Yesterday my cousin was in town from New York and I decided to take her to the National Gallery of Art. We walked in exactly when a highlights tour was about to start. How could we pass up a free tour by a highly qualified docent?
Half way through the tour I noticed that we had not seen a single painting by a woman artist. Lots of the paintings we viewed were of women since lots of the works painted during the Italian Renaissance were of the Madonna and Child. Of course, Raphael’s Alba Madonna was highlighted, as was Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci. As we listened to a lecture on Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, I decided to look at the glossy brochure in my hand pointing out the museum highlights (pdf version here.) I scanned the pictures of the twelve paintings and their descriptions, and then read the names of the artists. To my surprise, and I am not sure why I was surprised, not a single painting on the museum’s highlights tour was painted by a woman. I pointed this out to our guide, a woman, and she said that was unfortunate, but really didn’t seem that upset.
I looked around and noticed the museum was teeming with students. My cousin commented that she wanted to bring her granddaughter, a budding artist, to the museum. But what message would she and the hundreds of girls I saw wandering the halls of the National Gallery of Art take from the experience? Women make great subjects but are lousy painters. What other message is there?
Perhaps a letter to museum is in order.
Unfortunately, for the time period of that exhibit, this is not uncommon. If there were women who were allowed to paint then, they were not celebrated as the male artists were, nor were they sponsored by the wealthy, and they did not become famous. In fact, some women artists worked for male artists and their works were sold under the male artist’s names, so we will never know who so many of them were. Its sad, and I understand why the National Gallery has mainly male artists featured from that time period. The women’s work, what little of it there was either was not appreciated enough to survive, or was under a male name. However, that being said, I would appreciate it if organizations like the National Gallery would tell that part of the story, too.
America’s own Wallace Nutting is a prime example of this – many of his hand colored photos were taken by him but hand colored by his female employees and then sold. He made the majority of the money from the sales, and it is his name that is famous, not the women who worked for him.
Those are the stories that should be told.
In fact, here’s a little known story about a Pennsylvania woman – Violet Oakley – who painted some of the famous murals inside of the Capital building in Harrisburg – a building where the all male legislature was elected by an all male vote when she was hired to paint there in 1902. Women didn’t get the vote until 1920. She was allowed to paint there, but not to vote for the people who worked there. Ironic, isn’t it?