Have you seen the unveiling of the new MOMA? After a $450 million renovation that added needed space, it has revised its relationship with women. Gallery 206 has work by women artists from India, Romania, Colombia, South Africa, etc. Its renovation has come about because of the growing backlash in the art world to be more inclusive. The Guerilla Girls, a feminist art collective in the 90s, brought the needed attention to the fact that while 80% of the subjects of fine art were women, less than 5% of the art was made by women. The group reframed the question: “Why haven’t there been more great women artists throughout Western history?” into “Why haven’t more women been considered great artists throughout Western history?”
So let’s start by considering great ancient Greek women artists, the ones who you have never heard of because, well, the male academy refused to teach. It is so hard to even find mention of ancient Greek female artists because in general terms, Greek society viewed women as less valuable than livestock. When women do stand out from the historical record, it probably meant they weren’t just good, they were exceedingly good.
The source for these three female artists is the same: the historian Pliny the Elder. Pliny the Elder (23/24–79 ce), the Roman scholar and encyclopedist, has left in books 33–37 of his Naturalis Historiae (Natural History) a history of art to his day. This portion of his large work contains the most complete extant compendium of the facts and names of ancient painting, for the most part drawn on Greek and Latin sources that are now lost. After listing and briefly discussing the works and careers of several famous male artists, Pliny breaks off at 35.147–8 for a very brief digression on women painters. This passage (some 16 lines) contains little more than the names of five (or possibly six) women artists along with their most notable work. Not surprisingly, they learned the craft from their fathers who were artists. Art education was non-existent for women in ancient Greece as it was in Europe in the 16–19th centuries, since women were barred from studying the nude model, which formed the basis for academic training and representation.
Let’s start with one such female artist, Eirene, my namesake.
Ancient Greek painter who executed a portrait of a young maiden at Ephesus. Name variations: Eirene, Yrenes. Pronunciation: ee-RAY-nay. Date and place of birth uncertain; daughter and pupil of the painter Cratinus.
Irene is the second female painter mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History 35.147-8. All of the few facts we know of her life and career are found in his account; the Greek author Clement of Alexandria also mentions her father Cratinus, a painter of whom we have no other record. Pliny’s direct statement that she learned her skill at her father’s feet, repeated in the case of Aristarete , is worthy of notice. Pliny mentions just one of her works, saying that she painted “a maiden” (puellam) at Eleusis. That this portrait might have had some significance in the rites of the mystery cult of Demeter, an Olympian who may be characterized broadly as an Earth Mother or goddess of corn, seems to be supported by two considerations. First, Eleusis was the ancient center of Demeter worship. Second, the Latin puella translates directly from the Greek koré, which was the cultic name of Persephone, Demeter’s daughter and a major figure in her myth, found in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.
The next name after Irene in Pliny’s list of female artists is Calypso . Both an imperfect text and the fact that this name was usually reserved for immortals has led some to suggest that Calypso (the sea nymph who imprisoned Odysseus on her island for 11 years) is actually the mythical subject of another painting by Irene. If this is true, the three portraits that follow the name Calypso are actually Irene’s, making her the author of “An Old Man,” “The Juggler Theodorus,” and “The Dancer Alcisthenes”—five paintings in all. Further, if this Alcisthenes is identical with a man of the same name mentioned in an extant inscription at Delphi, then we may date Irene’s working career to the years around 200 bce.
Giovanni Boccaccio”> I thought her work worthy of some praise, since it is very unusual for women, and is not pursued without a high degree of talent, which is customarily most rare in them.
Despite the lack of sure information on Irene in the Natural History, she gained the attention of the 14th-century Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio in his work On Famous Women, where he introduces her as “Yrenes.” While Boccaccio’s presentation of Irene and other ancient women painters adds nothing factual to Pliny and in some places misinterprets him, his discussions are both amusing and indicative of the place of women in the society and historical consciousness of early Renaissance Italy. Further, by imitating Pliny’s interest in female artists, Boccaccio helped to make other writers aware of their achievements to such a degree that Wendy Slatkin can say, “It would be hard to exaggerate the importance for the subsequent history of women artists of Pliny’s brief paragraph about the women artists of antiquity and Boccaccio’s elaborations on it.” It seems clear, then, that though we possess neither remains of Irene’s work nor knowledge of its influence, she has nevertheless exerted some creative force in the history of Western culture. (encyclopedia.com)
Ancient Greek painter who painted a portrait of the goddess Artemis at Ephesus. Name variations: Timareta; Thamaris; Thamar. Pronunciation: teem-aret-AY. Probably born after the 90th Olympiad (420–417 bce), perhaps in Syracuse in the 3rd century bce; probably daughter of the artist Micon.
Timarete is the first woman painter on Pliny the Elder‘s list, which is given in reverse alphabetical order. His notice of her is limited to one sentence: “Timarete, daughter of Micon painted a very archaic panel-portrait of Diana at Ephesus.” From elsewhere in the chapter (35.59) we know that Micon was also a painter, and thus we can group Timarete with two other women on the list, Aristarete and Irene , as daughters with famous artist fathers. If it is true that Irene painted a portrait of Persephone for Eleusis, then another similitude links her with Timarete. Diana, the Greek Artemis, was the city patron and chief attraction for pilgrims to Ephesus, and it is not inconceivable that a portrait of her, especially described in the terms that Pliny uses, was connected to aspects of the goddess’ cult there.
Like Irene and Iaia , Timarete (whom he calls “Thamaris”) captured the attention of Boccaccio in his De Mulieribus Claris (On Famous Women). “Indeed, her work is worthy of much praise,” he said.
Ancient Greek painter who painted an Asclepius. Birth and death dates unknown; born to the painter Nearchus and an unknown mother; taught to paint by her father.
