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Great forgotten women artists of European history

I'm celebrating Women's History month!

In honor of Women’s History Month, I’m celebrating these five great forgotten women artists whose work was largely lost to history, beginning with the painter who inspired The Miramonde Series: Caterina van Hemessen.

Caterina van Hemessen

Caterina van Hemessen was a Flemish portrait artist born in 1528 who learned her craft at the elbow of her artist father. In Antwerp, she painted portraits of the wealthy, sometimes in collaboration with her father. Her work was typically painted on small wooden panels against a dark background. After marrying a musician in 1554, she travelled with him to Spain, where they both lived in the royal court for several years before returning to Antwerp. It is assumed she stopped working as an artist after her marriage. Only about a dozen of Van Hemessen’s portraits are known to survive.

In The Girl from Oto, researcher Zari Durrell becomes obsessed with a portrait attributed to fictitious 16th-century artist Cornelia van der Zee. Guess who Van der Zee is modeled after? Mmm-hmm.

Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi was a Baroque-era painter born in Rome in 1593. Also the daughter of an artist, she developed into a highly skilled painter by the time she was a teenager.

When she was raped by one of her father’s artist associates, the crime was brought to trial, where Gentileschi was tortured with thumbscrews to ensure she was telling the truth. The entire trial was transcribed; her account of the rape is devastating. Still, her attacker, a popular artist under the protection of the Pope, was never brought to justice. This trauma colored Gentileschi’s worldview and brought an extraordinary degree of emotion to her work. More about the attack and her subsequent paintings here. She eventually left Rome and established a successful workshop in Naples, where she produced paintings for kings, queens, and other wealthy folk. She died in 1652 leaving a rich legacy of paintings behind, but faded into obscurity until a few decades ago. Now she is considered one of the greatest painters of the Baroque period.

 

Elizabeth Vigée LeBrun

Elizabeth LeBrun was born in 1755 in Paris.

Her father, an artist, provided training and mentorship. (Are you sensing a pattern here? Female artists almost always had fathers, husbands, or brothers who were artists. It was the only way they could get access to training and materials.) She quickly achieved success as a portrait artist known for her elegant, flattering style. Marie Antoinette alone commissioned her to paint 30 portraits. After the French revolution, LeBrun worked abroad for 12 years. She returned to Paris and picked up where she’d left off, continuing to paint until her death in 1842. Listen to this fascinating podcast for lots of details about her life and work.

 

Clara Peeters

Clara Peeters was a still-life artist born in  Antwerp in 1594. About 40 of her works still exist today, and in 2016 the Prado Museum in Madrid hauled several of her works out of its basement and curated a show dedicated to her.

Peeters was a master of detail, texture, and light. She also hid her image and her name within several of her works. Clearly, she wanted to be seen and remembered, even if her work was largely lost to history until recently. Mira de Oto, the protagonist in The Girl from Oto, shares Peeters’ penchant for hiding herself in plain sight within her artwork. This gives modern researchers—like Zari Durrell—the ability to track an artist’s traces even if she never signed her work. Peeters died about 1657.

Judith Leyster

Judith Leyster was a Dutch Golden Age painter born in 1609 whose work was largely attributed to Frans Hals and to her husband until the 1890s. She died in 1660.


Ironically, she is not considered a “great” Golden Age artist, not compared to Hals or Rembrandt or Vermeer. And yet many of her works were believed great enough to pass as Hals originals for centuries. Make sense? Not to me. Of course, I’m just a layperson. Do you know why the art world changed its mind about those “Hals originals”? Because someone noticed Judith Leyster’s monograph on one of the artworks at an auction in 1892. In his excellent novel The Last Painting of Sara de Voes, Dominic Smith imagines a Judith Leyster contemporary whose work survives to modern times. If you enjoyed The Girl from Oto, you’ll appreciate his story as well.

Why forgotten women artists?

My fiction is about silenced stories, about voices that history forgot. I’m fascinated by the women who toiled in obscurity alongside their venerated male peers. Even if these artists’ stories never made it into the history books, even if their paintings were attributed to men,  they still occasionally manage to push their way back into the light. Sometimes science and technology deployed in the art conservation process make that happen. Other times, it just takes one astute observer to notice something that no one else has.

And suddenly, the narrative shifts.

 

 

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