Paint Schoodic

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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Writing or rewriting history


We need to redress the artist gender gap in the here and now, not in museums.
Allegory of Fame, c. 1630–1635, Artemisia Gentileschi
I smiled at a headline that read something like, “Artemisia Gentileschi and eight other woman artists found at the National Gallery.” Gentileschi has only been ‘lost’ to those who don’t know art history.

For those of us who study it, she’s exactly where she should be. Not in the first rank of the Baroque, for she was not the innovator that Caravaggio, Velázquez or Georges de La Tour were. But a solid, workmanlike painter, on a par with, say, Zurbarán or her own father, Orazio Gentileschi. That’s no small achievement after 450 years of winnowing.

David and Goliath, c. 1605-1607, Orazio Gentileschi, courtesy National Gallery of Ireland. Artemisia Gentileschi’s father was no minor painter.
Rediscovering women painters is all the rage right now. A recent study found that, in our major museums, 87% of artists represented are men. While I take exception to their methodology (crowdsourcing), I think the overall percentages are probably pretty accurate when it comes to the Renaissance and after.

For anything earlier, it’s pure speculation. We have no idea who created most of the pre-Renaissance art in our museums. We can’t assign gender or race to its creators based on our assumptions, since they’re so often wrong. Starting with Minoan culture, the great classical cultures were empires. Empires are, above all, cosmopolitan.
Judith and her Maidservant, 1613–14, Artemisia Gentileschi, courtesy Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Still, western art, from the Renaissance until the middle of the 19th century, was overwhelmingly produced by white men. This is a fact, and there are only two options—accept it and move on, or rewrite the story of western art.

All art criticism is by nature subjective. That doesn’t make it untrue. We respect great painters not just for the superlative canvases they produced, but for the influence they had on later painters. This is true not just for those who were feted in their lifetimes, but for those who lived and worked in relative obscurity, only to be discovered by later generations. Over time, our culture has reached consensus in the recognition of great art.

To change that, to elevate certain painters because of their gender would be to upset that narrative in an historically inaccurate way. Women primarily worked in the home until the late 20th century. Why try to whitewash that fact?
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638–39, Artemisia Gentileschi, courtesy Royal Collection
Where that falls apart is in the modern era, and that’s exactly where we need to redress the gender imbalance. An excellent example is the disparity between the reputations of Lois Dodd and Alex Katz. They’re contemporaries with similar achievements and resumes. But Katz is represented by innumerable top-flight museums worldwide, while Dodd’s first painting was only recently acquired by MoMA.  

Women in the arts, in 2011, earned 68¢ for every dollar earned by men. That was far worse than in the broader economy, where women could expect to earn 79¢ for every male-earned dollar. I haven’t seen much change in the last eight years.

Let’s put our efforts where they matter, in the here and now, and leave the art canon to mind itself.

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