Pre-modernist art excluded women from its academies – so it’s no wonder there are so few great female artists before 1900
The death of the surrealist Leonora Carrington is a reminder that the 20th century was the first in which women began to win equality in the world of art. Before 1900, women artists were incredibly few. In the Renaissance and Baroque periods a woman who became an artist was likely to be part of a family of artists, like Artemisia Gentileschi, the brilliant daughter of painter Orazio Gentileschi, because that was the most likely way she could get a training otherwise closed to women.
In fact, there is a link between the craft traditions of art and the dominance of men. Male critics who still, today, think it is clever todenigrate women artists ignore the social history of painting andsculpture. These skilled arts were taught according to the guild system, and then through academies that started to appear in 16th-century Europe. They were subject to rigid social controls that imagined the relationship between master and apprentice, teacher and pupil, as one of father and son. It was only when the idea of well-crafted art was attacked by a variety of movements (not just Duchamp) in the 20th century that women started to get a look-in.
This is one of the reasons why, by the end of the 20th century, these ancient crafts in art were disparaged and why today the freedoms modern art bequeathed seem infinitely more liberating. It is true that pre-modernist art excluded those without access to its training system.
Contrast the story of art with the story of writing. In literature all you really need is pen, paper and literacy, and so women writers were more effectively able to defy male prejudice, and make their voices heard, from Heloise in medieval France to Mary Shelley in the Romantic age. There are great female voices throughout the history of western literature. It is far harder to find great women artists before 1900.
It is worth remembering that when you look at old paintings you are looking through the eyes of men, by and large. This is frustrating. The art of, say, the Dutch golden age gives the powerful sense that we are spying on a real world: but we are spying with male eyes, except for those exceptional women who defied their culture. The Dutch 17th-century painter Judith Leyster is one of these women and Rachel Ruysch is another.
One of the great themes of European painting, that of Susanna and the Elders, is all about the male gaze. This Biblical story, in which a young woman is spied on by old men, was painted by many Renaissance and Baroque artists because it was an opportunity to depict naked flesh. YetArtemisia Gentileschi turned the tables and painted it from her point of view, making the woman who is being spied on the central character, and showing her anxiety. Sometimes a male artist also seems to recognise the woman’s vulnerability in this story, as Tintoretto does inhis richly ambiguous version of Susanna and the Elders. As it happenshe had a daughter – and she became an artist