One of the most unsettling works of art I have seen for a long time is a small sketch in a school atlas that was identified last year as a self-portrait by the young Charlotte Brontë. Why is it so unsettling? Because of the talent it shows. Could she have been an artist as well as a great writer – and how many other talented women have found their ability to draw trivialised or suppressed through the centuries?
Brontë found her voice in literature, of course, as did her sisters, while her brother Branwell tried to become a professional artist. Why was it the boy, in this brilliant family, who got to call himself an artist? And why is it that while women have often been able to pick up a pen and become great writers, visual art was an almost entirely male preserve before modern times?
It is not too late to make restitution. The Prado in Madrid is doing its bit – after being in existence since the age of Goya, it is at last putting on its first ever exhibition dedicated to a woman painter. Its show about the 17th-century Flemish still life artist Clara Peeters, travelling to Spain from the Royal Museum of Fine Art in Antwerp, turns the spotlight on one of the rare women who ignored prejudice, patronising colleagues and educational disadvantages to become a professional painter in the age of Rubens and Rembrandt.
Think how courageous these women must have been. It takes a lot for women to make it in the art world today – as the Guerrilla Girls never cease to point out, men still dominate art in many ways. But when Clara Peeters was painting her still lives, the dice were even more heavily loaded. To become a painter or sculptor, you needed to train in very refined skills. Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo became apprentices in famous artists’ workshops at the beginning of their teenage years. The apprentice system was run by all-male guilds. The rise of academies that sought to raise the social status of artists did not improve things much, for they too were self-consciously masculine, especially when it came to drawing the nude.
We can’t change history but we can try to see the truth about the women who defied these colossal odds. It is outrageous how little justice has been done to them. The gender hierarchies of the past can’t be overturned, but the sexism of today can. The Royal Collection in London is doing something surprisingly radical. It is about to open an exhibition called Portrait of the Artist, which features drawings and paintings of some of the greatest artists in history. Yet the image it is using to promote the show is not by Rembrandt or Leonardo. Its poster girl is Artemisia Gentileschi, whose self-portrait as a muscular artist in a green dress has been in the Royal Collection since the 17th century.
I wrote recently about Gentileschi’s powerful art and heroic story. Good for the Queen, for giving her top billing over the old masters at her gallery. The fact is that women such as Peeters and Gentileschi are still victims of prejudice, long after their deaths. The late critic Brian Sewell loved to say, “There has never been a first-rank woman artist.” Quoted like that it sounds wildly provocative, as he intended, but the rarity of exhibitions that focus on women artists of the past suggests that most museums tacitly agree.
The ghost of Sewell would scorn the rediscovery of these women as special pleading. You can’t just make so-so artists into great ones by saying they are something they are not. Yet we often just don’t see enough of their art to put it in context and assess its quality – which an exhibition makes possible. Among the very few paintings by women in the National Gallery is a brilliant self-portrait by the 18th-century French artist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. She finally got a big retrospective earlier this year that has made it much easier to see the true scale of her achievements.
Of course, there are advantages to seeing women artists not by themselves, but beside their male contemporaries. For in one way I agree with Sewell. Greatness matters. That is why it is so moving to come across Gentileschi’s work in the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio exhibition. Most visitors will agree that after Caravaggio himself, she is one of the most impressive artists there. At the Queen’s Gallery we can compare her with Rembrandt, Rubens and Lucian Freud. She will shine. Gradually, and at last, museums are giving the women of earlier times who beat the odds their due. Let’s put these great artists up where they belong.
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