Oud Holland

Review of: 'Women artists and patrons in the Netherlands, 1500-1700' (2019)

February 2020

Review of: Elizabeth Sutton (ed.), Women artists and patrons in the Netherlands, 1500-1700, Amsterdam [Amsterdam University Press] 2019

In 1990, historian Jean Gelman Taylor stated that to write women into history was "the calling of our age."1 More than 20 years later, efforts to do so have fallen short. In her 2016 study, education leadership scholar Deborah Zoe Gustman found that overall, representations of women artists accounted for only one-fifth of the total in the six leading art history textbooks in the United States, with four male artists being represented for each instance of female representation.2 A recent exhibition in MAS, in Antwerp, ‘Michaelina. Leading Lady of the Baroque’ (1 June-2 September 2018), about Rubens’ contemporary Michaelina Wautier reminds us, of the rarity of retrospectives devoted to female artists – especially early modern ones.3

In the age of #MeToo and increased awareness of women’s rights and of the significance of feminist culture, Women artists and patrons in the Netherlands, 1500-1700, is a welcome and timely collection of essays. Editor Elizabeth Sutton’s quietly polemical introduction is a manifesto in support of the deployment of feminist theory in art history. Sutton is unequivocal in her position that we must ‘do’ art history differently, meaning that art historians must challenge the structural patriarchy on which traditional art history depends and adapt their methodologies accordingly. In her overview of the issues that have plagued the historiography of women in the arts, she notes problems such as the lack of easily available sources as well as institutional issues such as the nineteenth century "need by (white) men to retain dominion over who makes and what constitutes 'fine art.’"4 Thus, the so-called canons of fine arts have focused almost exclusively on the works of men and easel painting, to the exclusion of women and other media.

Left: Cover of Women artists and patrons in the Netherlands, 1500-1700.
Middle: fig. 1 Judith Leyster, Man offering money to a young toman, 1631, oil on panel, 30.8 x 24.2 cm, The Hague, Mauritshuis, inv. 564.
Right: fig. 2 Jan van der Heyden, The Huis ten Bosch at The Hague and its formal garden (view from the east), ca. 1668-70, oil on panel, 39.1 x 54.9 cm, New York City, Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. 564.

As evidenced in the collected essays of Women artists and patrons, efforts to write women into art history are complicated by several factors. Early modern women tended not to leave as many ego-documents – such as travel diaries or catalogues of their libraries of collections – as their similarly-situated male counterparts. This is so for many reasons, including social gender norms and the fact that women tended to exist in the private sphere more so than in the public one.5 When women did leave documents, they were often subsumed in the archives of their fathers, or husbands, or not preserved at all. Coincidentally, art historical research into early modern women suffers from a significant institutional problem: archives are not neutral. The very act of collecting and organising art, papers, and other documents involves a determination: of who and what is important, of who and what should be remembered and preserved for future generations and, critically, of how best to organise this information.6 For centuries, this decision-making process has privileged institutional status.7 This has resulted in the exclusion of women (together with religious and racial minorities and countless ‘others’), instead prioritising successful and/or leading men. Effectively, the male-dominated structural organisation of the archives has the effect of pushing what few documents by and about women survive further into the recesses of inventories and finding aids.

Many women artists have also languished in anonymity because of the art-forms they pursued. Textile painting, paper cutting, glass engraving, watercolours and etchings are some of the creative pursuits that were popular amongst early modern women, in part owing to the strictures imposed by the guild system. As argued by art historian Elizabeth Alice Honig, the combination of art-form, education, social status, and gender relegated these women to the rank of amateur, as opposed to professional, artists. Ironically, the women's works sometimes fetched prices equivalent to or surpassing those of their now more celebrated male contemporaries.8 The creativity and innovative approach to art and subject matter demonstrated by these women should be celebrated; yet, the works and their authors have largely been lost to art history. This is something the book seeks (successfully), to remediate, by expanding the type of art-forms considered in its essays beyond paintings.

While it would be tempting – and perhaps even justified – to focus on the ways in which early modern women artists and patrons were oppressed by their contemporaries and their stories suppressed by earlier generations of art historians, Sutton resists what Shakespeare scholar Phyllis Rackin has called the "pervasive scholarly investment in Renaissance misogyny."9 Rather, Sutton asks for a re-evaluation of our approach to art history and suggests corrective approaches. A benefit of Sutton’s approach to topic of feminist art history and early modern women is that it is inherently productive and constructive: she encourages scholars to do better research, and provides suggestions as to how to do so. One of the directions she points to is to give increased emphasis to the study of networks and collective action.

