Clara Peeters, [Possibly] self-portrait of Clara Peeters, seated at a table with precious objects, c. 1618
In the past few years we have witnessed a widespread trend from museums and other public collections – a desire for artworks by female artists. From the conversations we are having across the market, the artworks that seem to top everyone’s wish lists are works by women.
Artworks by female old masters are rare in comparison to women artists active in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and are therefore proportionally more desirable. The vogue for works by women can probably be traced to the same origins as the ‘Me Too’ movement in 2017 and these widespread ripples continue to be felt.
This change has been accompanied by increased interest from scholars, museums, journalists, and art market participants. We have seen crucial contributions to the topic from scholars such as Breeze Barrington, with articles such as ‘Boom Time for Female Old Masters’ in The Financial Times (17 June 2022), and Katy Hessel, author of the bestselling The Story of Art without Men (2022). Museums now compete to stage exhibitions dedicated to women artists: the Prado, which – astonishingly – only staged its first exhibition dedicated to a female artist in 2016 (The Art of Clara Peeters, in collaboration with Antwerp’s Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten), opened A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana in 2019. In Antwerp, the Rubenshuis and the Museum an de Stroom co-hosted Michaelina Wautier: Baroque’s Leading Lady in 2018, after the exhibition proposal had previously been rejected at other venues due to a perceived lack of interest. In 2020, the Uffizi held a fascinating exhibition on The Art of Giovanni Garzoni. The auction houses have also sought to capitalise on the new interest in works by women, with sales such as the 2018 auction The Female Triumphant, in collaboration with Victoria Beckham.
Michaelina Wautier, The Annunciation, 1659
Why were there so few female Old Master painters? Historically, women faced a number of obstacles to a successful career as an artist; this was the subject of the provocatively-titled 1971 essay by art historian Linda Nochlin, Why have there been no great women artists? According to Nochlin, women artists have been forced to contend with a range of institutional barriers that have not posed the same obstacles for men. Women’s careers were often cut short by responsibilities to family and children, as appeared to have been the case with the Dutch Golden Age painter Judith Leyster, seemingly stopped working almost entirely following her marriage to fellow artist Jan Miense Molenaer in 1636. Leyster later fell into obscurity when her work was misattributed to her husband, a problem that has impacted our knowledge of other female old masters, who tended to be trained in family studios and then had their oeuvres subsumed into those of their fathers or brothers. Such was the case with the Bolognese artist Lavinia Fontana, currently the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin (Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker, 6 May – 27 August 2023), whose paintings have historically been attributed to her father and teacher Prospero, or Artemisia Gentileschi, trained by her father Orazio.
Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of Constanza Alidosi, c. 1595
Women also suffered from limitations on their training, with decorum standards preventing them from working from nude models – an essential part of an artist’s training. We are reminded of this limitation by Johann Zoffany’s The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771-72), a monumental group portrait produced shortly after the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1769. The two female founding members – out of a group of 36 – were Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffmann, but they appear in the guise of framed portraits rather than as members of the group, as it would not have been appropriate nor permitted for them to attend the depicted life drawing class with nude models.
Women’s places in the canon of art history have also been compromised by a historic devaluing of so-called ‘female arts’, such as embroidery, weaving, quilting, painting on china, or other ‘genteel’ art forms. In the modern era, we see women artists reclaiming these art forms, with practitioners like Elsa Hansen Oldham depicting historical and pop cultural figures in needlepoint.
Johann Zoffany, The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771-72)
Surely this attention and focus on women artists can only be a good thing? For the most part, we would agree: museums have a considerable ground to make up, after decades of overlooking the contributions of women, and the spotlight is long overdue. At cultural institutions, representation matters, whether that means featuring artworks by women and minorities or seeing them represented on the canvas or in leadership roles. Museums, eager to right historic imbalances, are moving quickly, but this is not an issue that can be solved in a year, or perhaps even within a decade; at least, it would be difficult to address this imbalance with works befitting great institutions in such a short space of time. Works by women artists prior to the modern era are scarce relative to those by men, and increasingly scarce the farther back in time we travel. Institutions run the risk of overvaluing, and overpaying for, second or third-tier examples when great masterpieces are unavailable, and if such pieces are hung alongside truly great artworks by men, they might reinforce the damaging notion that women were not as capable or talented.
Art historical scholarship has made giant strides towards uncovering more information about the oeuvres of the leading female artists of the past which benefits us all. Undoubtedly this increased understanding, coupled with greater market interest, will lead us to uncover more great works by female artists that have been neglected or misattributed in recent centuries. We know of several masterpieces by female artists in private collections that, because of their scarcity, would be fantastic additions to the walls of great institutions and would help tell the story of the female artist to a wide audience. In time they may well leave their current homes for pastures new.
Will this market continue to rise? In the last year, we have noticed a gradual, and in our view welcome, shift from museums away from a desire for works by female artists of almost any type, towards maintaining their goals of representation whilst acknowledging and respecting the time it will take to accomplish this endeavour properly. We believe the prices for works by female artists will continue to rise, as there is still a great desire and limited availability, but we also see a trend towards more discernment and therefore a widening of the gap in the value of the best and the rest.