In The Story of Women and Art, Amanda Vickery asks why there are so few women on view in public galleries. In this article for the Guardian, Vickery asks why we should even ask the question.
Is art male? Most institutions would have us think so. The disparities are startling. In 1989 the feminist Guerrilla Girls discovered that fewer than 5% of the modern works in the Metropolitan Museum in New York were by women, but 85% of the nudes were female. It is usually possible to see works by one or two women in an entire museum, but you could spend hours looking.
So why is that? Vickery concludes that it wasn't because women didn't make art. They did. They worked in family workshops, they contributed to the production of paintings and sculptures despite horrendous prejudice. Some joined societies where the rules were reinvented to keep them out. There were double binds where if you wanted to be a serious artist then you had to portray the body, the male body in particular. But no respectable woman would be allowed to draw a live nude male model. So damned if you did, damned if you didn't.
But the best part of the series was when Vickery honed in on great key artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi. That's her picture of Susanna and the Elders at the top. Vickery says:
Gentileschi could match the men of counter-reformation art, but chose to dramatise the struggles of women. She depicted the same heroines, even repeating the scenes of her father Orazio, but she charged hers with a pungent critique of male possession of women. The violence of voyeurism is palpable in her Susanna and the Elders (1610), when the cowering woman is victim to the lecherous gaze of two old men. They will accuse her of the capital crime of adultery unless she agrees to sleep with them. Her strong twisting body is displayed, but her horror is uppermost, and her arms are raised in resistance. "What are YOU looking at?"
So women brought a different perspective to art then. There was and has always been a counterpart to the male gaze and the essential voyeurism of art. But if you don't see it, then you are not going to be aware of it. Visibility, Vickery argues, is everything.
The idea is also exemplified by another Gentileschi painting, this time of Judith Beheading Holofernes. But here Gentileschi portrays herself as the Judith figure on the right and Holofernes is Agostino Tassi, an artist who was convicted of raping Gentileschi ( and he was sentenced to 2 years imprisonment with time off for something or other...).
A quieter, more domestic, but equally cutting perspective is shown in The Proposition by Judith Leyster. The embarrassment, humiliation and anger is right there in the woman's red cheeks, shining forehead and downcast eyes.
I think my favourite example of a different perspective was The Gozzadini Family by Lavinia Fontana, shown below. Here the story revolves around the inheritance that will be given to the daughter who provides the first male heir to the family fortune.
Fontana's patron was Laudomia, the woman on the right. She failed to provide that heir and so missed out on that family fortune. What's more she was blamed by her husband for this misfortune. She confided the the story to Fontana, who inserted the narrative into the painting through the two pendants the women are wearing.
On the pendant of Ginevra, the sister of the left who received the inheritance, a man is shown with an erect penis. In Laudomia's pendant, however, the man's penis is a sad, flaccid thing. And that's how a family history gets told 400 years after the fact. Revenge, a dish best served cold!