As she considers her goals for the new year, art historian Yassana Croizat-Glazer reflects on some of the ways different artists, including Artemisia Gentileschi, have represented women taking action in art.
I never make resolutions. At least not in January. In fact, I have yet to meet someone who has stuck, in any lasting or meaningful way, to a resolution made under the duress of New Year’s celebrations. Then again, even in the “Before Times” my definition of the perfect New Year’s Eve involved hitting my duvet long before the ball dropped, maybe after some couch dancing wearing polyester clouds posing as slippers. This is not to say that I don’t believe in the idea of a new year bringing an opportunity for a clean start, I just prefer to follow my own timeline.
Like a fresh pair of jeans, I like to break in the year a little—seeing how we gel—before starting to chisel any plans on a tabula rasa. So far, 2022 has been cutting my circulation in some places but I still have high hopes for an excellent fit as the digital calendar clicks away. My intuition, untamable animal that it is, has been screeching at me that this is THE year to take BIG actions.
As I work on deciphering what those might be, I’ve been pondering the actions of different women past and present, and my art historian’s mind inevitably turns to the question of how women in action have been represented in the visual arts.
Look in the past, and you’ll find no shortage of drowsy female figures in western art, often reclining and nude. Portrayed passive and defenseless, they were created to remain pinned into place by the gaze of a (primarily male) viewer, their activation dependent on his imagination. The prevalence of inert, eroticized nymphs and Venuses in the history of art makes female figures who possess agency stand out even more. Although often visualized as purely masculine domains, the battlefield and related spaces occasionally offered a setting in which to present women firmly on their feet, engaging in seriously courageous acts.
Up In Arms: The Intervention Of The Sabine Women
One such image was conceived of by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) during his imprisonment for his involvement in the French Revolution, and was intended to help reconcile his fellow citizens, divided by years of bloody conflict. The painting in question centers on the Sabine women who by that point had a long history of being represented in art struggling to escape abduction by the men of Ancient Rome, who chose kidnapping as a means of improving the population growth of their fledgling city. Instead of that awful event, however, David chose to paint a later moment during which Hersilia risks her life by stepping in between her father, leader of the Sabines, and Romulus, her Roman husband, to end the fighting between both factions.
An other-worldly glow emanates from Hersilia, who balances her warrior pose with outstretched arms, creating a bridge that connects her warring father and spouse, while at her feet her vulnerable children writhe. She functions not only as an embodiment of feminine courage, but also as a personification of the French state itself. Not one to shy away from drama, David includes in the background another Sabine woman fearlessly thrusting her crying baby before a wall of spears—the children in general acting as reminders of what is at stake when conflict rules.
In addition to assisting his own political rehabilitation and the healing of his nation, David created this image celebrating resilient women as an homage to his estranged wife, who visited him in jail just before he began work on the painting (their different political views—she remained a royalist—had led to their divorce).
Lifted Skirts, Or The Power Of Anasyrma
One of the most notable features of David’s painting is the treatment of gender in relation to nudity: Hersilia is the one who is clothed, while her toned husband and father are not—a fact that created a stir when the picture was first shown. In this case, the decision to dress the picture’s heroine rested with the artist, but there also existed a tradition of depicting women taking it upon themselves to lift their skirts for the purpose of bringing about some form of change (healing, laughter, pain, etc.). Such images belong to the category of anasyrma, an Ancient Greek word that refers to the revealing of genitals, an act that has been performed in reality and in art for a variety of reasons across centuries.* Just a few years ago, artist Nicola Canavan developed “Raising the Skirt” in collaboration with Dawn Felicia Fox, an art project in which anasyrma functions both as a tool for protest and a means of celebrating difference in women.
Looking toward the past, representations of women lifting their skirts before soldiers may be found in several medieval manuscripts, and typically relate to a passage from Plutarch’s “On the Bravery of Women.” The Ancient Greek author writes how the women of Persia saved the day by shaming their men, who, having led an unsuccessful revolt, retreated home with their enemies still at their heels. Baring their vulvas, the Persian women met their husbands at the gates of their city, calling them cowards and reminding them that there was no way for them to “slink in here whence you came forth.” The embarrassed men quickly turned back to repel their opponents.
The subject was occasionally tackled by later artists as well, such as Otto van Veen (1556–1629). In this Flemish artist’s version, a soldier on horseback shields his eyes (even his horse looks away!), drawing attention to his shame, prompted by both his military conduct and the women’s lack of modesty. There is too in this gesture a hint of male terror in the face of female sexuality, a theme equally central to the ancient myth of Medusa, whose [castrating] gaze was said to turn men to stone.
