Reverence, Respect, Omission or Violence – Paintings on Women Over Centuries

This blog post can not adequately cover how women are depicted over centuries in art masterpieces.  After all, PhD dissertations and books have been churned out on narrow topics for just one artist and their paintings or just one country’s century- long treatment of women in art.

I’m just going to take a stroll with highlights of art in galleries and museums we’ve encountered.  It’s been predictable, sometimes pleasantly surprising, curious or just shocking.

Painting of perhaps a saint slaying Evil. National Museum of Catalonian Art. Barcelona, Spain 2016. Photo by J.Chong

Saint, Courtesan, Rich Family Member or Simply Not There
First, it helps to understand historic and at times, religious context when looking a collection of paintings and sculptures.  Not surprisingly, many great European cathedrals and churches where some great art is preserved, there are very few female images.  Except for the Virgin Mary, especially in Catholic dominant countries.  Or Mary Magdelene, who has been historically viewed wrongly as a prostitute, now was perhaps Jesus’ ally as an independent woman acting on her own with financial means.¹

Virgin Mary, surrounded angels. Common in Catholic churches. National Museum of Catalonian Art. Barcelona, Spain 2016. Photo by J.Chong
Rare Renaissance painting of women, most likely saints in 1 painting. Augustine Museum. Freiburg, Germany 2010. Photo by J.Chong

In dimly lit cathedrals, there are many stories in stained glass and paintings, where women are often non-existent, not the central focus or lost in the crowd.  When the occasional nun or rich benefactoress (usually someone’s wife or daughter) in medieval or Renaissance artwork, it’s a pleasant jolt.

Rare painting has women of socio-economic wealth. National Museum of Catalonian Art. Barcelona, Spain 2016. Photo by J.Chong.


Child supplicant before the church leaders. Musee des Beaux-Art. Dijon, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong

Woman as Sinner, Evil Slayer or Mother-Leader
While in Dijon’s Musee des Beaux-Arts in France, it was shocking to see gruesome paintings of a woman flogged, lowered in scalding water or decapitated.  Obviously these were stories of women who were deemed to be evil and beyond forgiveness.  So end their lives publicly to teach the crowds “a

Vignettes of “sinned” woman and fer fate. Includes confession, arrest, flogging and prayer protection from further evil. Musee des Beaux-Arts. Dijon, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong
Another fate: thrown into water. Musee des Beaux-Arts. Dijon, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong.
“Sinned” woman before execution, then decapitated. Musee des Beaux-Arts. Dijon, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong
Medieval stained glass depicting persecution of Christians. Freiburg Cathedral, Germany 2010. Photo by J.Chong

lesson”. There was nothing in such paintings to show anyone was trying to save the woman.  One wonders if these women just had a dalliance on the side (I didn’t see men get executed for adultery, in paintings.),  expressed an unpopular, independent opinion or challenged authority of the day.

On the other extreme, were occasional paintings of an artistocratic woman or Virgin Mary who literally towered over her dwarf supplicants. There are some rare paintings where a woman is heroically slaying Evil with a sword.  Evil is usually depicted as an ugly monster.

Rare, fine portrait of solo common woman worshipper. Musee des Beaux-Art, Dijon, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong
Garden party of aristocrats. Musee des Beaux-Arts. Dijon, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong

Male Artist and Women Central to His Life
When we were in Seattle Museum of Art, for special exhibit of American Andrew Wyeth’s masterful paintings, I couldn’t help but wonder the pain that his wife must have felt, for seeing the nude paintings of his red-haired lover, Helga, a

Helga. By American painter, Andrew Wyeth. Special exhibit, Seattle Art Museum 2018. Helga was Wyeth’s lover. Photo by J.Chong.
Painting of maypole dance which includes Wyeth’s wife, his lover Helga. Artist is obscured by dancer in denim jacket.  He leads the circular dance. By Andew Wyeth. Photo by J.Chong 2018.
Grey stormy seas and flying feathers caused by struggling birds, reflects domestic conflict and unease at home by the sea. By Andrew Wyeth. Special exhibit. Seattle Art Museum 2018. Photo by J.Chong.

neighbour.  Wyeth depicts internal domestic chaos in a painting of houses by the roiling ocean and bird feathers tossed by the wind, as if after a bird struggle.   In contrast,  Canadian Alex Coville’s paintings of his wife, by contrast, are loving, thoughtful and reflective in his painterly touch.

