Pre-Modern Women as Artists, Patrons and Collectors

Jamie Edwards, University of Exeter,

Elizabeth L’Estrange, University of Birmingham,

Edward Wouk, University of Manchester,

The study of women in pre-modern times is a well-established field that has generated important scholarship. But, as ongoing research shows, there is no shortage of new material yet to be analysed, or existing evidence that can be nuanced in the light of new methodological approaches. And whilst recent monographic exhibitions attest to the enduring appeal of ‘female artists’ in the ‘genius’ tradition (e.g. Anguissola, Gentileschi), new and ongoing work in the field points to different ways that women’s interaction with visual and material culture can be approached. The application of new digital and mapping technologies, meanwhile, is enabling scholars to propose alternative, non-linear narratives of pre-modern women’s lives.

Speakers & Abstracts

‘Master’ was a Woman: The case of illuminators in Bruges (c. 1455–c. 1540)

Patricia Simons (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

Anonymous ‘masters’ populate studies of the abundant manuscript industry during the 15th and early 16th centuries in the Low Countries. There are 60 such unnamed artists in the index of the catalogue from the Getty exhibition of 2003 devoted to Flemish illuminations, from the ‘Master of 1482’ to the ‘Masters of the Golden Fleece’, all referred to with the male pronoun. At first sight, the gendered terminology seems justified. Only a handful of secular women can be found in most of the surviving registers of artistic guilds during that period. However, adapting the slogan drawn from Virginia Woolf, ‘Anonymous was a woman’, it can be said that many a ‘Master’ of manuscript illumination may have been a woman. In keeping with the call for papers that re-assess standard methodologies and assumptions, this study tests the parameters of the conventional ‘mastering’ of anonymous artists by examining 15th and early 16th-century Bruges. Records from that city enable the unearthing of names, although direct attributions to surviving images are difficult.

This investigation highlights the presence of women in the profitable book trade and the dissemination of their work throughout Europe. It will be shown that up to a third of the book-makers in that city were women. Furthermore, this paper traces a largely female genealogy that extends from the prolific workshop of Willem Vrelant in 1476 to a nunnery where manuscripts were being produced well into the 1530s, if not beyond.

Women and the World of Early Modern Playing Cards

Kirsten Burke (Harvard University)

There is a little-known world in which early modern women wielded unusual power: in the pictures – and in the making – of printed playing cards. These were not only game-pieces, but also highly sophisticated images that played a crucial role in the history of printmaking. Even more curious is that one of the earliest professional card-makers (‘Kartenmacher’) recorded in archival documents is a woman. Cards were some of the earliest prints of any kind in Germany and rapidly spread by the thousands as they were played by rich and poor alike. In this paper I explore a deck from around 1540 by Nuremberg printmaker and sculptor Peter Flötner within the subversive playing card culture and graphic revolution of early modern Germany. The story of Flötner’s deck, I argue, reveals how printed cards created the blueprint for a broader pictorial paradigm. Their intricate interplay of fictional worlds transformed pictures into new kinds of objects – and foregrounds the role of women in both the making and playing of cards’ multimedia performance.

Botanical Women as Artists, Patrons and Naturalists (1620–1760): An ecofeminist and post-colonial perspective

Kimberly Glassman (Oxford University/North Wall Arts Centre)

Many scholars have investigated the accomplishments of female botanists in the 17th century; others have criticised the historic colonisation of horticultural knowledge. Few, however, have looked at the colonial activities of European women botanists. Adopting an intersectional, post-colonial lens, my presentation will shed a critical, post-colonial light on the work of three female botanists: Agnes Block (1629–1704), Mary Somerset (1630–1715) and Elizabeth Blackwell (1707–58). Often revered for making their mark in a time dominated by men, Block, Somerset and Blackwell monumentally impacted the development of European plant sciences. However, their contribution to the problematic, colonial history of 17th-century Europe has not yet been aptly explored.

Jenifer Munroe calls for the inclusion of colonial activities undertaken in the home (such as growing exotic plants on European soil) and in exporting activities (such as sending local plants abroad) when defining colonial botany. As women rarely travelled themselves to collect exotic plants, they have generally been left out of this history. Using Munroe’s colonial ecofeminist critique of Mary Somerset’s work as a guide, I consider the discoveries, experiments and commissions of Somerset, Block and Blackwell as colonial activities. In doing so, I hope to give these women more agency than history has thus far afforded them, as well as a rightful amount of accountability. A feminist, post-colonial revision of 17th-century botanical history has yet to be conducted. Using the primary source material at my disposal (at the Natural History Museum and British Library in London), it is my hope that these case studies will serve as entry points to introduce and broaden this investigation.

Female Authorship and the Reception of Islamic Art in Venetian Needlework of the 16th Century

Robert Brennan (University of Sydney)

This paper investigates the relationship between Islamic art and the practice of needlework in 16th-century Venice, focusing in particular on embroidery and lace produced by women within the domestic sphere. Working between visual and written sources, it explores the extent to which Islamic forms furnished female needleworkers with a theoretical basis for claims to the nobility of their art, its parity with painting, and their own status as quasi-divine, authorial creators. At the centre of the analysis stands a well-known genre of pattern books that flourished in Venice from the 1520s onwards, addressed to female needleworkers, and featuring a repertoire of predominantly Islamicising motifs.

Situating these books in relation to a range of sources, including extant textiles, paintings, poetry, devotional literature and theatrical plays, the paper explores how embroidery from the Islamic world became relevant to contemporary developments in the so-called querelle des femmes. Venetian writers of the period identified Islamic needlework with the divinely inspired art of Judeo-Christian antiquity – specifically, the furnishings of the Temple of Jerusalem – but they also conceived it as an inherently inventive, creative genre, in which contemporary women could flaunt their ingenuity and earn a place for themselves in history. Over the course of the second half of the century, however, this highly conflicted affirmation of female artistry came to be eclipsed by shifting relations of production, which opened up new avenues for powerful male merchants to exploit the skills of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable women.