Painting on walls or panels was highly favored in Classical antiquity; a number of testimonials in ancient sources praise painters and record some of their names. Unfortunately, it is also probably the least well-preserved of all the art forms of Greece. Nevertheless, the survival of a fairly large number of Roman frescoes at Pompeii, Herculanum, and elsewhere in the Roman world, many of which reproduce Greek themes and probably had Greek models, allows some insight into the techniques and scope of the genre as a whole.
The note on Aristarete reads in full: “Aristarete, the daughter and pupil of Nearchus, painted an Asclepius.”
Pliny the Elder”>There have also been women artists.
Pliny tells us nothing of the dates or local origins of either Aristarete or her father, though we can infer from their names that they were Greek and lived at some point before the time of his writing. Other than the fact that women did paint, Pliny says little about what might have distinguished a woman’s approach to this art; thus, women’s painting in antiquity is a dusty corner of an already obscure field. Two preserved wall paintings from Pompeii, however, offer some confirmation of women’s participation in the visual arts: one shows a woman painting a statue, another depicts a woman sitting at her easel.
Ancient Greek painter, mostly of women’s portraits. Pronunciation: ee-EYE-ah. Name variations: Laia; Lala; Laya; Maia; Marcia; Martia. Born at an unknown date in Cyzicus (near present-day Erdek in Turkey, on the Sea of Marmara); never married.
Painted panels and ivories; executed a large portrait of an old woman on a wooden panel in Naples, and a self-portrait.
Of the five women whom Pliny the Elder includes in his discussion of painters in the Natural History 35.147, he tells us most about the medium, subjects, quality and technique of Iaia’s work. Useful as this information is, it is still ultimately tantalizing. We are told, for example, that Iaia was originally from Cyzicus (a very old Greek colony on the south shore of the Sea of Marmara in present-day Turkey) but that she was active in Rome “during the youth of Marcus Varro,” placing her floruit at perhaps 100 bce. That a talented Greek of this period could find patronage in Rome, by this point virtual master of the Mediterranean and eager to inherit the sophisticated high culture of its Hellenistic subjects, is not surprising. That a woman was able to do so raises many questions about the circumstances of Iaia’s education and relocation which are impossible to answer. Unlike several of the other women painters on his list, Pliny does not mention Iaia’s father’s name or profession, so we cannot speculate that she trained in art with him and then followed him to Rome, or know if she established a reputation in Asia Minor before coming to Italy.
Additional interesting facts in Pliny’s sketch seem to distinguish Iaia from other male and female artists, yet they too lack the connecting detail of a satisfactory biography. For example, he tells us that Iaia painted mostly portraits of women, and also that she was a lifelong virgin (perpetua virgo). We do not know the circumstances that caused her to choose her favorite subject matter, or indeed if this choice had any connection with her marital status in a society in which most free women were expected to marry. Some have speculated that she may have belonged to a priesthood or cult for which chastity was required, but we have no record of any such that fostered artistic members. Nevertheless, glimmers of a personality seem to show around Pliny’s description of her skill and success: “No one else had a quicker hand in painting,” he says, and he goes on to report on the financial rewards of her talent: “her artistic skill was such that in the prices she obtained she far outdid the most celebrated portrait painters of the same period, Sopolis and Dionysius, whose pictures fill the galleries.” While he says nothing explicit of her character, it is tempting to read into this account of her competition with male artists the presence of a healthy ego; Pliny also tells us that she painted (with the assistance of a mirror) a self-portrait, a genre not mentioned often in Classical sources.
Iaia was skilled in the use of the brush, the common implement for painting on panels of wood, linen, and marble. She also used the cestrum, a kind of graver, on ivory, in the imperfectly understood technique of encaustic, which involved applying hot wax varnish to previously applied paint. Unfortunately, like all but one of the known women artists of antiquity nothing of her work or its influence remains. The attention Pliny gave her, however, has not gone unnoticed by subsequent historians of art. It is the allure of her achievements as much as the corrupt text in which they are recorded that is responsible for the numerous speculations from the time of Boccaccio on the true form of her name, which is still uncertain.
So a few but vital names to add to your list of great artists: Eirene, Timarete, Aristarete, Iaia.
To find great female artists in the present is as hard as in the past. It is ironic that a major exhibition “Women in Modern Greek painting” taking place at the B&M Theocharakis Foundation in Athens as we speak, features not one work by a female artist.
Supposedly it “showcases 85 outstanding works by major Greek artists” and “focuses on the evolution of the portrayal of Greek women in Modern Greek art within the two centuries since establishment of the independent state of Greece.” Funny how women are the last to understand themselves as artists in Greece which is still steeped in gender disparity.
It will take a long time to set the record straight, but the first step is through education.
More statistics on the underrepresentation of women and other minorities in the arts:
- A recent data survey of the permanent collections of 18 prominent art museums in the U.S. found that out of over 10,000 artists, 87% are male, and 85% are white. (Public Library of Science)
- The annual Freelands Foundation report found that at London’s major arts institutions, only 22% of solo shows were by women artists—an 8% decrease from 2016 data. (Freelands Foundation)
- A 2015 special issue of ARTnewson “Women in the Art World” featured a report by curator Maura Reilly revealing a huge gender disparity in solo exhibitions, with few major institutions even reaching 30%, Relatedly, The Art Newspaper reported that of 590 major exhibitions by nearly 70 institutions in the U.S. from 2007–2013, only 27% were devoted to women artists. (ARTnews, The Art Newspaper)
- In the top 20 most popular exhibitions around the world in 2017, only one was headlined by a woman artist: Yayoi Kusama: My Eternal Soul at the National Art Center, Tokyo (The Art Newspaper)
(Source: National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C.)