Although Otto’s painting has as its primary focus a noble act performed by women, he was careful to appeal to his audience by conforming to contemporary aesthetic conventions. In other words, you’ll find no older women’s genitalia or wild pubic hairs on display here, but you will see a pair of pink buttocks courtesy of the artist’s decision to turn the figure at left, allowing him to simultaneously show different views of the youthful female body. The women of Persia might have been heroic, but to Otto van Veen and his contemporaries, that heroism needed to be suitably eroticized.
Artemisia Gentileschi And Action Painting
So how did one of the most celebrated women painters in history approach the topic of women courageously taking action? I’m talking about Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654 or later), the Roman-born artist who managed to thrive and gain international royal patronage in an age when professional women painters remained rare and were generally limited to producing still-lifes and portraiture. Like her father, Orazio, and her male peers—most famously Caravaggio—Artemisia demonstrated her skill by executing historical and biblical topics on a grand scale. In particular, the Old Testament and related apocryphal books offered many compelling subjects, such as the story of Judith, a Jewish widow renowned for her beauty, and whose city, Bethulia, was laid under siege by the Assyrian army.
In a bid to save her people, Judith visited the Assyrian general Holofernes, promising him a truce. Charmed, Holofernes invited Judith to a banquet during which he got drunk and fell unconscious, giving her the opportunity to kill him. The story fascinated numerous artists such as the German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553). Cranach as well as his workshop frequently represented the subject, placing much emphasis on Judith’s attractiveness and dazzling attire.
Praise mixed with warning define the version seen here, as female seductiveness is presented as the weapon that gets the job done (without it, Judith couldn’t have gotten close enough to wield her sword). Like many others devoted to this theme, Cranach’s composition focuses on the aftermath of the slaying to preserve a palatable distance between Judith and the act of decapitation, relegating the sword to the role of a prop and so toning down the threat that she poses.
By the time Artemisia addressed this topic in the following century, some artists had taken to presenting it in more dynamic terms by shifting the focus to an earlier moment in the story. None, however, approached it with as much intensity as Artemisia, who chose in her most famous version to portray the bloated general lying on his bed struggling as Judith pushes her sword through his neck. So many details work together here to make this an unforgettable image: the maid holding Holofernes down, the anguish in his dying eyes, the look of determination and concentration on Judith’s face as she pursues her task amid a shower of blood.
There is undeniable strength in those hands that grab and sever—the strength of one who has but one chance to make a terrible situation right—while in the painting method itself there is undeniable power too, and a clear commitment to veracity. Many have read the pronounced violence of Artemisia’s composition in relation to the fact that she was raped in 1611 by Agostino Tassi, an artist who worked with her father. Orazio pressed charges against Tassi, who was ultimately exiled while Artemisia was married to a minor artist and moved, eventually becoming the first woman to be accepted into Florence’s prestigious Academy of Art and Design.
Artemisia’s commitment to action and to her profession—at a time when neither were desirable in women—translates in memorable terms to the self-portrait illustrated here. Some women artists, such as Sofonisba Anguissola and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803) elected to show themselves in front of their canvases, well-dressed and with the tools of their trade in hand, though restrained in their movement as they gaze at the viewer. Artemisia is too busy painting with her whole being to engage with us, her capable arms bracketing the composition. The artist presents herself as an allegory of painting, effectively erasing any boundaries between her person, her gender, and her career.
On Gustave Courbet’s Woman In A Podoscaphe And Linda Nochlin
Before getting back to finessing my goals for 2022, I wanted to draw attention to an unusual (and unfinished) painting by the 19th-century French Realist, Gustave Courbet (1819–1877). In a letter dated 1865, the artist describes seeing a lady go on the water in a vessel called a “podoscaphe.” This encounter in the seaside town of Trouville prompted Courbet to start this picture of a woman in her swimwear, wielding a double-sided paddle as she glides across the sea—strong, confident and at one with her environment. It might not seem so striking to us today but for the time, showing a sporting woman on such a large scale, alone, free and active in nature was unconventional (but then again, Courbet loved to blow his pipe smoke in the face of conformity).
I’ve always liked this picture for various reasons, including the fact that when I look at it, I’m reminded of the pleasure of having sea-swept hair, a pounding heart and arms sore from fighting the tide. To me, it’s a painting that calls for meditation on the amazing adrenaline rush that comes from taking action, even risks, and always being true to oneself. And here lies another reason I’m fond of this work: it was made by an artist who owes much of his enduring fame to a woman who loved to take action, even risks, and to remain true to herself. I’m referring to the brilliant Linda Nochlin, who was once asked by art dealer Richard Feigen why there were no great women artists, to which she responded by writing an essay that remains one of the most important pieces of scholarship of the 20th century. On Linda’s birthday just a few days ago, I spent some moments reminiscing, but even more time doing.
May 2022 be a year of positive action for us all.
*Thank you to my old friend and former poker partner, medievalist Erik Gustafson, for starting a fascinating thread on Facebook about this topic that attracted contributions from scholars near and wide.