Curator Johanna Pomeroy points to several paintings of mythology
and literature by Swiss artist Angelika Kauffman. Created in the
late 18th century, one canvas shows Abelard bidding a fond farewell
to Heloise, while another depicts Venus arguing the virtues of Paris
to a reluctant Helen.
In painting both pieces, Kauffman broke through the gender
barrier at a time when such historical work was seen as "a bastion
of male artists," says Dr. Pomeroy of the National Museum of Women
in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, D.C. People believed those themes
required artists to think rationally and abstractly - qualities they
said women lacked.
Kauffman, however, "seems not to have ever expressed any doubts
about entering this male club," says Pomeroy, who is standing in the
first gallery of "An Imperial Collection: Women Artists" from the
State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The exhibit, at
the NMWA until June, recognizes 15 female artists who were famous in
their day but have been pushed to the margins of history or
forgotten entirely. The show seeks to reclaim their rightful place
in the annals of art history.
Kauffman's works are among the most radical in the show, which
presents 49 pieces culled from the galleries and basements of The
Hermitage by NMWA and Hermitage curators.
The exhibit showcases women artists from countries including
France, Germany, and Switzerland. It also offers a window on the
world of 18th-century St. Petersburg, where Western artists sold
their works, and it highlights a growing scholarly interest in
Many of the 49 paintings were collected by Catherine the Great.
Most works date from the 18th and 19th centuries and are portraits,
a genre deemed suitable for women. Not only was it thought to
require an eye for detail - as opposed to a head for abstraction -
but it was associated with the world of salons, in which women
In the first gallery is a self-portrait in which a young Dutch
woman emerges from a dark background. She has a thin brush in one
hand, and the words, "I, Catharina van Hemessen, painted myself in
1548 at the age of 20," mark this as one of the earliest known self-
portraits by a female artist.
Nearby hangs a 1788 still life by Carolina Friederika Friedrich,
a German, who painted a lifelike fly in the corner for added
verisimilitude. Along the next wall we find, in addition to six
Kauffman history paintings, a startling self-portrait of Kauffman in
which the curly-haired and pink-cheeked artist gazes out with quiet
Traditionally valued as a visual record of famous sitters,
portraits have garnered more scholarly attention over the past 15
They are seen as encapsulating complex dynamics: the sitter
chooses a public face, the artist creates a persona, and the two
interact in an intimate environment while carefully juggling social
norms and expectations.
"It is interesting to see that both sitter and artist in the 18th
century are aware" that each portrait captures only one of many
roles the sitter can play, says Angela Rosenthal, author of the
forthcoming book, "Becoming Pictures: Angelika Kauffman and the Art
of Identity. …