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  • Gavin O'Donoghue

Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe

Making her Mark, exhibition, Baltimore museum of art.

In 1971, Linda Nochlin shocked the world of art history with her thought-provoking essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" She cleverly dismantled and challenged the seemingly innocent question. This question barely scratches the surface of a much larger issue. It reveals a multitude of misunderstandings and preconceived notions about art and its context, as well as societal beliefs about human skills and achievements.

Nochlin's social order theory needs to be revised. It overlooks the reasons behind great art's success. She acknowledges the centuries-old exclusion of women from studying nude figures, which is crucial for technical skills development. She must challenge the belief that only professional painters can produce exceptional art while recognizing the importance of modest amateurism in creating lasting value.

After Nochlin's essay, there was an increase in efforts to expand our understanding of women's contributions to the history of European painting. Nochlin joined forces with Ann Sutherland Harris to curate the widely attended exhibition "Women Artists: 1550–1950," which showcased 37 primarily female painters at four American museums from 1976 to '77.

Although Caravaggio is known as a groundbreaking influence in Italian art, Artemisia Gentileschi has now become the most prominent artist influenced by him. Similarly, while Édouard Manet is recognized as a critical figure in the development of modernism in 19th-century Paris, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot are seen as more significant today due to their distinctive styles that set them apart from their contemporaries. Paula Modersohn-Becker also surpasses many of her German Expressionist colleagues in terms of recognition. While Jackson Pollock remains the iconic Abstract Expressionist, Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell have gained greater appreciation than male painters who were once considered his equals, such as Franz Kline. It begs the question: Is being "great" not enough without being deemed "supremely" great?

We appreciate exceptional artists' work, reminding us of the beauty and pleasure in pursuing greatness created by those striving for fame and by humble individuals creating for pleasure.

The recent exhibition "Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400–1800" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, curated by Andaleeb Badiee Banta, Alexa Greist, and Theresa Kutasz Christensen, is named a must-see exhibition by Vogue. The show will also be at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto from March 30 to July 1. This exhibit provided a more profound understanding than the more traditional "Women Artists" exhibition by Nochlin and Harris could have offered. It delved into essential themes such as the nature of art, human abilities, and excellence, and the influence of social norms.

A discreet yet notable statement was made at the exhibition's entrance through the extensive and intricately carved frame surrounding the title and introductory text. (see top image) This impressive frame, measuring 10 feet in height and six and a half feet in width, served as the first exhibit of the show. It was created by Mary Ashfield in London circa 1671 for a judge's portrait; though the painting is no longer present, the frame remains. During this period, Ashfield was among numerous female frame-makers in London, earning £12 for her work. However, the original gilding is now missing from this piece.

Like the grand structure, numerous remarkable elements in "Making Her Mark" fall outside the traditional definition of art but are still crafted by highly skilled professionals. The exhibition features a collection of captivating pieces, including various forms of scientific illustration, such as engravings and unique watercolors. For instance, there are works by Giovanna Garzoni, a renowned 17th-century painter from Rome, and Elizabeth Blackwell, who produced an herbal book in the 18th century using specimens from London's Chelsea Physic Garden (which remains open to this day) to pay off her husband's debts. Blackwell used her watercolor paintings to create hand-colored engravings and etchings for the publication that was released in 1739.

These botanical illustrations required precision and conveyed much information about their subjects. However, they also allowed for artistic interpretation and controlled imagination. Blackwell's work, specifically, is exquisitely delicate and brimming with vitality. One of the most remarkable examples is her depiction of yellow asphodel, displaying its long, slender, gracefully curving leaves that seem to float in some liquid medium effortlessly. A quick search online may describe this plant as having "a clump of narrow, linear, grassy, gray-green leaves up to 12 inches tall" - but how lacking in allure, that description appears when compared to Blackwell's alluring portrayal.

