By Lyra Kilston, Judith Barr, Elizabeth Morrison, and Emily Beeny
“What if Picasso had been born a girl?” asked art historian Linda Nochlin in 1971. Would her talent have been cultivated the same way by her art-teacher father? Would she have been allowed entry into Spain’s exclusive art academies and celebrated as a prodigy?
Provocative questions like these were posed in Nochlin’s famous essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Its publication in ArtNews magazine was a watershed moment in the emerging field of feminist art history; it was later characterized as “the first and fiercest blow against the white male canon.” In it, Nochlin introduced a new way to look at the history of Western art and its glaring lack of women before the 20th century. It wasn’t an absence of talent, ambition, or “genius.” It was the impossibility for women artists to even participate in the necessary channels, from attending the nude life drawing sessions that were an essential part of art training, to holding apprenticeships, to accessing private studio space.
This scarcity of female participation is obvious in the Getty Museum’s galleries of European art from antiquity to the 19th century, with the exception of a very few outliers. In the spirit of Nochlin’s pioneering article, three curators—Judith Barr (antiquities), Elizabeth Morrison (medieval manuscripts), and Emily Beeny (drawings)—discuss the role women artists played, or rather, were allowed to play, in their areas of expertise.
The Unnamed Women Artists and Artisans of the Ancient Mediterranean
By Judith Barr
The vast majority of ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan artifacts were made by artists and artisans whose identities are lost to us today. Many types of artworks, like Greek vases, in turn, represent the work of many hands from within the workshop: from preparing the clay to throwing the pot to painting it with slip, and finally to firing it. In other words, the authorship of ancient works of art is no less complicated than many of their modern counterparts. That’s not to say that we don’t have signed works of art from the ancient world, because we do, and certainly, literary sources provide abundant testimony about the works of famous ancient male artists. But literary sources and dedications also suggest that while rare, women were also artists. A water jar, now in a private collection in Milan, even shows a woman at work decorating the handle of a volute krater, a familiar shape in the Getty’s antiquities collection. And while we have few surviving examples of fragile ancient textiles, which would have been spun and woven by women in their homes, we can see these fabrics, with their intricate designs and folds, decorating figures on contemporaneous Greek vases.
New research also suggests avenues for understanding the role of women in artistic production during the Early Iron Age. How many women were part of workshop teams in pottery and metal-working studios, or involved in supporting family businesses? Archaeology and art history may never be able to fully answer that question. But the invisibility of so many artists in the ancient world suggests to me that we shouldn’t assume the absence of women simply because their names were not recorded.
Women and Medieval Bookmaking
By Elizabeth Morrison
Women were important contributors to the book trade in medieval France, but they are often difficult to detect as individuals. We are fortunate to have in our collection a manuscript with illuminations by the Parisian artist Jeanne de Montbaston, one of the relatively few female artists who have been identified from the 14th century in France. The reason for their anonymity was that the book trade was largely a family affair, with the male head of the household swearing the necessary oath of office to the university (which controlled book production), while any female members of his family worked under his supervision.
However, around 1353, de Montbaston’s husband died (likely from bubonic plague), leaving his widow in charge. On July 21 of that year, de Montbaston took an oath as a libraire, a sort of book contractor who was responsible for every aspect of production, from acquiring the parchment, to working with the scribe and illuminator, to finding a binder. De Montbaston had already worked alongside her husband as an illuminator, but she was now raised to the position of manager of the family business. Although the accomplishments of most of her female colleagues remain anonymous, we know from examples like Jeanne de Montbaston that their contributions were significant.
An 18th-Century French Artist and Her Pastels
By Emily Beeny
Adelaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803) was a master of textures—of satin and velvet, flesh and hair—whether captured in oil paint or powdery pastel. A sumptuous surface naturalism and a keen attention to individual likeness set her portraits—most especially her portraits of women—apart from those produced by many contemporaries. She was accepted into the ranks of the French Royal Academy in 1783—an uncommon honor for female artists, bestowed in that year on both Labille-Guiard and her colleague Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842). That same year, Labille-Guiard exhibited ten small portraits in pastel and a magisterial self-portrait in oils showing her teaching two female students: a vanishingly rare depiction of professional instruction for women in this era.
Like other female artists in 18th-century Europe, she had begun her training as a painter of miniatures (tiny watercolor portraits generally executed on disks of ivory), before progressing to pastels, and finally, to oil paint. The pastel medium, however, remained central to her practice throughout her career. The importance of pastels in 18th-century women’s artmaking was in large part the result of economic factors. Working with pastels required less space and overhead than oils, which generally necessitated a team of studio assistants to grind colors, mix paints, and stretch canvases before the painter even sat down to work. The sticks of dry color and sheets of blue paper that made up a pastellist’s studio, by contrast, could fit into a box. The financial bar for entry was lower.
Over the course of the 18th century, pastel technique—like watercolor, embroidery, or the harpsichord—also came to be seen as a pursuit suitable for female amateurs, an acceptable element of genteel education, and a desirable feminine “accomplishment.” Labille-Guiard, however, was nothing if not a professional. She opened a studio of her own and there trained a whole cohort of female artists.