Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, July 8, 2018

On Not Finding Women Artists--Again with Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemesia Gentileschi and "Finding" Women Artists

I've posted more than once about the magnificent Baroque painter, Artemesia Gentileschi--the first time, on 8 July 2015, during my year of writing about a historical woman every day, and then again in late 2016, when a major exhibition of her work opened in Rome. 

Artemesia Gentileschi, self-portrait,
St. Catherine of Alexandria

Today is the 425th anniversary of Artemisia Gentileschi's birth, 8 July 1593, and so it seemed only appropriate, after learning yesterday that the National Gallery (London) had just acquired a recently identified painting by Gentileschi, that I would write about her again today. 

As it turns out, the painting is not only by Gentileschi but is of her, a self-portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria, probably painted around 1615. 

Something of its provenance is outlined by Jonathan Jones, writing for The Guardian: the painting had been in the possession of a French family, "for centuries," its authorship long "forgotten." But the painting was recognized as one of Artemisia Gentileschi's when it was auctioned in Paris in December 2017.

Then, as Gareth Harris notes, it was purchased by the London-based dealer Robilant + Voena. It was subsequently acquired by the National Gallery:
The £3.6 million acquisition has been made possible thanks to the support of the American Friends of the National Gallery, the National Gallery Trust, Art Fund (through the legacy of Sir Denis Mahon), Lord and Lady Sassoon, Lady Getty, and Hannah Rothschild CBE, and other donors including those who wish to remain anonymous. The conservation of the painting has been made possible with Art Fund support.
So what could I possibly complain about? Because, you know, I am bound to complain about something . . . But I was all primed to be overjoyed, until I read this (from Harris's piece in The Art Newspaper): 
The National Gallery’s remit covers Western European painting from around 1250 to 1900, says Gabriele Finaldi, the gallery director. “However, for a great deal of this period women were largely denied the same opportunities that were afforded to men and as a result only a handful were able to succeed in the art of painting. Therefore, works by women artists of this period are very rare compared to works by male artists, and our collection reflects that historical fact,” he says.
You fucking asshole! That's about as calm and measured as I can be when I read what Mr. Gabriele Finaldi--"the art director" of the gallery!--had to say about women artists! (A more extended quote appears in The Florentine, which adds this to his remarks: "However, although it is far more difficult for us to purchase great works by women artists, the National Gallery regularly works with women artists for its exhibitions and other programmes—most recently with Tacita Dean. We have more exciting plans for the future that we will be announcing over the coming months." I'm sorry, I am not mollified.)

Yes, women were denied the same opportunities as men, and yes, there are far fewer women artists in this SEVEN-HUNDRED YEAR PERIOD. But, give me a break--while fewer women painted, and there are fewer paintings by them, his comments are despicable. 

His attitude must account, at least in part, for this: the National Gallery has more than 2300 works in in its collection. Of their "over 2300 works," only 21 are by women. (The twenty-first is the new Gentileschi.) Yes, you read that correctly--my math is really bad, but even I can calculate that 21 is less than 1% of 2300+ works! This is far worse than even the terrible numbers for major museums around the world (see below). 

This Gentileschi painting is the first work by a woman that the Gallery has acquired since 1991!!! More math here: it has been 27 years since the National Gallery's last acquisition of work by a woman artist--and the 1991 acquisition was a gift of five works by Paula Rego. So, of the 21 works by women artists, 5 are from a single artist? And they were a gift, not a purchase?

The National Gallery doesn't make it easy to find the works by women artists in its collection, much less to count them. In fact, if you search the site for "women artists," the only bit you get is this, appended to its announcement of its acquisition of the Gentileschi painting:
THE NATIONAL GALLERY has 20 works by female artists in its collection and four works by female artists on loan to the Gallery (artists include: Henriette Browne, Berthe Morisot, Rachel Ruysch, Rosa Bonheur, Catharina van Hemessen, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Judith Leyster, Rosalba Carriera, Marie Blancour, Vivien Blackett, Madeleine Strindberg, Maggi Hambling, and Paula Rego).
I certainly can't figure out the order of their listing here, because it isn't alphabetical or chronological. Whaaaaat? What is going on? 

But trying to make sense of the listing's tally of paintings by women in its collection is even more confusing. The Gallery claims to have "20 works by female artists in its collection," and that does not seem to include the new Artemesia Gentileschi acquisition. If you search the National Gallery's collection, you'll find these artists listed: Marie Blancour (mid-seventeenth century, 1 painting), Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899, 1 painting), Henriette Browne (1829-1901, 1 painting), Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757, 2 paintings), Catharina van Hemessen (1527/8-after 1566, 2 paintings), Judith Leyster (1609-1660, 1 painting), Berthe Morisot (1841-1895, 2 paintings), Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750, 2 paintings), Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842, 2 paintings).

