4 minute read

Gender in Art

The Renaissance And The Baroque

Since the Renaissance, writers, intellectuals, and artists have been increasingly engaged with gender issues, particularly in discussing the social role of the feminine. The French phrase querelle des femmes (debate about women) referred to humanist discussions about womanhood and the female place in the contemporary culture of their day. Until then, following the Aristotelian approach, women were perceived as imperfect, created inferior to men. In his De claris mulieribus (Concerning famous women), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), the Italian Renaissance poet and writer, introduced women as powerful role models. Nevertheless, the virtues that Boccaccio saw women capable of achieving were established "male qualities" of the time.

One of the first to give voice to the autonomous virtues of women was the French poetess and historiographer Christine de Pisan (c. 1363–c. 1430). In her Livre de la cité des dames (c. 1404; Book of the city of the ladies) Pisan developed a comprehensive categorization of women's positions and functions as found in the society of her time. Others, like the Dutch writer Erasmus Desiderius of Rotterdam (1466?–1536), the Spanish humanist and philosopher Juan Luis Vives (1492–1540), and the German writer and philosopher Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535), had laid the foundation for humanism's more progressed vision of women's role in society and culture.

The growing appreciation of the necessity to redefine female social roles coexisted with such phenomena as male dominance, misogyny, and the witch hunt. In Renaissance and Baroque visual arts, mostly made by men, female figures appear less often than depictions of men, irrespective of whether they are the central figures or not. In addition to their outnumbering presentations, males are mostly depicted in dominant and central positions.

Since the Middle Ages demonology had been chiefly associated with femininity. The identification of women as more prone to witchcraft than men was based on traditional misogynist beliefs of what was perceived as basic female nature. Trials of witchcraft promoted discussions of gender issues and influenced the visual arts. In Renaissance graphic art, especially in northern Europe, female sorcery was a popular theme, as can be seen in engravings and woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) and Hans Baldung Grien (1484–1545). In these works naked or partly nude, unsightly sorceresses are depicted in a variety of allegedly supernatural acts.

Renaissance portraits of women intend to convey beauty—almost archetypical—and social role. The male was defined by attributes of profession and social statues. Female portraiture in Italian Renaissance art was not meant to be a direct representation of the individual. An example in premodern Italian portraiture is the bust of a nude woman by Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521). The moralistic implication is represented by a snake around the woman's neck to remind of the dangers of temptation and lust, traditionally know as the vice of luxuria.

Eroticism—the sublimation and stylization of sexual desire—depends on culture and social milieu. In art this relation is reflected in the sublimation of sexuality. Traditionally the key elements associating gender themes to visual issues have been female sexuality and nudity. Nudity and sexuality are the predominant aspects of gender themes in Renaissance and Baroque visual art. Sandro Botticelli's (1445–1510) painting The Birth of Venus from around the year 1485 has refined symbolism with the nude goddess of love being placed within the spiritual context of Renaissance philosophy. Erotic female presentations are central in the paintings by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio; 1488 or 1490–1576), as in his erotically charged painting of Flora, the goddess of spring, flowers, and fertility. The era also saw the emergence of female patronage in arts.

During the Renaissance and the Baroque Italian, female artists such as Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) and Sofonisba Anguissola (1527–1625), offering a distinctive view of female artistic perspective at the time, promoted a more assertive image of the woman. This is most apparent when the woman becomes a violent figure as in Artemisia Gentileschi's painting Judith Slaying Holofernes. Gentileschi's heroines, struggling with the other sex and evoking strong empathy in the viewer, have become a focal point in gender studies of art history.

The Flemish Baroque artists Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) depicted women with symbolic and allegorical references, emphasizing the sitters' high social status, as was popular in traditional Italian Renaissance portraiture during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (for example, van Dyck's Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, as Prudence, 1633). Seventeenth-century Dutch portraits of women, however, express a new trend toward gender identity: men and women figures are not presented anymore as an ideal or a symbol but mostly in their realistic surroundings in a neutral manner (for example, Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck's The Regentesses of the St. Elizabeth Hospital, 1641). Rembrandt van Rijn's (1606–1669) depictions of his intimate partners Saskia van Uylenburgh and Hendrickje Stoffels suggest an authenticity that transcended traditional social gender conventions (see his Saskia as Flora, 1641). In popular seventeenth-century Dutch history paintings and genre scenes, sexuality is concealed in moralistic criticism. But in his presentation of the original sin (1638), Rembrandt transforms an archetypical presentation into a psychologically sensitive depiction of Adam and Eve as two insecure sinners.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGender in Art - From Antique Through Classical Art, Middle Ages, The Renaissance And The Baroque, Eighteenth And Nineteenth Centuries