This is consistent with Linda Nochlin’s insistence (first made 40 years ago) that a better analytical framework when delineating research questions regarding the role of women in the arts should "[stress] the institutional – that is the public – rather than the individual, or private, preconditions for achievement or the lack of it in the arts."10 It has not escaped Sutton that despite Nochlin’s appeal, bringing the collective or institutional perspective to bear in feminist art history has proven elusive. She notes that attempts to bring women to the foreground in art history have frequently disappointed in part because too often, scholars have applied the same methodologies that underlay the patriarchal, ‘lone male genius’ narrative. Notwithstanding the presence of many feminist scholars in art history and the often overwhelmingly female art history departments at many universities, Sutton writes, "the topics of research, courses, and methodologies employed continue to follow canonical (male) artists and the institutionalised norms of valuation, in biographies and monographs."11 Key to her message is the need to upend not only the subject matter of art history, but the way in which we practice art history. "In order to combat assumed foundational structures, perhaps more important than the content are the methods for how we produce knowledge, acknowledge the bounds in which we operate, and attempt to permeate and dissolve those boundaries to broaden our knowing and share in knowledge-making."12 Sutton’s selection of essays for this edited volume is true to that message.

Women artists and patrons is a slim tome that contains six essays in addition to Sutton’s introduction. They consider different facets of female agency with respect to artists, patrons, and publishers. Céline Talon, in 'Catharina Van Hemessen’s self-portrait', considers Van Hemessen’s self-portrait within the context of depictions of artists at work and explores the ramifications of the choices made by Van Hemessen in relation to our understanding of Renaissance painting practices. Talon’s methodology is interesting; rather than seeking to place Van Hemessen in a linear (patriarchal) narrative amongst other known artists, she focuses on the tools and materials depicted in the self-portrait. She plausibly suggests that Van Hemessen sought to reconcile tradition with innovation, positioning herself as a modern artist in the company of vaunted painters.

Nicole Elizabeth Cook’s ‘By candlelight’ examines the process of artistic creation by women and how this process came to be associated with the night. Amongst other things, we learn that much as today, early modern women often delayed their personal creative endeavours to the nighttime, after the completion of their domestic duties. Cook’s research in this case is noteworthy in part because she engages with the liminal space often occupied by early modern artistic women, who were not necessarily professional yet were clearly more than mere amateurs. She includes in her study, Judith Leyster (see Man Offering Money to a Young Woman, fig. 1), Gesina ter Borch, as well as Anna Roemers Visscher. In the same vein, Amy Reed Frederick, in ‘Reclaiming reproductive printmaking’, challenges historical assumptions regarding the lack of creative merit associated with reproductive printmaking. She explores how reproductive printmaking was in fact an art-form that was employed by women artists, often in the pursuit of innovation. She relies upon the career of Magdalena van de Passe, a printmaker renowned in her time whose work was reproduced by her female students, as a case study in support of her analysis. Cook and Frederick both show how much there is to discover about early modern women and their relationship to art when willing to step aside the familiar path of professional artists.

The essay ‘In living memory’, by Saskia Beranek, brings to the fore the agency displayed by Amalia van Solms in cementing her place at the centre of Dutch governance through architecture. Beranek investigates the patronage of architect Pieter Post by van Solms in the construction of Huis ten Bosch (fig. 2), a palace outside of The Hague. While commonly perceived and interpreted as a memorial to van Solms’ husband, the Stadhouder Frederik Hendrik, Beranek here allows van Solms her political ambitions. Thus, she highlights van Solms’ agency in designing a palace that allowed her to remain at the centre of Dutch independence and identity, metaphorically and figuratively.

The multidisciplinary essay ‘Louise Hollandine and the art of arachnean critique’ by Lindsay Ann Reid, combines an in-depth literary analysis of Richard Lovelace’s poem ‘Princesse Löysa drawing’ with an iconographic analysis of two of Hollandine’s portrait historiés based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, namely her Portrait of three women as the daughters of Cecrops finding the serpent-shaped Erichthonius, and Vertumnus and Pomona. What emerges from this analysis is the contrast between what Reid refers to as the "pert acts of artistic sanitisation attributed to the fictionalised Louise Hollandine" in Lovelace’s poem, and the staunch criticism of the oppression and predation by male characters in the Metamorphoses by a female artist who was well aware of the limitations imposed upon her gender. Through her literary analysis, Reid also demonstrates how it is possible to learn about an early woman’s character and worldview, even without access to ego documents.

