Opening this Week: Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age

Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age presents paintings and prints by eight successful artists in the Netherlands during the 17th and early 18th centuries—a period of unprecedented economic growth. Works are drawn primarily from NMWA’s collection, with key loans that illuminate the artists’ lives and careers. The exhibition highlights women who excelled as artists in this era, pushing boundaries in art and in life. On view October 11, 2019–January 5, 2020, this presentation features works by Judith Leyster, Maria Sibylla Merian, Clara Peeters, Rachel Ruysch, and more.

A dark still life oil painting that shows a bowl of dead fish and a plate of shrimp and clams, along with a cat with his paws on one of the dead fish.

Clara Peeters, Still Life of Fish and Cat, after 1620; Oil on panel, 13 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

The Netherlands experienced unprecedented economic growth from the late 16th century through the first quarter of the 18th century. A rising middle class of wealthy merchants fueled demand for paintings and prints of still-lifes, portraits, and scenes of everyday life. By some estimates, there was one painter for every 2,000–3,000 inhabitants, a ratio exceeding that of Italy during the same period. While this era has been widely documented and studied, the many women artists who were part of this thriving scene are rarely included in museum exhibitions.

In fact, to date, there has never been an exhibition devoted to the Dutch and Flemish women artists of the Golden Age. This is remarkable given the sheer scale of artistic production in the Netherlands during this period. Women artists thrived in this environment. Like those elsewhere in Europe, many Dutch and Flemish women were born into families of artists and received their training from fathers or brothers. However, some took the more traditionally “masculine” route of apprenticing with a recognized master and joining artistic guilds. Considering a group of these women together offers an opportunity to upend common assumptions and uncover surprising connections.

An engraved self portrait in black and white of Anna Maria van Schurman, she wears typical dress of the 1600s and looks to the left.

Anna Maria van Schurman, Self-Portrait, 1640; Engraving on paper, 8 1/2 x 6 3/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Featured artists include:

Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), one of the most successful artists of this period, who is regarded as the greatest floral still-life painter of the Golden Age. Her prestigious career lasted a remarkable 70 years, and she sold work to an international circle of patrons.

Judith Leyster (1609–1660), one of the first women admitted to the painter’s guild in Haarlem, where she also took on her own students. A recently rediscovered self-portrait by Leyster is a highlight of the exhibition—it is on public view in the U.S. for the first time.

Clara Peeters (1594–1657?), a pioneer of still-life painting and the only Flemish woman known to have specialized in the genre as early as the first decade of the 17th century. Peeters was the artist who inspired NMWA founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay to begin collecting work by women artists.

Considered individually, the stories of the women represented in this exhibition reveal that there was not just one path to becoming an artist, nor was there only one model for success. Through a wider view encompassing each artist’s individual struggles and triumphs, a clearer and more nuanced picture of women artists during the Dutch Golden Age comes into focus.

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.