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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.