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Women in the World of Baroque Art

Baroque art was brought to life through education. People from all social classes were expanding their minds, exploring nontraditional subjects; this progression was reflected in art from all over Western Europe between 1600-1750. The style of Baroque paintings exemplifies the period’s desire to discover unknown realms. Their oversized backgrounds and distracted subjects leave the paintings open, continuous, and seemingly incomplete, alluding to the period’s intense preoccupation with the unknown. Baroque paintings also show the variation which characterizes both discovery and thought in Europe at that time. The directions of discovery took many different paths, thus Baroque art is often irregular and varied. With the search for knowledge expanding, was too the role of women in the world of Baroque art in two specific respects. Easily recognizable are the changes in the subjects of such celebrated Baroque artists as Peter Paul Ruben, Sir Anthony Van Dyck, and Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez; the frequency in which women appear, their given roles, and the standard of beauty all experienced a metamorphisms. Equally as significant is the role of the female painter during the Baroque period. Similar to the style of Baroque art, their emergence into this role, their subject matter, and the societal views upon this change, are varied.

As this era of learning progressed, the frequency at which women appeared in paintings increases. Enlightened ideas about the roles of women began to surface, especially in the Netherlands and in parts of Italy. In the Netherlands, women took on tasks outside of the home; in Italy, they played a pivotal role in social life (Borzello, 2000). These developing roles helped women gain a slightly more accepted place in society as well which manifest itself in art. However, in Baroque style likeness, each country had different levels of progression, thus differing views. In Spain, for example, it was not the custom to have portraits of women beside women in high social classes. Despite this tradition, Velázquez, one of the most influential portrait artists, still produced many paintings of his wife, daughters, and a few queens (Hale, 1909). Regardless of numerous limitations, progress was made.

As previously stated, the roles of women in the world began to expand to include activities outside of the home, thereby elevating their status in society enough to warrant their presence in paintings. Though society opened up for women, their place in art still portrayed them as homemakers or servants. Women were frequently put off to the side, as a servant, as an accessory to the central focus. In 1606, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus shows three men and Jesus seated around a table with a woman servant in the background. The woman is almost completely hidden in the dark; only her head and shoulders are detectable. However, about sixty years later, in Jan Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Jug, a servant woman is the focus of the piece. Overtime, progress was occurring. Portraits often reflected another typical role of women: a noblesse. Baroque portraits were often painted in a nontraditional stance and setting, as seen in Joshua Reynold’s Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse (see right). The woman is sitting in a lax pose, distracted by something to her right with menacing figures in the background. Women in the Baroque era were also put into sexual roles. In works such as William Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress and The Orgy, women are either prostitutes, mistresses, or simply promiscuous.

In general, women were depicted as feminine, delicate, and fresh. However, the standard for female beauty was split between opposite views. One of the Baroque period’s most famous painters, Peter Paul Ruben, is known for his love of the robust female form. To Ruben, the human body was one of God’s greatest works; thus in many of his works, such as The Toilet of Venus and The Feast of Venus (see right), beauty is seen in the curves and swells of plump women (Wedgewood, 1967). Anthony van Dyck, on the other hand, celebrated slender and more elegant women with longer arms and oval faces (Hale, 1909). He thought so highly of his definition of beauty that he altered the appearance of many of his subjects. Van Dyck believed any woman in the proper clothes and dim lighting could be transformed into a goddess on canvas. Women liked this not only for pure vanity, but also because they wanted to be remembered as beautiful. The result was a trend and taste for allure among painters and the rest of society (Hale, 1909).

The place within art that women were beginning to form in this period of discovery paved the way for the emergence of their place among the great male artists of the Baroque period. Education and a desire to learn affected both the male and the female populations of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. A society that valued commerce and the growth of the middle class encouraged women to hone their skills and talents (Barlow 1999). Male artists began teaching their daughters their craft. From this emerged some of the best artists, male or female, from the Baroque period: Judith Leyster, Rachel Ruych, Elisabetta Sirani, and Artemisia Gentileschi. These women were not rebels; they used modern and developing techniques to keep up with the undulating movements and varied styles of the Baroque period (Barlow, 1999).

The frequency at which women appeared, their given roles, and standards of beauty, within the artwork of female painters, allowed women into the world of art much more than their male counterparts. Given more glamourous roles such as the glorified homemaker, the intellectual, and the heroine women, were frequenting the central focus of more paintings with few fallacies to their appearance. Though more opportunities were opening up outside of the home, the homemaker position was still where most men and women thought women should preside. However, the female painters wanted to show that women were not only homemakers, but had intellectual interests as well (Barlow, 1999). From this sprang the creation of more female self-portraits and paintings of women in the midst of an activity. Both were painted with a home background acting as a symbol of a woman’s proper place in the home. Judith Leyster’s 1633 Self-Portrait (see right) is a perfect example of this practice. She is happily in her home, but painting rather than doing house work. Depicting women as heroines was another popular trend among women artists. Elisabetta Sirani’s Judith and Holofernes and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes are both portrayals of the Biblical story of Judith, who cut off the head of Holofernes (Borzello, 2000).

The societal reaction to women painters was fairly accepting and encouraging, especially in such a male dominated time period, but still there existed negative responses. Some of these artists were among the first women to be invited into academies and guilds. Their more independent, glorified, and intellectual depiction of women appealed to women from all social classes. The growing middle class provided art patrons, so that by the end of the Baroque period female painters were competitors in art (Barlow, 1999). At this point, some women even made substantial incomes from their pieces, enabling them to support a family. However, society viewed the art of a woman different, at best, from the art of a man, and typically inferior (Barlow, 1999). When their work was too good, some artists were accused of not being the author of their work and were forced to paint outside. In this way, people could watch them paint.

Baroque art is the product of a period of curiosity and an intense desire to learn and to discover; opening a more active place for women in society, and thus in art. This is seen in male artists giving women more spots in their paintings, starting out as accessories to a male centered piece, and gradually progressing to the focus as homemakers, sex symbols, and nobility. In the emergence of female painters with their more humanistic perception of the female sex also demonstrates this. The progressive characteristics of the Baroque art period built a threshold for women crossing into and influence the world of art.


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