow the tenets of Caravaggism (after Caravaggio), Gentileschi skillfully depicted extreme contrast between light and dark in works like Judith and Holofernes. This ability to evoke drama caught the eye of wealthy patrons including King Philip II (Spain) and Charles I (England).

3. Mistaken identity
Artemisia trained and worked side-by-side with her father, Orazio, in his painting studio. Owing to their similar aesthetic and entwined professional relationship, scholars today disagree on the attributions of many works from the Gentileschi workshop.

4. In the stars
Gentileschi led a progressive life for a woman of her time by sustaining a career independent of male oversight. Finding a kindred spirit in the unconventional Galileo, she befriended the famed astronomer while living in Florence and maintained their relationship through letter-writing.

5. Wanderlust
Gentileschi lived and worked in Florence, Naples, London, and Rome. Gentileschi’s legacy lives on in these cities, all of which are home to works by her hand. Stateside, you can see her paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Columbus Museum of Art, and Detroit Institute of Arts.

—Adrienne Gayoso is associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

There’s something about Mary . . .

Tomorrow, December 5, the National Museum of Women in the Arts opens Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea. This new exhibition explores the concept of womanhood represented by the Virgin Mary—who has for centuries been viewed as an ideal figure by Christians—as well as the social and sacred functions her image has served. Visit the museum to encounter this iconic figure through more than 60 Renaissance- and Baroque-era artworks.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

How did artists represent this figure of “ideal” femininity? How did Mary’s depiction change over time? From a queenly, exalted figure in the medieval era, to a human and nurturing mother in the Renaissance, each image reflects its society and time.

These works, from the Vatican Museums, Uffizi Gallery, and other museum, church, and private collections in Europe and the United States, are presented in six thematic sections. Mary is shown as a daughter, cousin, and wife; the mother of an infant; a bereaved parent; the protagonist in a rich life story developed through the centuries; a link between heaven and earth; and an active participant in the lives of those who revere her.

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), also called Madonna of the Book (Madonna del Libro), 1480–81; Tempera and oil on wood panel, 22 7/8 × 15 5/8 in.; Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; inv. 443

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), also called Madonna of the Book (Madonna del Libro), 1480–81; Tempera and oil on wood panel, 22 7/8 × 15 5/8 in.; Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; inv. 443

This exhibition examines Mary from a historical perspective, with works by male and female artists. Paintings by Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Orsola Maddalena Caccia (an Ursuline nun who ran a bustling painting studio in northern Italy), and Elisabetta Sirani highlight women artists’ images of Mary. Their works are featured alongside treasured paintings, sculptures, and drawings by Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Pontormo, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and others.

From altarpieces to monastic houses, to intimate figures used for personal worship, Picturing Mary illuminates many facets of the familiar Madonna figure.

A different variety of Madonnas appear in NMWA’s first-ever online exhibition, A Global Icon: Mary in Context, which showcases a broader artistic landscape. As Christianity spread to new areas of the world, due to missionaries, colonialism, and many other factors, Mary’s image spread, too, reflecting a profusion of diverse aesthetic traditions.

Visit NMWA before April 12, 2015, start online, or check out the varied talks, workshops, and programs on the calendar for Picturing Mary.