Women Artists Resurface from Russia's Basements

By Lawrence, Lee | The Christian Science Monitor, March 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

Women Artists Resurface from Russia's Basements


Lawrence, Lee, The Christian Science Monitor


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 portraiture.

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 featured prominently.

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 confidence.

Traditionally valued as a visual record of famous sitters, portraits have garnered more scholarly attention over the past 15 years.

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. …

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