AGO: Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400 – 1800 (part 1)

I was really looking forward to this as I know very little (as most people) of the women artists during this time period. I learned a lot which I will share with you. However, it is huge – 230 artifacts, 130 women artists and makers, known and unknown, working in various disciplines.

Because of the size of the exhibition, I’m covering it in 2 parts. It was co-organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Baltimore Museum of Art. It runs until July 1.

“Co-curated by Dr. Alexa Greist, AGO Curator and R. Fraser Elliott Chair, Prints & Drawings and Dr. Andaleeb Banta, BMA Senior Curator and Department Head, Prints, Drawings & Photographs, the decision to exclusively display objects made by women makes this exhibition unique, and among the first to put women makers of various levels of society in conversation with each other, across centuries and a continent, through their artworks.”

“The Crucifixtion”, 1647-1648, Barberini Tapestry Workshop – Rome.
Caterina Della Riveria, Workshop Director

This is the first piece that greets you. I had to put myself in the picture to give you a sense of perspective. Over 350 years old – I was amazed to be standing next to something this precious. Thank you Maria.

The tapestry workshop was founded by Cardinal Francesco Barberini. From 1648 to 1679 it was directed by a group of women.

It is one of a series of tapestries of Jesus. Maria Maddalena della Riviera was the director of production for this panel.

The bee, located in the corners, was the Cardinal family’s symbol.

“Papal Medal”, bronze, 1694. Rome – Beatrice Hameriani

At the age of 17, Beatrice was the youngest (and only) woman to design a papal medal. She died young in childbirth but her family continued to output her designs.

“Frog Service”, Wedgewood dinner plate, 1774 – Sarah Wilcox

This was part of a 952 piece set commissioned by Russian Empress Catherine the Great for her summer home Frog Marsh. There were at least 5 women painters who worked on the pieces. Sarah Wilcox did the borders and I hope the little green frog.

“Rimmonim (Torah finials), 1784, silver. Hester Bateman. These bells would be rung as the leader of the congregation carried the Torah across the synagogue.

Although Hester was not Jewish, her silver workshop created religious objects for the Jewish populations of London and Portsmouth.

“Yad – Torah Pointer”, 1781, gilt silver. Hester Bateman.

I sat down to listen to the music that was playing after reading this. It was on very low volume and had difficulty hearing it.

“Judith With the Head of Holofernes”, 1596, Milan. Fede Galizia

Okay, you just have to be fascinated with the expression on her face as she holds the head. Holofernes was an invading general that Judith seduced then beheaded him. The servant is probably thinking I wonder what she’ll do next.

“Portrait of Marquess Massimiliano Stampa, 1557, Italian. Sofonisba Anguissola

Okay, put a dog in the painting and I’ll stay for awhile and study it. This was Sofonisba’s first commissioned work. She became a superstar during her time with King Philip II of Spain asking her to be art teacher to Queen Elisabeth of Valois.

The dog looks quite comfy.

There was somethings added to this exhibit besides sight – scent and touch. They had setup interactive stations that invited participants to partake. Because of the variety of materials and disciplines used in the exhibit, the “do not touch” rule was lifted at these stations.

“The Christ Child as Pilgrim”, 1676, Portuguese. Josefa Ayala (Josefa de Obidos)

I just loved the hat for child Jesus – he was a stylish lad. Josefa was the only known woman to have worked as a painter in Portugal. She has about 150 works attributed to her.

“Portrait of Costanza Alidosi”, around 1595, Bologna Italy. Lavinia Fontana

Symbolism – the dog represents faithfulness (of course). Chasteness from the juniper berries tucked in the bodice (who knew?). Fontana had many commissions from the Italian elite.

“Oval plaque with the Annunciation”, around 1600, painted enamel and gilding on copper. French. Suzanne de Court.

Suzanne was the only woman enameler to sign her work – the initials SC in the top left. Not much is known about her but it’s conjectured she was the wife or daughter of an important enameller as it was the only way for a woman to become master of a workshop.

“Goblet with the Royal Arms of George III”, 1762-1763, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Colourless and opaque white lead glass, enamel, gilding. Beilby Workshop.

Mary Beilby, the youngest of five, was a painter of floral scenes. Her sister, Elizabeth, acted as agent, securing commissions like this goblet.

The next section was “Private Devotion”. Up until now the two main benefactors were the wealthy aristocracy and the Catholic Church. The objects in this section were for personal devotion, remaining in the wealthy households as part of their daily life. They were a reflection of their lives and beliefs.

Baby Jesus and Madonna paintings. This image was quite popular in households. Guess it helped in raising the kids.

From the left – “Virgin and Child”, 1663, Italian. Elisabetta Sirani

“Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis”, 1578, Italian. Lavinia Fontana

“Virginia Mary and Infant Jesus”, around 1570-1580, Italian. Barbara Longhi

The next section “Personal Worlds” explores “themes of family, friendship, education and self-promotion. Although modest in scale, these objects speaks volumes about the way women engaged with with artistic and material creativity as a means of self-expression and community building.”

“Embroidered pocket”, 1700s, linen, silk embroidery. Unidentified English Embroiderer

These pockets were worn under the dress and tied to the waist. There were books available with patterns for embroidered pockets.

“Young Woman Embroidering”, around 1815-1820, French. Marguerite Gerard

“Reliquary in the shape of a heart”, 1600s, French. Unidentified Ursuline Nuns. This would hold religious relics from pilgrimages or visits to sacred sites.

Next to this reliquary was a scent station. I almost missed it. It contained incense in the box. Being raised Catholic, one of the strongest childhood memories of the mass was the incense and how it made me feel sick. Thankfully that did not reoccur when I opened the box and smelt the contents.

“Offices of the Virgin Mary”, 1727, Venice, Italy. Bound volume of engravings.
Elisabetta (Isabella) Piccini

“Mary Magdalene in the initial G”, Italian, around 1503-1515; iron gall ink and red ink, opaque watercolour, gold leaf, shell gold on vellum. Eufrasia Burlamacchi

This is from an antiphonary – books that contain call-and-response chants. They contain depictions of saints to create connections between the divine and the viewer.

“Women have been illuminating manuscripts – the art of hand-decorating a book with rich colours and gold and silver flourishes- in religious settings since at least the 11th century.

“Bed Hanging”, 1700s; linen ground with wool and silk embroidery threads. Unidentified French Embroiderers

I put my walking stick next to it to give you a sense of its size.

Another touchy, feely station.

“Men’s nightcap”, around 1580; linen plain weave embroidered with silk, metallic thread, metal sequins, trimmed with metallic-thread lace. Unidentified English Embroiderer

Okay, I would wear this. I understand they didn’t have central heating so needed to keep their head warm at night. But I’d wear it outside on a regular basis.

“Paper filagree cabinet on stand with hairwork and watercolour panels”, 1789; English.
Sophia Jane Maria Bonnell, Mary Anne Harvey Bonnell

There was a video to accompany this cabinet which explained in more detail what went into the making of it.

However, I was more interested in touching the horse hair tail. And I know many dog owners who keep a locket of their pet’s hair after it has passed on.

It was at this point I decided to leave and come back for the second half. It was certainly a lot to take in. Interesting thing to note was the lighting. There were these designs lighting the floor I asked one of the attendants and she said it was part of the exhibition but did not know whose designs they were.

For Part 2, I’m going to focus on 4 of the artists and describe their life and art.