The mysterious Clara Peeters gets her day in the sun
The Prado museum in Madrid is about 200 years old and possesses a rich collection of Baroque and Renaissance paintings. But not once has it ever hosted a solo exhibition of a female painter’s work—until now.
Clara Peeters worked in the early 1600s. Not much is known about her, and only about 40 of her paintings remain. She mostly painted still-lifes, but she managed to inject herself into her work in an ingenious way: she painted self-portraits into reflections on seven or so of her paintings. Another painting shows a knife on its side; in the edge of the knife appears her name.
The reason Clara Peeters is in the spotlight now: the wife of a curator at the Prado asked him why there weren’t any paintings by women on exhibit. So he went into the storage rooms and pulled out several by Peeters. The Prado is not the only museum that stores paintings by women while their male counterparts get all the wall space in the galleries. With this groundbreaking exhibit comes hope that more museums will follow the Prado’s example and get those paintings out of basements and into the light. Here’s a great story on NPR that gives more detail about the Peeters show and its significance.
Why am I so excited about Clara Peeters?
The Girl from Oto was inspired by a painting I saw at Oxford University, a portrait of a woman attributed to Flemish artist Caterina van Hemessen. Van Hemessen worked about a century before Clara Peeters, and she mostly did portraiture. The idea of a female artist working during the early Renaissance was intriguing to me because I assumed, like many people, that the fine arts were the realm of men in those days. In visits to museums all over Europe starting at age 12, I saw gallery after gallery full of work by “the masters” —aka men—of art. But in truth, not all of the masters were men in those days. To become an artist, a woman typically relied on a father, brother or husband who was trained in the arts and shared his knowledge with her. This was the case for Caterina van Hemessen. There were also female artists in convents. What all of these women tended to have in common was the benefit of a high social status. Women like Van Hemessen and Peeters are the proof.
There are others out there, their work languishing in dark cabinets and dank basements, their stories waiting to be dusted off. I can’t wait to learn those artists’ secrets. Until then, I’ll keep writing fictional versions of such women…because as I’m learning, fact and fiction are intertwined, and the “truth” we are told about history is simply a version of events. There are so many stories that were buried, silenced, ignored or changed in the history we have available to us. When I do my research, I try to remember that we are dealing with an imperfect historical record. It’s full of holes.
As I remind myself often: “The past does not exist. There are only infinite renderings of it.” — Ryszard Kapuscinski