Painting based on couple based on artist’s own marriage with wife. By Alex Colville. Special exhibit. Art Gallery of Ontario 2014. Photo by J.Chong. Alex acknowledges his wife who also had a fine arts degree, gave up her career to raise their 4 children.
Woman in Bathtub. By Alex Coville. Special exhibit, Art Gallery of Ontario 2014. Photo by J.Chong. Wife provides inspiration for several paintings.

Though I may have imposed my own interpetations of  artwork I saw, there are historic compelling reasons why in Europe and some great Asian art, women as the central focus of great artwork up to the 19th century, tends to be rarer or simply focused very narrowly on women: of higher socio-economic class, as a sexual partner or their association with a man of power and influence.

Incomplete Story in Artwork:  Right to Vote
Even the innocuous statute tableau in Calgary, featuring famous  Canadian suffragettes who lobbied successfully for women to vote in 1921, needs to be viewed correctly.  The right to vote for women was only for white women.

Part of the ‘Famous Five’, sculpture of the Canadian suffragettes responsible for enabling women to vote in 1921 in Canada. Downtown Calgary. Photo by J.Chong . Jane’s Walks, on local urban sites sets history right: Asian-Canadian and native Indian women got the right to vote from 1940’s onward.

Chinese-Canadian women didn’t vote until 1947, when Parliament of Canada granted the right to all Chinese-Canadians after much lobbying by Chinese-Canadian war veterans whose comrades lost their lives in WW II.  The Japanese-Canadian women were able to vote later in 1949 –long  after disbandment of the Japanese-Canadians from internment camps during WWII.   First Nations or native Indian women, didn’t get the right to vote in Canadian federal and provincial elections, until 1961.

I still appreciate the art, even if gruesome or it’s only a narrow lens into a tiny fraction how people lived or what they believed, centuries or just 70 years ago.  Just knowing more of the story behind the painting or the omission of women, will reveal the artist’s biases or desires.

Woman Doing Headstand. By Alex Colville. Special exhibit at Art Gallery of Ontario. Unorthodox position conveys strength and independence.
Painting by Alex Colville. Special exhibit, Art Gallery of Ontario 2014. Photo by J.Chong

Interesting Reading
¹Bernstein, Alon and Isaac Scharf. “The Real Face of Mary Magdalene”:  Why the Long-Maligned Disciple is Seen in New Light.” In National Post, Mar. 30, 2018.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “Women & the Right to Vote: An Important Clarification.” Feb. 26, 2013.


8 Comments Add yours

    1. Jean says:

      Appreciate your comment, WFB

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Sue Slaght says:

    Jean I admit I had not given the topic of women in art much thought so I truly enjoyed taking this art walk with you.


    1. Jean says:

      Hope at least you saw something abit unexpected. Ever since I saw those paintings in Dijon awhile ago, I started to reflect what I had seen over the years.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mabel Kwong says:

    It is interesting to note that nudity was a common depiction in some of these forms of art.


    1. Jean says:

      Much of the religious art does not feature nudity at all except for portrayals of Adam and Eve. When one looks at the whole body of great art in Europe and even Asia, there’s not that much nude paintings of women prior to 19th century. We might tend to assume top nude sculptures of Greek and Roman goddesses were the norm. But just here and there.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Marta says:

    I think the “sinner women” section is not sinners, but martyrs! Notice that all those women have the saint halo on their heads. They were probably killed for their beliefs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      I only used the term for other impressions of women in all areas of paintings. History liked to blame some women for all sorts of “evils”.

      Liked by 1 person

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