Renaissance Dames

Posted by on January 22, 2019 in Art, Blog, Dame designate, Exhibition, History, Women's equality issues | 6 comments

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael are household names today but few have ever heard of Lavinia Fontana or Sofinisba Anguissola, who was highly admired by arguably the greatest artist of the Renaissance, Michelangelo himself. How were these ladies able to make a living in an essentially male-dominated industry, and why have they fallen into obscurity today? How were women depicted in paintings and sculptures of the period and what does this tell us about their place in society? And how independent were women when it came to commissioning works of art? To find out more, Dames Verity and Barbara drove boldly forth to leafy Surrey, to listen and learn from academic Sian Walters giving an excellent talk about women and art from 1400-1650.

Paintings that included women tended to focus on religious topics and piety with depictions of women as wives and mothers, frequently referring back to images linking with the Virgin Mary. Such images reinforced the social control of women’s behaviour.

As the 1400s drew to a close, the ‘autonomous woman’ began to be depicted in paintings, featuring portraits of individual women.  They were usually naked and featured reclining in a languorous or coquettish way. These pictures tended to be commissioned by wealthy men for their collections to be hung in their private apartments, and the subjects were often their mistresses or other women in their circle.

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait

Women who were able to buy art in their own right tended to be drawn from one of three groups. The Church had significant funds, and abbesses and other senior nuns ordered and paid for religious paintings to adorn their chapels and private rooms.  Widows of wealthy men often found themselves inheriting a considerable fortune, and they were able to commission portraits of themselves and their families, or religious-themed paintings that would serve to demonstrate their piety and devotion. There were also women who were wealthy in their own right, and they too built up collections of paintings whose content they were able to manage.

But what about the women artists themselves? Bearing in mind that less than 0.5% of the paintings in the National Gallery in London are by women, what were the chances of a female artist’s work being acknowledged during the Renaissance?  The facts make uncomfortable reading; most women artists of the period came from artistic families.  In some of the more enlightened households, fathers or brothers of talented young woman encouraged them to draw and paint. Some fathers engaged external tutors to help them, or they would have their daughters helping in their own studios. 

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel

In general, however, the works these women created were nearly always overshadowed by their male counterparts’ oeuvres, or even worse, attributed to them. Lavinia Fontana is one such example; Damesnet has already paid tribute to her in Dame Verity’s blog Three Dames of Bologna. Her ‘Portrait of a Lady with a Dog’ hangs in Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand. When the gallery purchased it in the 1950s, it was attributed to Guido Reni (as other paintings of hers had been) , as it was deemed by the expert carrying out the authentication to be too good to be painted by a woman.  Fortunately it has now been correctly attributed.

Artemisia Gentileschi survived rape by her ‘tutor’ Agostino Tassi and torture by thumbscrew intended to retract her accusations during his trial. She went on to become one of the most accomplished painters in the generation following Caravaggio.

It was common for buyers and dealers to assign paintings by women to male artists so as to increase their value. Judith Leyster’s entire oeuvre was attributed to Franz Hals or to her husband until 1893, when a discovery of a small but distinctive monogram that she left on her pictures started the process of reassigning her paintings to the correct artist.

Marietta Robusti was the eldest daughter of Tintoretto; she was highly talented and was invited to come and paint at the Spanish court. Her father refused and kept her in her studio to work alongside him; her artistic achievements were attributed to him, and after her death the decline in Tintoretto’s work was ascribed to his grief for his daughter, rather than the loss of such an able assistant.

To end on a more optimistic note, Sofinisba Anguissola’s artistic talents were recognised and encouraged by Michelangelo. Unlike Robusti she did get to the Spanish court and became an official court painter to Philip II. Her success paved the way for larger numbers of women to pursue careers as artists.


  1. Fascinating and very satisfying! thank you Barbara…

    • It’s a pleasure! So much to find out..

  2. What a fascinating article . The lecture sounds brilliant. Thanks again for sharing !

    • Thanks – I learned so much!

  3. I wish I’d been there. So encouraging! thank you Barbara and Verity.
    XXcynthia wild

    • Women artists forever!

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