Writing ‘great’ artists into history often robs them of their name. Top marks if you know El Greco’s or Caravaggio’s in full. Transformation from person to symbol – known like royalty by a single proper noun – is accorded to only a handful of celebrated artists. The National Gallery has added another. Artemesia, the institution’s first monographic exhibition dedicated to a female ‘old master’ opens on 4th April and chronicles the work of celebrated Baroque artist Artemesia Gentileshi (1593 – 1654).
While exhibitions such as Artemesia should be praised, they also remind us that so much has changed, and yet nothing has changed. Despite extensive media commentary, work by women, especially so-called ‘old masters’, is still far from achieving parity with their male counterparts in the art historical pantheon.
In a compelling piece of research, Julia Halperin and Charlotte Burns published damning statistics in an article titled ‘Museums Claim They’re Paying More Attention to Female Artists. That’s An Illusion.’ (in other words x artnet news, 19 September 2019). While focusing on acquisitions in American museums, the statistics bear witness to a familiar narrative in the UK and elsewhere. As Halperin and Burns write, ‘just 11 percent of all acquisitions and 14 percent of exhibitions at 26 prominent American museums over the past decade were of work by female artists.’
While revealing the reality of market and museum decision making and, notably, how thin the illusion of progress is, scholarly exhibitions such as Artemesia are vital engines transforming the critical, commercial and popular reputation of work made by women from across art history. Popularising books are also essential to this process. Phaidon’s bestselling Great Women Artists (2019) is a recent example.
As prelude to their forthcoming exhibition, the National Gallery acquired a rare and important work by Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615 – 17), after it was sensationally discovered in France in 2017. The work subsequently travelled, in 2019, on a well publicised tour of carefully selected ‘non art’ locations, including a school in Newcastle, a GP’s surgery in Pocklington and prison in Surrey. Taking such an important painting out of the museum and into the hurly-burly of daily life may feel like a publicity stunt, but these are the means by which real change might be affected.
The inscription of more female artists into art history, especially ‘old masters’, requires many more such endeavours: artists become icons by capturing the public imagination.
Image: Artemesia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615 – 17)