Self-portrait by Judith Leyster

Women in Art

A Lovejoy Library digital exhibit exploring depictions of women in sculptures, paintings, drawings, and prints.

Throughout history, images of women have been a staple of artistic production. This digital exhibition spotlights images of women grouped into six thematic categories. The artists represented are drawn from a wide variety of cultures and time periods, ranging from Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to Renaissance Italy and Germany to 19th-century India and Japan to 20th-century America and France.

As an art object's worth lies not only in its aesthetic properties, but also in its value as a historical document, we must ask, what do these images convey about the women of these diverse time periods and cultures? How were they perceived? How were they defined? It is worth remembering that art is a powerful social force, helping to create and reinforce cultural norms. Thus, we also must ask, who created these images? Why? Who would view them?

Since the majority of these images were created by men, for a male audience, they must be not be viewed uncritically nor accepted as reliable reflections of actual women and female experience. In fact, images of women often tell us as much about men and society at large as they do about the women they depicted! They offer up models of beauty and behavior, embodying a set of cultural ideals, beliefs, values, attitudes, and biases. However, while images often reflect and perpetrate gender stereotypes, they also can serve to construct these roles in new ways, resisting the dominant narrative or providing different possibilities.

But women have not only been the subjects of art, they often have been the makers of art as well. Therefore, each thematic category features at least one female artist alongside her male counterparts. As you view the exhibition, we intend for you to consider how gender affects art production. Can we differentiate between images of women by women and those by men? And if so, what accounts for these differences?

Since women first entered the art world, gender-based assumptions combined with cultural and institutional barriers have meant that women often struggled to gain a foothold, and were forced to overcome obstacles not experienced by their male counterparts. Their training was often limited (little to no access to workshops or art academies), only certain subjects were considered appropriate (portraits, still lifes -- no nudes!), standards of propriety dictated they couldn't behave as aggressively in the public marketplace (selling their work/finding patrons), and they were told time and again that their art was only a hobby, not a suitable profession for a "lady."

Luckily, over the centuries there have been numerous exceptional women who have refused to be constrained by societal expectations of what they could do and should be, and who were able, often against great odds, to carve out successful, fulfilling careers as professional artists. As the great 17th-century Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi once wrote to her devoted patron and supporter Don Antonio Ruffo, "And I will show your Most Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do... you will find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman."

-- Introduction by Katherine Poole-Jones

Cotton pickers by Winslow Homer