The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC
The Alba Madonna by Raphael.

The Alba Madonna by Raphael.

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?

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