Sex, Lies and Anecdotes: Gender Relations in the Life Stories of Italian Women Artists, 1550-1800

Article excerpt

Jan Steen's c.1665 painting of The Drawing Lesson (Fig. 1) is one of the few visual representations of a female art student in the studio of a male artist in the early modern period, and thus sheds interesting light on this complicated gender dynamic. In the foreground, a well-dressed young woman sits sharpening a drawing instrument, a potential metaphor for a heightening of the senses. Her gaze is undeniably riveted on a nude male statuette on the table in front of her. (1) The figure's exposed private parts may be a particular focus of her attention, for she leans closer for a better look, cheeks flushed with excitement. Her distraction is echoed by that of another student, a young boy who gazes not at the statuette, but rather longingly at the attractive young woman, clearly ignoring his studies. The instructor, meanwhile, hovers attentively over the female student, his form nearly encircling hers as he corrects a drawing, bringing our attention back to the provocative statuette. This sexually-suggestive scenario is reinforced by the presence of a cupid (even if only a plaster prop), which flies suspended from the ceiling, tellingly placed above the young woman and the male instructor.


Should this scene be interpreted as a reflection of reality or a 'comic fiction'? (2) As will be seen, Steen's characterization of the female art student as the subject and object of love and lust is one that is echoed in biographical portrayals of women artists written in the early modern period, indicating a broad cultural stereotype that differentiated these female phenomena from their male colleagues, whether in Northern or Southern Europe. (3) In particular, the focus will be on anecdotal passages and topoi (or literary commonplaces) as the sites for these gender interactions, given their narrative depth and their revelation of prevailing male attitudes towards the uncommonly gifted female.

The Drawing Lesson, in fact, is very much like the anecdotal passages to be interpreted here: it presents a condensed narrative involving aspects of everyday life and the foibles of human behavior, and thus on a superficial level may seem merely humorous and entertaining. Yet, while the exaggerated actions illustrated in the literary and visual anecdotes might proclaim them to be fictions, each simultaneously reveals a specificity of local detail that implies a desire for historical veracity. This duality has in turn divided modern scholarly interpretation; on the one hand, art historians such as Carl Goldstein argue that anecdotes and topoi are merely empty rhetorical formulae which "are of no help in understanding historical figures." (4) While not denying their rhetorical significance, I would instead concur with Joel Fineman's more positivist interpretation of anecdotes as being essentially "pointed towards or rooted in the real," and thus deserving of critical attention. (5) To the early modern reader, the reality of the anecdotal passage, like a Dutch genre painting, was the moral lesson presented beneath its entertaining facade, thereby revealing something of a culture's attitudes and mores. Specifically in the case of artistic biography, one function of the anecdote was to provide artists (and other readers) with exemplary models of conduct, as the eighteenth-century biographer, P.J.B. Nougaret stated. (6)

In that same vein, as Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz, and more recently Catherine Soussloff and Paul Barolsky have demonstrated, the repetition of certain anecdotal themes in the writings of various biographers elucidates how artists were perceived and often mythologized in a particular culture. (7) For example, in order to demonstrate that the artist's talent was divinely-inspired rather than man-made, the young artist's skill is shown to quickly surpass that of his master, as in the cases of Giotto and Leonardo. Or, to demonstrate the greater aesthetic intelligence of the artist, he is shown to outwit a pretentious art critic, evidenced in the life stories of Donatello and Michelangelo. …