Against Otherness: Women in Renaissance Art

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Products aimed at women often attempt to capture women’s buying power by emphasizing how “special” it is to be female; companies offer beauty products, yogurt, even a special pen “just for women” with a slender grip and pastel packaging. This marketing strategy reflects an age-old division of the sexes, one especially apparent in the world of art, where women are the muses, rarely the creators. To this day, a female model or movie star is the norm; a female artist or director is remarked upon. When Sofia Coppola was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards in 2003, only the third woman to be nominated, discussion centered not on the merits of her movie Lost in Translation, but on whether or not she would be the first woman to win; a discussion reprised in 2010 with Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker. Women artists are treated as exceptional because too often, they are the exception.

The paucity of women artists is rooted in centuries-old beliefs about women: that they were intellectually, artistically, and morally inferior, incapable of producing great works of art and “little suited to the difficulties of painting.” Therefore, to be a woman artist in Renaissance times one had to be exceptional indeed, gifted with skill, wealth, and—more often than not—a painter father. Barred from the traditional apprenticeship, aspiring women artists did not enjoy the same opportunities for advancement as their male counterparts. Instead, women learned to make art from their fathers and had to rely on their own powers of observation for the rest of their training: a solitary effort, compared to the collectivism and camaraderie of a workshop model. In Sofonisba Anguissola’s Self Portrait at the Easel (1556), the artist-as-subject levels a gaze at the viewer, turning slightly so the Madonna and child she is working on is also on display, a painting within the painting. Beyond the final product, however, an interesting paradox arises. As both artist and subject, Anguissola creates an infinite loop: she painted herself looking at herself painting, an apt metaphor for the solitary, inward-looking existence of a female Renaissance artist.

Women artists during the Renaissance did not toil in complete obscurity, however, thanks to the work of the critic Georgio Vasari. Although the number of women artists during the Renaissance was comparatively small, Vasari does include discussion of a few in the second edition of his important reference work, The Lives of the Artists (1568). Vasari’s treatment of female artists has been dismissed by some modern critics, notably Germaine Greer, as patriarchal and condescending. Although Vasari includes a discussion of Sofonisba Anguissola, as well as her sister, also an artist, Greer finds that Vasari does not treat the work of the sisters “seriously.” Meg Lota Brown and Kari Boyd McBride fault Vasari in his discussion of sculptor Properzia de’ Rossi for emphasizing her beauty and domestic abilities as much as he praises her painting, in addition to portraying her as an exception among women. “The implication of all such left-handed complements, of course, is that a woman is not naturally able to excel in a man’s world. This strategy of accounting for the success of an individual at the expense of women in general was a common way of making their achievements less threatening and therefore more tolerable.” Overall, most feminist art historians have portrayed Vasari, at best, as well-meaning but patronizing; at worst, derisive and threatened.

Paola Tinigli, however, treats Vasari as more an ally than an antagonist with regards to female Renaissance artists. She points out that the mere inclusion of the then-unknown Anguissola sisters in his landmark book was a gesture towards equality, especially as he had not had the opportunity to see many of their works himself. By shedding light on the work of Sofonisba Anguissola, Vasari helped her fame grow; soon, even the Pope wanted to see one of her works. As for the sculptor de’ Rossi, he did lavish praise on her beauty, but Tinigli notes that beauty was considered “an important physical trait for a sixteenth-century artist, male or female.” As for the inclusion of several biographical details regarding de’ Rossi’s household, Tinigli argues that Vasari was attempting to create a narrative lush with details, which would cause readers to become invested in the artist herself. Tinigli’s sympathetic interpretation of Vasari shows him far from being a jealous critic unwilling to offer women an opportunity for success, and instead paints him as a genuine appreciator of art in all forms, helping unknowns to become established in the art world, male or female.

If Tinigli has a complaint, it is with writers like Greer, whose polemics divide instead of unifying. Greer, like many feminist art critics of her time, saw women’s voices marginalized and pushed to the side throughout history, and sets out to even the score in works such as 1979’s The Obstacle Race. However, through drawing in excessive biographical studies and bemoaning the inherent disparity in the art world, Tinigli argues that the works themselves become occluded: “The tales of these thwarted lives take precedence in Greer’s book over analysis of the actual works.” Tinigli advocates instead a historically-based approach to interpreting women artists of the Renaissance and the reception to their work. For Tinigli, the one-sided picture of feminist scholarship does not adequately represent women’s contributions to artistic expression and only marginalizes them further.

For scholars such as Tinigli, treating women as “other,” for good or bad, is unacceptable and short-sighted. These scholars recognize it is impossible to separate an artist from the time period in which he or she works, while insisting that the work must take precedence. This, then, is the ultimate form of equality: to shed light on historically underrepresented artists through careful analysis of their work, not their biographical details. The focus must shift from a discussion of exceptional people to a discussion of exceptional art. However, in a society that is still obsessed with things like marketing yogurt to women for their “special” digestive needs—and a culture in which consumers buy such things—the stigma of “otherness” is not simply wiped away.

Bibliography

Anguissola, Sofonisba Self Portrait at the Easel, 1556. Oil on canvas. 66 x 57 cm, Muzeum-Zamek, Lancut.

Brown, Meg Lota and Kari Boyd McBride. Women's Roles in the Renaissance. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Tinigli, Paola. ”Women and Art During the Renaissance." In Critical Perspectives on Art History, ed. John C. McEnroe and Deborah Frances Pokinski. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002.

Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists (1568). Translated by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.