Where Are Women Artists in Colonial Mexico? Decolonial alternatives to the understanding of art making

Elsaris Núnez-Méndez (National Autonomous University of Mexico-Institute of Aesthetic Resear)

The historiography of the arts of colonial Mexico have long reproduced European paradigms with regard to what is considered art and who its producers were. In this respect, historians have not only privileged painting and architecture, but have also mobilised the Vasarian ‘genius’ tradition in order to identify and organise art production. As a result, women have been notably marginalised within predominantly linear and patriarchal narratives of art history in this regional and cultural context. As contemporary sources and existing works reveal, however, women played a key role in the production of works long-considered as arte minore, which contributes to their exclusion from the discourses of the mainstream history of colonial arts. Nuns, girls and laywomen devoted significant efforts towards the production of embroidery, a practice that as Rozsika Parker has noted, has been constructed as a feminine art practice, often related to a domestic setting of manufacture. In colonial Mexico, however, varied forms of embroidered goods suggest the existence of hierarchies within this production, in which rich embroidery was not only regarded as a superior artform with regard to other kinds of works such as samplers, but its production was also regulated by a guild and restricted to authorised workshops led by men. From a decolonial standpoint, this paper delves into the implications that such hierarchies had for women authorship and their consideration within artistic means of production, while focusing specifically on the participation of indigenous women in a mid-18th century embroidery workshop led by master embroiderer Manuel de Mena.

Women and the Architectural Culture in Mamluk Cairo

Amina Karam (American University in Cairo)

Architectural patronage during the Mamluk period in Egypt (1250–1517 CE) was primarily the prerogative of the ruling military elite, and therefore a male prerogative. The religious institutions they patronised in their capital city of Cairo usually included domed mausolea and acted as statements of power within the complicated and violent fabric of Mamluk politics. Yet among the hundreds of surviving monuments, at least 12 are associated with female members of the ruling elite while additional monuments are described in historical sources. This study seeks to understand how women in Mamluk society participated in the building culture of the time, looking at monuments associated with women not as a body of work but as the architecture of individual players within the larger context of Mamluk Cairo. It will consider three main questions: who are the associated women? What is their role in the foundation of the monument and its respective institution? And how do the monuments represent them? While the absence of a consistent trend reflects the volatile nature of Mamluk rule, several monuments emerge as a response to the changing sociopolitical circumstances of the time. Elements of their architecture attest to the individual identities of the associated women, not only representing them but also contributing to the image of the ruling Mamluk household and reflecting the changing role of women within it.

Transgressing Reflected Selves: Women’s self-portraits of pre-modern China

Mariana Zegianini (SOAS, University of London)

This paper explores the relationship between mirrors and self-portraiture of pre-modern women in China. In paintings depicting women, mirrors reflected not a true likeness but rather the gendered space of morality that instructed women to cultivate their characters rather than their outer appearance, and hence escape being cast aside when their youthful looks faded away. However, in the late 16th-century drama The Peony Pavilion, the famous heroine Du Liniang transforms this moral space engendered by her mirrored image into an artistic space that enables her to paint her face and body in a self-portrait left for posterity. This corporeal depiction of Du, however, only occurred in fiction as such paintings are extremely rare.

However, this authoring process is evidenced in a large corpus of landscape and flower paintings by women of this period. Using textual inscriptions and visual metaphors, these women embedded, if not their reflected faces, their sense of self as artists in their images of nature. These ‘surrogate’ self-portraits reveal an authoring process and enable a paradigm shift, from considering women’s self-portraiture as true likenesses enabled by mirrors to understanding self-portraiture as embodiment in spite of mirrors. It also begs the question as to whether a history of self-authoring, rather than a history of self-portraiture, would yield more productive results in research associated with pre-modern women artists. Transferring these issues to a digital environment where these artworks can be mapped across regions can also reveal commonalities in pre-modern practices of self-representation and authoring processes in global art history.

Mapping Global Trajectories of Women Makers: Processes and findings

Tanja L. Jones (The University of Alabama)

Doris Sung (The University of Alabama)

Tracy Chapman Hamilton (Independent Scholar (Affiliate to Department of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University))

This session will be a discussion between the creators of two digital humanities projects, Globally Mapping the Medieval Woman and Global Makers: Women Artists in the Early Modern Courts. Globally Mapping the Medieval Woman explores how late-13th and 14th-century European women patrons activated and connected the geography of their natal and marital lands. Exploring women’s strategic patronage of monuments, objects and ceremony, as well as collection and gift-giving, stretched across Europe and beyond, the project questions men’s perceived dominance of architecture and place by examining how women sidestepped – or stepped over – traditional routes to rule. Global Makers aims to encourage and support sustained, interdisciplinary consideration of the role women played in the hands-on production of visual and material culture in the courts of Early Modern Europe and Asia (c. 1400–1750). The project focuses on the role of women as producers of material culture in the courts, largely overlooked in current historical narratives. While the projects focus on different historical periods and topics, both are conceived as global collaboratives that will feature an open-access database; function as interactive digital commons for scholars; encourage study, collaborative research, and innovative approaches to the topics; and aim to include dynamic network visualisation tools designed to highlight the connections between objects, artists, patrons and materials. This presentation will be a dialogue on the processes, challenges and findings in implementing the conceptual frameworks and digital infrastructures of these two cross-cultural, collaborative projects.





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