Old Masters: Overlooked Women Artists

| January 25, 2002 Issue

T he term "old master" doesn't have to be limited to male artists of centuries past. In Gadfly Online, Joan Altabe directs our attention to the often overlooked women of long ago who endured personal and professional persecution to become what they truly wanted to be: artists.

Male historians and artists of the past have painted a picture of women as incapable of artistic expression or spiritual insight. In Women and Art, Karl Scheffler said, "In an Amazonian state, there would be neither culture, history nor art." But modern-day historians, even female historians, have done women artists of old a similar disservice simply by ignoring them.

Becoming a serious and respected artist in the 17th, or even the early 20th century, was no small task for a woman. Until well into the 20th century, women weren't allowed to use nude models or draw from life, and they weren't even permitted to attend art schools that offered life-drawing. As late as 1910, sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington had her first-place prize revoked upon the judges' discovery that she was female. Personal attacks abounded as well. Seventeenth-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi accused her art teacher of raping her and was tortured with thumbscrews to ensure her honesty.

Amazingly, women artists flourished in the face of such difficulties, though most were limited to portraits and still lifes. Seventeenth-century artists Louise Moillon and Judith Leyster were both inducted into all-male painters guilds. Nineteenth-century painters Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser founded the British Royal Academy, attended by such great artists as William Blake and Joshua Reynolds. Joan Altabe asks us not to forget these women, whose drive to express their artistic ability should classify them as old masters as well.
--Lila Kitaeff
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