But that's only 15 paintings (by 9 artists). If you add in the 5 paintings by Rego acquired in 1991, that does bring the total to 20. 

But the NG "Artist A to Z" doesn't list Paula Rego or any of her 5 paintings in its collection.  Nor does it include any work by Vivien Blackett, Madeleine Strindberg, or Maggi Hambling, all of whom are named in the National Gallery's brief paragraph about the women artists in their collection, so maybe the work isn't part of the collection but "on loan." (Note: This information was correct on 8 July 2018, when this post was written--for updates, see below.)

And it looks like, even if you go by their list, the NG has work in its collection by only 14 women artists--that's including Gentileschi as well as Blackett, Strindberg, Hambling, and Rego--who, as I have said, are named in the bit I've quoted from the NG website (above), but who are NOT included in the website's index of artists in its collection. 

So who knows? The National Gallery doesn't make it clear.

But what is clear? It's clear that despite its recent acquisition of the Gentileschi painting and the statement of Hannah Rothschild, chair of the Gallery's Board of Trustees, that the "acquisition of this great painting realises a long-held dream of increasing the National Gallery's collection of paintings by important women artists," this is pretty shameful.

Shameful, maybe, and actually a worse record than many other major museums, but pretty much to be expected. From the National Museum of Women in the Arts post, "Where Are the Women?":

  • Work by women artists makes up only 3–5% of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe, and 34% in Australian state museums.
  • Of 590 major exhibitions by nearly 70 institutions in the U.S. from 2007–2013, only 27% were devoted to women artists. 
  • Only 30% of artists represented by commercial galleries are women. In Australia, it’s about 40%; in Germany, less than 20%. 
  • The good news is that, while in 2005, women ran 32% of the museums in the United States, they now run 47.6%—albeit mainly the ones with the smallest budgets. 
  • Women still lag behind men in directorships held at museums with budgets over $15 million, holding 30% of art museum director positions and earning 75¢ for every dollar earned by male directors. 
  • The top three museums in the world, the British Museum (est. 1753), the Louvre (est. 1793), and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (est. 1870) have never had female directors.

Update, 27 August 2018: Writing for BBC Culture, Holly Williams discusses a new play about Artemisia, focusing on her rape trial (and using original trial transcripts, when possible), created and performed by Breach, an experimental theater company. The play, It’s True It’s True It’s True, directed by Breach co-founder Billy Barrett, debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, at the Underbelly, Cowgate, venue and will be at New Diorama in London from 16 October to 10 November 2018. For an extended review in The Guardian, click here.

Update, 19 September 2019: It's not really news, but it's an "update" in the sense of nothing has changed . . . The title of Julia Jacobs's piece in the New York Times says it all: "Female Artists Made Little Progress in Museums Since 2008, Survey Find" (click here). 

Contrary to the sense in the art world that "gender equity was on the horizon," progress was more a "perception of change" than "reality." 

A little data from the piece: "between 2008 and 2018, only 11 percent of art acquired by the country’s top museums for their permanent collections was by women." And "Over the past decade, just 29,247 works by female artists were acquired by 26 top museums in the United States, out of 260,470 total works."

Update, 30 November 2019: Here I am again, writing the same old thing. In her New York Times story, "Museum Showcases a Neglected Segment of the Art World: Women," Aimee Ortiz details a new initiative of the Baltimore Museum of Art. In 2020 Vision, the museum announced plans for "a year of exhibitions and programs dedicated to presentation of the achievements of female-identifying artists. The initiative will encompass 13 solo exhibitions and seven thematic shows beginning in fall 2019, with additional presentations still being planned."

In covering the Baltimore Museum of Art announcement, Ortiz cites figures from a recent study published by PLOS One, "Diversity of Artists in Major U.S. Museums." The study "surveyed the public online catalogs of 18 major U.S. museums," examining some "10,000 artist records" relative to "over 9,000 unique artists." Their results show that 87% of the artists represented at these institutions are men. To put it another way, only 12.6% of the "identifiable artists" in those 18 major museums are women.

Update, 30 January 2022: Turns out, given the global COVID pandemic, the Baltimore Museum of Art's "vision" had to be "deferred" (here). The museum did issue a statement in December 2020 announcing its acquisitions, "made as part of its 2020 Vision initiative, which includes a commitment to only purchase works by female-identifying artists this calendar year" (here).

Update, 1 July 2022: The National Library's A-Z list now includes 2 portraits by Paula Reggo and 13 by Maggi Hambling.

Update, 25 September 2023: A rediscovered "lost" Artemisia! Once owned by Charles I of England, One of Artemisia's Susannah and the Elders paintings has been identified, restored, and is now on display. Seems it was just stuffed into an old corner of a storeroom at Hampton Court . . .