Culture Empowerment Stories

Resurrecting the Brush: Unveiling the Forgotten Women of Renaissance Art

The Renaissance period is probably the most celebrated in history and it is definitely the time when humanity bloomed like never before; it is renowned for its groundbreaking artistic achievements, with names like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Raphael dominating this fruitful era. In our previous article, we talked about their achievements with the focus on the women in their artworks, analyzing the women’s body ideal in the Italian Renaissance. Today, we will expand the discussion and we will talk not only about the muses and goddesses of that time, but the talented women using the brush too who have been neglected, being in the shadow of male artists.

Let’s uncover the forgotten women of Renaissance art, shedding light on their remarkable talent and exploring the societal barriers that confined them to obscurity.

Talent transcends gender boundaries.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532 – 1625)

One of the prominent women painters of the Italian Renaissance was Sofonisba Anguissola, an Italian painter from Cremona. Anguissola shattered expectations by honing her skills as an artist from an early age, encouraged by her enlightened family. She produced captivating portraits that captured the depth and personality of her subjects. Her talents drew the attention of the Spanish court, where she became a court painter to the queen, Elizabeth of Valois.

Self-portrait at the easel (1556) by Sofonisba Anguissola / Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond their aesthetic brilliance, they became a defiant critique of the Renaissance’s objectification of women.

Her art was praised even by Michelangelo and she was one of the very few women who worked with Bernardino Campi, receiving a marvelous education in fine arts. She was a pioneer for women in the field, as she worked with many local artists proving that women are not only capable, but extremely talented, so she opened the door for all women to be accepted and trained in the arts schools of the time.

In the world of portraiture, Sofonisba Anguissola’s technically sophisticated paintings shattered boundaries with a purpose. Beyond their aesthetic brilliance, they became a defiant critique of the Renaissance’s objectification of women. Nowhere is this rebellious spirit more evident than in her mesmerizing Self-Portrait with Bernardino Campi, where tradition is cleverly flipped on its head. With a mischievous stroke, Anguissola portrays her master as the humble servant, meticulously painting the ornate details of her dress — traditionally a work done by the apprentices. It’s a powerful act of artistic defiance, mocking the very conventions that sought to confine women as passive objects of beauty.

Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi (1550s) by Sofonisba Anguissola, at Pinacoteca Nazionale, Sienna, Italy

Lavinia Fontana (1552 – 1614)

Another remarkable figure was Lavinia Fontana, an Italian painter who defied gender roles and societal expectations. She gained recognition as one of the first professional female artists of her time, leaving a profound mark on the art world. Fontana excelled in portraiture, history painting, and religious themes, often depicting strong and influential women in her works.

From an early age, Fontana displayed a remarkable talent for painting, and her skills were nurtured by her artist father, Prospero Fontana, who recognized her exceptional abilities. She received a thorough artistic education, studying drawing, anatomy, and the techniques of the Renaissance masters.

Self-portrait at the Clavichord with a Servant (1577) by Lavinia Fontana, Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome

With unwavering determination, Lavinia painted her own narrative, emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the art world.

Fontana’s artistic style was characterized by a combination of technical precision and emotional depth. Her portraits were renowned for their ability to capture the unique personality and inner essence of her subjects. She paid meticulous attention to details, employing rich colors and textures to bring her paintings to life.

Lady Bianca degli Utili Maselli with five of her boys, a daughter & a dog (1604 – 1605) by Lavinia Fontana, Sotheby’s

One of Fontana’s most notable achievements was her successful career as a portraitist. She received numerous prestigious commissions from aristocratic and noble patrons, including members of the papal court. Not only that she was capable to make a living entirely from her work, but she supported all her family as well. She was the first female artist from the Western Europe who lived on her commissions and her husband was the one who raised her children and acted as her agent as well, which was truly controversial in those times. Now we are talking about women’s empowerment! She nailed it! Her ability to capture the likeness and character of her subjects with great sensitivity and realism made her highly sought after.

In addition to portraiture, Fontana also demonstrated her prowess in history painting. She created ambitious works that tackled grand narratives and mythological themes. Her compositions were carefully crafted, displaying a deep understanding of classical art and a mastery of complex storytelling.

Portrait of a family (1598) by Lavinia Fontana, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Amidst the restrictive tapestry of Renaissance society, Lavinia Fontana wove her own vibrant masterpiece. In an era where women faced formidable barriers to pursuing artistic careers, Fontana brushed aside societal expectations that relegated them to the sidelines. With unwavering determination, she painted her own narrative, emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the art world. Fontana’s trailblazing contributions to Renaissance art boldly declare that talent knows no gender, it transcends gender, forever altering the artistic landscape and reminding us of the powerful legacy women have woven throughout history.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1653)

The Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi was probably the most prominent female artist of that time, starting her career at only 15 years old. She is known for her captivating Renaissance masterpieces portraying women and stands tall as one of the most accomplished artists of the 17th century, emerging from the generation that succeeded Caravaggio. Her art, imbued with striking beauty and profound emotion, solidifies her position as a visionary in her own right. Her dynamic artworks are so unique and shattered boundaries never before breached by a female artist. She was the first woman to paint in that style with courage and life, daring to be different and groundbreaking. In fact, she was the first female artist to become a member of the renowned Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.

Self-portrait as Maria Magdalena (1617 – 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia emerged as the architect of her own image, crafting her narrative and becoming the unsung hero of her own extraordinary life.

When she was 19 years old, she was sexually assaulted and it is believed that this brutal event in her life made her to paint with such strength and rage afterwards, depicting both powerful and vulnerable women, both strength and suffering merged in her one-of-a-kind paintings. Of course that some critics and scholars considered that she couldn’t have painted such artworks with incredible maturity and intelligence, being way ahead of her male colleagues. But, she proved them all wrong becoming a successful female artist in a time when access to women was denied.

Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612 – 1613) by Artemisia Gentileschi, Museo Capodimonte, Naples, Italy

With a paintbrush as her weapon and the canvas as her battleground, Gentileschi fearlessly confronted the male brutality that dictated the world around her. In this defiant act, she emerged as the architect of her own image, crafting her narrative and becoming the unsung hero of her own extraordinary life.

Their Legacy

While these powerful female artists are now gaining recognition, their achievements were largely disregarded during their lifetimes. Society’s patriarchal structures relegated them to the margins, dismissing their artistic accomplishments as mere hobbies or unworthy of serious consideration. Their works were often attributed to male artists or simply forgotten, erasing their contributions from the annals of art history.

The exclusion of women from the Renaissance art narrative is a disservice not only to their individual legacies but also to the richness and diversity of artistic expression. The absence of their voices has skewed our understanding of the period, perpetuating a male-centric view of the Renaissance that fails to reflect the full spectrum of artistic talent and perspectives.

A glimmer of hope shines through as we witness the rectification of a historical oversight. Scholars and curators are delving deep, unearthing hidden treasures and finally attributing long-overlooked works to the talented female artists of the Renaissance. Exhibitions and publications solely dedicated to showcasing the forgotten women of that era now offer a much-needed platform for their voices to resound and be embraced.

In celebrating the triumphs of these extraordinary women, we not only rewrite history to be more accurate and inclusive, but we also send a powerful reminder that talent transcends gender boundaries. Their remarkable contributions serve as a testament to the indomitable human spirit and the ability of creative brilliance to flourish even in the face of formidable obstacles.

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