From the middle ages all the way until the nineteenth century, women were primarily seen as inferior to men. Women were barred from the public scene. They were objectified, and were made to serve men. All in all, women were to be put in the household with a man, because their lack of skills held no place in public areas such as commerce or work. As time moved forward, women were put in stricter gender roles, and pushed away from the public sphere.
|Fifth vision of Scivias,|
by Hildegard Von
In the middle ages, the Christian church was the dominant force in society. The church organized “communication and culture, as well as religion and education” (Chadwick 43). In educating its citizens, the church propagated the “natural inferiority of women” (Chadwick 44); women were expected to either marry a man, devoting her entire life to her family (e.g. procreating), or to devote her life to God in a convent. In the former, men became the caretakers of women; men would go into the public world to work and provide for the family, whereas women had no basic rights, unless the husband was away at war (in which case women were granted some “economic power”) (Chadwick 47). In the latter, however, women were free from male subservience, and allowed many rights not available to women who decided to marry; she could farm, operate businesses, compose and perform music, and be educated. Because of the widely held belief that women were inferior, women had to turn to mysticism instead of the intellectual life. Hildegard von Bingen, a female artist from Germany, made many illuminated transcripts. She turned to mysticism, and appealed to the church as a “passive vessel” that God was acting through (Chadwick 59).Important to note about the middle ages is that all art was commissioned by the church; as such, the artwork made was not only very religious, but names were not necessarily attached to the artwork. An example of this is The Beatus Apocalypse of Gerona, which was worked by both male and female monasteries. In this regard, men were “as forgotten as the females” (Guerrila Girls 20).
Giovanna Tornabuoni nee Albizzi
by Domenico Ghirlandaio
In the Renaissance, the Church’s power over societies started to wane as countries became secularized, mercantile, interested in making money, and showing off their wealth. Aristocrats became the primary source of demand for artwork, and at the beginning of the Renaissance, guilds started becoming central to the public sphere in Southern Europe because of the higher demand. These guilds allowed women to join with full rights and privileges (Chadwick 68-69). However, by the end of the Renaissance, not one woman was found to be in a guild; in Southern Europe, men began removing women as professionals from the public sphere completely. Although convents still existed, and allowed for female artistry, women were assigned roles that required less skill. For example, in Florence, a demand for silk and wool caused many citizens to work in the prospective industry; however, no women were known to work in the silk industry because it was considered a highly-skilled job. The public sphere started to become a primary space for “aesthetics”; art and women were both objectified by the male “gaze” (Chadwick 74). Domenico Ghirlandaio shows this quality of men in her painting, Giovanna Tornabuoni nee Albizzi; the woman is shown to be just a décor along with the background, his initial branded on her as his. Sofinisba Anguissola also shows this quality when painting a man painting herself (Bernadino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola); she not only shows that she is aware of her position as being objectified, but that it is also widely practiced (Chadwick 78). However, women artists retaliated against the condescension experienced from males by showing female activeness. Elisabetta Sirani and Artemisia Gentileschi worked to show women as equals to men; Portia Wounding Her Thigh by Sirani shows that, regardless of the sexual nature associated with women, Portia can show that she has a strong character – she is virtuous, and is worthy of trust (Chadwick 101). Gentileschi offers Judith Decapitating Holofenes as the women being active, unafraid, and knowing what they are doing. They are not dumb inferior creatures, as men would judge them to be; they are strong and capable. However, in all of Europe, the mass female exclusion from public sphere was still prominent.
|Judith Decapitating Holofenes|
In the 17th and 18th century, women were still being moved to the private sphere. For example, one of the prerequisites of being an artist in Southern Europe was to be able to paint the male nude, which females were forbidden to do; in short, females were unable to compete with men in this regard. In France, female-hosted salons were attacked because of the roles women were playing in the public sphere. As women were moved out of the public sphere, they were encouraged to reside and do all work in the private sphere. Female needlework and embroideries was seen as “natural” to women (Chadwick 148). Similarly, paintings from the period portrayed women at home. Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun and Angelica Kauffmann were two very rare exceptions. Brun lived in a convent when she was young, and thus had the ability to learn and practice art; she was later commissioned by the French Royal Family, and painted Marie Antoinette. Angelica Kauffmann, however, had the luck to have a father as an artist, and who supported her fully; she was able to get connections and her success was mainly attributed to her "association[s]" (Chadwick 156). With the support of male artists, she was able to take on the grander themes of heroism and neoclassicism, which was dominated by men. In the North (Netherlands), female paintings of the private sphere, such as worldly possessions, were in demand. In contrast from the South, the North believed wealth was shown from the private sphere, not the public sphere, and so women artists willingly moved into the private sphere. There, artworks like Still Life and Flowers in a Vase were produced. Although Northern appreciation for the private sphere meant women and their artwork were more appreciated in the North, it also signified the same transition the South was undergoing (a movement towards the private sphere).
|The Seamstress by Anna Blunden|
|Nameless and Friendless by Emily Mary Osbourn|
Throughout the past few centuries, women were able to be accepted into the art world less and less, and they were pushed into the private sphere more and more. Men become harsher critics of women art (at least until recently), and would objectify women. This became more prominent with time; the social condition for women deteriorated as time went on.
Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. Fourth Edition. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 2007. Print.
The Guerilla Girls. The Guerilla Girls' Bedside Companion To The History of Western Art. England: Penguin Books, 1998. Print.