Arthur J. DiFuria’s ‘Towards an understanding of Mayken Verhulst and Volcxken Diericx’ serves as a bookend to Sutton’s introduction. DiFuria reflects upon the historiography of Verhulst and Diericx, which has largely stripped the women of their identities, recasting them instead as appendages to their famous husbands Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Hieronymus Cock, respectively. On display in DiFuria’s essay is a rare self-awareness regarding one’s participation – albeit unintentional or unthinking – in the suppression and erasure of women in art history. DiFuria looks to the cases of Verhulst and Diericx, two women who were instrumental in the development of the print trade in the early modern Netherlands, as representative of "the unwitting perpetuation of a historically potent default, a gender biased frame of mind that inhibits our discovery of a fuller understanding of the spaces that women inhabited and navigated in early modern culture." Like Sutton, DiFuria specifically calls for a challenge to the patriarchal underpinnings of art historical methodology and for the introduction of new models which allow for the examination and celebration of artists and art-forms outside the traditional canon.

Whether the result of synchronicity or irony, this review is being written just as CODART (the international network of Curators of art of the Low Countries) releases its ‘new canon’ of Dutch and Flemish art.13 The list of 100 works is heavily skewed in favour of painting (approximately 60 per cent), relegating works on paper, sculpture, and the so-called applied arts to supporting roles – a disappointing result. A paltry five per cent of the works included in the canon were made by women artists. This suggests that Women artists and patrons is not only recommended reading for all art historians – it is necessary.

Catherine Powell, PhD Candidate
University of Texas at Austin
Samuel H. Kress Institutional Fellow
Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society

1 J. G. Taylor, ‘Politics and Marriage in VOC Batavia’, in Fia Dieteren and Els Kloek, eds. Writing women into history, Amsterdam 1990, p. 97.
2 D. Z. Gustman, ‘The ‘F’ Word: A content analysis of 'female' artists in art history textbooks’, PhD Diss., Saint Mary’s College of California, 2016.
3 See also, the recent review by N. Büttner, ‘Glorifying a forgotten talent’, in Oud Holland Reviews. Even more recent is: ‘Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana. A tale of two women painters’ at the Prado, in Madrid (22 October 2019-2 February 2020), which isolates Anguissola and Fontana from their male peers.
4 E. Sutton, Women artists and patrons, Amsterdam 2019, p. 17.
5 M. Prior, ‘Private spheres and public records: Reconstructing women’s history for the early modern period’, in Dieteren and Kloek, Writing women into history, pp. 55-74. See, also: Martine van Elk, Early modern women’s writing: Domesticity, privacy, and the public sphere in England and the Dutch Republic, Cham 2017.
6 This has been recognised, particularly in the past decade, and has led to a reconsideration of the archives by certain historians. See for example: F. X. Blouin and W. G. Rosenberg, Processing the past. contesting authority in history and the archives, Oxford 2011. F. X. Blouin and W. G. Rosenberg, Archives, documentation, and institutions of social memory: essays from the Sawyer Seminar, Ann Arbor 2005.
7 R. C. Head, ‘Documents, archives, and proof around 1700’, The historical journal 56, no. 4 (December 2013), p. 929.
8 E. A. Honig, ‘The art of being ‘artistic’. Dutch women’s creative practices in the seventeenth century’, Woman’s art journal 22, no. 3 (Autumn-Winter, 2002/2001), pp. 31–39.
9 P. Rackin, Shakespeare and women, Oxford 2012, p. 9.
10 L. Nochlin, ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’, in Art and sexual politics: Why have there been no great women artists?, Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker (eds.), New York 1971.
11 E. Sutton, Women artists and patrons, Amsterdam 2019, p. 14.
12 E. Sutton, Women artists and patrons, Amsterdam 2019, p. 20.
13 https://canon.codart.nl

Catherine Powell, ‘Review of: E. Sutton (ed.), Women artists and patrons in the Netherlands, 1500-1700, 2019’, Oud Holland Reviews, February 2020.