yellow asphodel, Elizabeth Blackwell

Another notable watercolor with a purportedly naturalistic theme is credited to Johanna Helena Herolt-Graff, a specialist in botanical illustration from Germany who lived and worked in Amsterdam before eventually settling in the Dutch colony of Surinam. Herolt-Graff's artistic training and collaborations with her mother, Maria Sibylla Merian, renowned for her depictions of caterpillars, and her sister greatly influenced her style. The Three Mice Nibbling Fruits and Nuts (ca. 1690-1710) is considered a scientific illustration but raises the question: Are the plants or the depicted animals the focal point? Neither takes center stage; instead, the act of eating itself is both destructive and sustaining. This highly realistic image almost has a hallucinatory quality, evoking both sinister and idyllic connotations reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.

Moving beyond scientific illustration are the remarkably lifelike porcelain flowers, crafted around 1748 at the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres in France by female ceramicists and painters led by Marie-Henriette Gravant. These exquisitely precise trinkets were reportedly a favorite of King Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour. As the accompanying label notes, she enjoyed "scenting them to give the illusion of a fragrant indoor garden." Though lacking this scent today, they emit a strangely surreal essence of preserved vitality.

Blackwell and Herolt-Graff were professionals with practical art, but Anna Maria Garthwaite, an 18th-century silk textile designer, showcased genteel amateurism. Her most impressive work, a 15-inch black paper silhouette of an English manor house, contrasted with her floral textile designs. This piece, created as a hobby, stands out from her other works, showcasing her unique style.

Garthwaite's silhouette embodies the flat, intricately patterned designs often found in various forms of female pastime, such as embroidery and samplers. An example of this can be seen in a 1669 work bag made by a 10-year-old with the initials I.S., showcasing impressive patience and skilled needlework. Another elaborate piece, consisting of delicate paper filigree known as quillwork, was likely also created by a dedicated amateur in the 18th century. This ornate frame measures about 11 by 14 inches and encloses a small picture (approximately 1.5 inches in diameter) of the Madonna and Child. Quillwork was considered an affordable means of embellishing items ranging from reliquaries to furniture, altarpieces, and even personal devotional objects like this one. Although it may have been inexpensive regarding materials, the time spent on it must have been priceless!

during the time covered by "Making Her Mark." Women artists were often found on the outskirts, involved in activities somewhat similar to art but not entirely within its realm - either seen as too personal, amateurish, or overly commercialized, never fully recognized as true artists.

In "Making Her Mark," long-standing art world hierarchies are reversed, aligning with Nochlin's call for equality. This exhibition succeeds despite Nochlin's inability to challenge the traditional idea of artistic confidence. It serves as a belated result of the second wave of feminism and reflects a change in our understanding of what constitutes "art." Thanks to Nochlin, Greer, and many others' efforts to uncover the silenced contributions of women, this exhibition has become possible.

The shift that occurred was partly due to the emergence of second-wave feminism. This movement sparked a deep interest in various forms of creativity, previously labeled as craft rather than art and often associated with women. Alongside this, the late 1960s saw the rise of conceptual art - a new perspective that challenged traditional notions of what is considered art. According to this viewpoint, everyday objects, informational images, and repetitions of existing imagery can hold artistic significance in certain circumstances. An example is Lorraine O'Grady's 1983 piece Art Is…, where performers turned spectators at an African American Day Parade into embodiments of art by framing them on a Harlem boulevard. This expansion in the definition of "art" allows us to recognize the artistic value of items such as china plates, lace, and other objects featured in this exhibition.

The "Making Her Mark" catalog describes its project as a search for the ordinary woman artist, in contrast to Nochlin's focus on exceptional artists. However, this approach may need to be revised. Art, in any form, cannot exist without an impulse to be unique - and this exhibition proves just that. Whether within the highest echelons of European society or among a small group of close friends, individuals strive to achieve distinction. Yet, as history has shown us, time has a way of leveling these differences. So, let us hope that the leveling continues.

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