In recent years, a wave of exhibitions has brought the names of Renaissance women artists into the spotlight, challenging the misconception that women only began their artistic endeavors in the 19th century. While blockbuster exhibitions like the Artemisia Gentileschi showcase have been pivotal in recognizing the achievements of exceptional women artists, two current exhibitions in the United States, ‘Making Her Mark: A History of Women in Europe, 1400–1800’ at the Baltimore Museum of Art and ‘Strong Women in Renaissance Italy’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, take a different approach to shed light on the broader roles women played in the pre-modern art world.
The Baltimore exhibition, curated by Andaleeb Badiee Banta and Alexa Greist, seeks to move beyond the spotlight on headline names, aiming to explore the contributions of ‘unexceptional’ women artists. Focusing on the visual arts in a broader sense, the exhibition delves into the involvement of women as artisans, makers, and supervisors, particularly in decorative arts such as ceramics, embroidery, and scientific drawing. By presenting a diverse array of objects, the curators highlight the participation of women in various trades, challenging preconceived notions about their limited roles in the art world.
On a similar note, ‘Strong Women in Renaissance Italy’ in Boston explores the multifaceted connections women had with the arts. The exhibition showcases women as makers, writers, composers, patrons, models, designers, and users of the arts. By adopting a thematic display approach, the exhibition emphasizes the influential roles women played both within and beyond the home. From Sofonisba Anguissola’s captivating self-portrait to depictions of female role models from biblical and mythological narratives, the exhibition captures the diverse ways in which women engaged with the arts in Renaissance Italy.
Both exhibitions integrate fine art objects with decorative arts, challenging the traditional hierarchy in gallery settings. This blending of mediums is presented as a feminist act, rejecting the notion of ‘wall power’ favoring masculine genres. However, this approach is not entirely new, with museums like the Victoria and Albert Museum adopting similar practices in the late 20th century.
The question of quality and originality remains a challenge when discussing women artists in the Renaissance. The exhibitions acknowledge historical barriers that limited women’s training in areas such as anatomical study and life drawing. However, they also confront the issue of comparing women artists to their male counterparts, urging a shift towards recognizing women within the broader context of human creativity. The exhibitions highlight instances where women artists both copied and invented, dispelling the notion that ‘mere’ copying was specific to women.
In reevaluating the contributions of women artists in the Renaissance, these exhibitions encourage a return to period values, emphasizing historically accurate interpretation over contemporary political statements. By acknowledging the richness and diversity of women’s contributions to the arts, these exhibitions contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the past, breaking down stereotypes and paving the way for a more inclusive narrative of art history.
Furthermore, the exhibitions in Baltimore and Boston prompt a critical examination of the prevailing narrative surrounding exceptional artists. By challenging the emphasis on headline names, the curators invite viewers to appreciate the vast spectrum of artistic involvement by women during the Renaissance. The idea of the ‘unexceptional’ artist extends beyond gender, inviting a broader understanding of creativity that encompasses both men and women who may not have achieved fame but nonetheless made valuable contributions to the artistic landscape of their time.
The Baltimore exhibition, ‘Making Her Mark,’ goes beyond the conventional focus on painters and sculptors by exploring the roles of women in various trades and workshops. By showcasing objects such as ceramics, embroidery, and scientific drawings, the exhibition broadens the definition of artistic expression, highlighting the often-overlooked contributions of women in traditionally male-dominated fields. It challenges the perception that success in the art world during the Renaissance was reserved for a select few, encouraging a more nuanced understanding of women’s participation in creative endeavors.
Similarly, ‘Strong Women in Renaissance Italy’ in Boston offers a comprehensive view of women’s engagement with the arts, emphasizing their influence not only as artists but also as patrons, writers, and models. The exhibition recognizes the complexity of women’s roles and showcases their agency in shaping cultural and artistic narratives. By presenting women as multifaceted contributors, the exhibition disrupts the notion of a singular path to success in the Renaissance art world.
The exhibitions also address the issue of quality and originality, acknowledging the historical constraints faced by women artists. While some women did not have access to the same training as their male counterparts, the exhibitions underscore the diversity of skills and talents among women artists. Rather than perpetuating the comparison to exceptional male artists, the curators encourage a holistic view of creativity, considering women within the broader context of artistic practices and traditions.
In conclusion, these exhibitions signal a paradigm shift in the way we perceive and celebrate women’s contributions to Renaissance art. By moving beyond the exceptional and focusing on the ‘unexceptional,’ they challenge stereotypes, promote inclusivity, and foster a more nuanced understanding of the roles played by women in shaping the artistic landscape of the past. As we continue to explore and reevaluate the history of art, these exhibitions serve as crucial milestones in recognizing the diversity of voices that have enriched the artistic heritage of the Renaissance.