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The real women behind my newest artist heroine

Sea of Shadows stars an unsung female painter

1459: A gifted woman artist. A ruthless Scottish privateer. And an audacious plan that throws them together—with dangerous consequences.

 No one on the Greek island of Rhodes suspects Anica is responsible for her Venetian father’s exquisite portraits, least of all her wealthy fiancé. But her father’s vision is failing, and with every passing day it’s more difficult to conceal the truth. When their secret is discovered by a powerful knight of the Order of St. John, Anica must act quickly to salvage her father’s honor and her own future.

Desperate, she enlists the help of a fierce Scottish privateer named Drummond. Together, they craft a daring plan to restore her father’s sight. There’s only one problem—she never imagined falling in love with her accomplice.

History? Imagination? Or both?

What’s truth and what’s fiction in my forthcoming novel Sea of Shadows? Everything in the above blurb is based on history. Women worked as artists at that time (though most of them remained anonymous for reasons I’ll explain later). The Order of St. John of the Knights Hospitaller ruled Rhodes and the surrounding islands for two centuries. Privateers (essentially, freelance pirates) helped the knights fight off the Ottoman Turks and the Mamluks of Egypt. And the Arab world—a quick sail from Rhodes—offered advances in science and medicine that made the West’s medical system pale in comparison.

To celebrate the release of Sea of Shadows, Book 2 in my Sea and Stone Chronicles, I’m publishing a series of History Hunter’s Reports. Each post will zoom in on a chapter of history that inspired aspects of the story. Today’s post takes a look at the astonishing truth about European women artists in the medieval and early modern eras. The women I’m about to describe were the inspiration for Anica Foscolo, Sea of Shadows’ bold and talented heroine.

Real-life women artists

Evidence of women artists lingers in tax rolls and wills. In 13th-14th century Paris, for example, women made up about 10-15% of all taxed individuals. This number included artisans, widows, business owners—any female earning her own taxable income. Illuminators and embroiderers showed up frequently on the tax rolls, as did silk-weavers, brocaders, and textile finishers. Women were accepted into many trade guilds of the time, usually via family members, but some trades had free entry and accepted all who met their requirements.

Recently I discovered a woman artist, Agnes van den Bossche, who worked in the Ghent, Flanders, artists’ guild for over three decades during the 15th century. Her father and brothers were master painters. Agnes painted mostly on cloth. Her only known surviving work is a banner she was commissioned to produce for the city of Ghent. To see a high-resolution image of the below banner, click here.

On the Greek island of Rhodes, where Sea of Shadows takes place, there is evidence of Italian-trained artists who worked for the knights and for other wealthy patrons, perhaps feudal lords or merchants. I also found examples of knights commissioning Byzantine-style icons of saints. My heroine Anica Foscolo, the daughter of a Venetian artist father and a Greek mother, does not have the status Agnes van den Bosche enjoyed as a member of a guild. The true nature of her talent is a secret to all but her immediate family. This seems to have been typical for women artists of the time who worked in the family business. Their work was generally not valued and kept anonymous, or attributed to their male relatives.

My first historical fiction books, The Miramonde Series, told the story of a Renaissance-era female artist and the modern day scholar on her trail. My heroine Mira was modeled after real artist Caterina van Hemessen, who worked as a portrait artist in Flanders during the early 16th century. Her self-portrait at the easel is the earliest known such work by a male or female artist in Europe. The Latin inscription is unusual for the time, especially for a female artist: “I, Caterina of the Hemessens, painted me in 1548 at the age of 20.” For a more in-depth discussion of this portrait, go here.

All the research I did for The Girl from Oto and the other books in The Miramonde Series led me to Anica Foscolo. I learned that for every example remaining to us of women like Caterina van Hemessen, many others have been lost to history forever. Or were they?

One story that gives me chills is that of Judith Leyster, a Dutch Golden Age painter born in 1609 whose work was largely attributed to Frans Hals and to her husband until the 1890s. 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. 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.

I predict that Judith Leyster is not the last female Old Master to be rediscovered. More are waiting for us to dig a little deeper into history and uncover their secrets. And I can’t wait. In the meantime, I’ll create their imagined counterparts, confident that what I’m writing is based on real women who lived, worked, and loved hundreds of years ago.

Sea of Shadows launches in April. To pre-order the book, click here.

To buy Island of Gold, book 1 in the Sea and Stone Chronicles, click here.

2 Comments

  1. Jcassin says:

    This newsletter was so awesome to read… I love going down some of those historic research rabbit holes with you!

    1. Amy Maroney says:

      Thank you! I love taking you with me down those rabbit holes!

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