Name five historical female artists, asked a national museum recently. For most people the names don’t trip off the tongue like those of Rembrandt or Da Vinci, Van Gogh or Picasso. Though women have a long history as artists, their contributions to the arts were shaped by the society and culture of their time. In addition, their reputations as artists were subject to the caprices of later interpretations of art history.
The Women of Genius series’ of drawings focus on self-portraits by female artists: women looking at themselves and depicting themselves as they choose. Their gaze confronts us — honest, scrutinising, it challenges traditional portraiture of women as possessions; wives, mistresses and marriage objects. These artists faced huge challenges in their lifetimes, but despite this, many rose to prominence, supporting their families with their work, painting royalty and winning prestigious commissions. However, their legacy has frequently not been respected – the work of these women has been lost, damaged, reattributed to the boys or just forgotten. For some, almost nothing is known, only a name and a face in the archives. This challenges how we interpret the past if what we see is always incomplete.
This exhibition was originally a collaboration between the artist Vicki Cooke and Maidstone Museum. It set out to explore a new facet of the museum collection, as well as highlight the historical achievements of women in the arts by showing rarely seen artworks that have been hidden away in museum storehouses alongside work about women artists by Cooke. She also made a further series of works especially for this exhibition which took as inspiration the craft objects from the museum collection made by women.
For most women wanting a professional career in art, access to training and materials was one of the main obstacles. For this reason, many early female artists were the sisters, wives or daughters of artists, giving them precious access to these resources. However, it then becomes difficult to distinguish between works of individual family members and identify those made by the women. One of the reasons that there are so few works positively attributed to Marietta Robusti is that her work was subsumed into that produced by the studio of her more famous father, Tintoretto.
Women of the time were not expected to have professional careers, so many were forced to give up their practice upon marriage. Anna Dorothea Therbusch only resumed painting after the death of her husband and although Margaret Hazlitt showed early promise as an artist and writer, she was not offered the same training as that given to her brothers and stayed at home to care for her parents. Those who managed to overcome this often had husbands who were supportive and ran the family home, but family and domestic scenes often still featured strongly as subject matter.
Family Gallery: click on an image below to view this section as a slide show.
The Feminine Touch
“Male genius has nothing to fear from female taste. Let men conceive the monumental sculpture and the most elevated forms of painting [and] all that has to do with great art. Let women occupy themselves with those types of art which they have always preferred such as pastels, portraits, miniatures…or the painting of flowers” Legrange, 1860
There was a prevailing attitude up until the 20th century that women did not have the strength, or the ‘spark of genius’ to be great artists and that there was something essentially feminine about the work of women. Stereotypes and boundaries were set for women artists, either through media and subject matter or though access to instruction. Even when women transcended these boundaries, the art establishment sought to find ways to reduce the works to something separate from the male art sphere. Works by some of the artists here were bought by museums and collectors as that of their more famous male contemporaries. When the mistakes came to light in the 1950s and 60s, the works were reappraised as clearly displaying the “weakness of the feminine hand.”
Restrictions in travelling and working outside of the home in professional studios meant that women often specialised in portraiture and flower painting which could be done in the family home. Others specialised in media such as watercolour and pastels. These were more accessible and required less rigorous training than oils, but were seen as lesser pursuits by the art establishment of the time.
In addition, until the late 19th century it was thought inappropriate for women to view nude male life models. This restricted women’s ability to gain the most lucrative commissions of oil paintings and sculptures of historical subjects, which tended to feature the male figure. Lavinia Fontana was the first artist to challenge this, though critics noted that her works “…do not have the excellence and valour found in such things by great men, because they are after all by a woman who has left all that is suited to her hands and fingers”
The works from the museum collection in this section have been chosen to reflect the subject matter and media that women were steered towards.
The Feminine Touch Gallery: click on an image below to view this section as a slide show.
Before the 1500s, crafts such as tapestry and embroidery were carried out in similar studio arrangements as those for painting and sculpture, with collective effort used to produce works of art. The Italian Renaissance promoted the idea that painting or sculpture was the work of a solo genius, rather than an artisan product, so over time, craft skills were demoted. Eventually, these crafts became associated with female production and denigrated as mere mechanical work, requiring diligence and patience but not the ‘spark of genius’ required for great art.
It was thought appropriate for daughters of the middle and upper classes to learn these skills to make them ‘accomplished’ ladies, so handcrafts such as paper-cutting, needlework and pin-prick pictures were practiced as amateur pursuits, alongside singing and music. The Maidstone Museum collection has many examples of these works, some of which are displayed here.
There were some women who elevated these various crafts to new heights, making an art out of them – perhaps even putting the spark of genius into them. These have been depicted here in a series of portraits using a technique of pricking holes in paper, a brief enthusiasm for which existed in the late 1700s.
Fabricators Gallery: click on an image below to view this section as a slide show.
Women’s artworks and reputations as artists have often not survived intact. Sometimes the provenance has been forgotten; sometimes the works have been attributed to male contemporaries, or become lost in family-run studios.
Due to the relatively low monetary value placed on women’s work, there is little financial incentive to conserve, restore or track down their paintings, especially if a piece has been passed off as that of a higher earning artist. For some, only a self-portrait survives in an archive with not even a name attached.
Piecing together the past can be a difficult task when often, so little biographical information is available. For example, the artist Jane Day was clearly an accomplished portraitist who won commissions of Maidstone dignitaries, yet we know very little else about her.
Many women who were very successful in their lifetimes became invisible for the majority of 20th century art history. This leads to the question of what will survive from our era. In a hundred years’ time, which names from our time will have been written about in the history books, who will be fetching higher prices at auction and who will have their work in prestigious collections?
Percentage of Female Turner Prize winners – 19%
Work by women in the Tate Modern – 17%
No. of women artists in contemporary art top 100 sellers list – 3
Women artists in the top 100 sellers at Sotheby’s – 0
Fragments Gallery: click on an image below to view this section as a slide show.
Vicki Cooke is an artist currently based in London. Upon completing a BA in Fine Art at Oxford Brookes University, Cooke became interested in direct artistic intervention into the public realm and took to street art, leaving a trail of paint through Europe. It wasn’t until 2009 that she resumed studio practice and began to draw with enthusiasm.
For the past 6 years she has been working on the ‘Woman of Genius’ project. Taking inspiration from the lives of women artists throughout history, she has produced a series of work inspired by their stories.
She has been a regular participator in group exhibitions and open studios both in London and the Midlands and has now had her first solo show in conjunction with Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery in March/April 2016.
After completion of an MSc in biological science, she is currently investigating and making work about the women who have participated in the sciences.
Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery
Maidstone Museum is home to a vast collection of fine art and historical artefacts of international importance and is free to all visitors. Founded in 1858 as the Charles Museum – after local Doctor Thomas Charles bequeathed his art and antiquities to the Borough Council in 1855 – the museum is housed in Chillington Manor, a charming Elizabethan Mansion in Maidstone town centre.
With over 600,000 artefacts, Maidstone Museum enjoys the prestige of possessing one of the largest collections in Kent, and is renonwed as being one of the best museums in the South East. Among the most auspicious collections at the museum are those relating to Archaeology, Costume, Ancient Egypt, Ethnography, Biology, Fine Art, Geology, Local History, and Japanese Decorative Arts and Prints.
Within Maidstone Museum is the Bentlif Art Gallery, an extensive collection of watercolour and oil paintings donated by the Bentlif brothers. In addition, the renonwed Queens Own Royal West Kent Regimental Museum is located on the premises, proudly documenting the history of the QORWK and its predecessors since the mid-18th century.