I always begin a tad ill at ease, when writing about the past. It’s not so much that I’m anxious to share what I’ve learned. But when considering the legacy of women artists from the past, kernels of doubt bounce around, questioning the efficacy of superimposing a creative vision onto someone who’ll never have the chance to reveal its accuracy. What’s in this exercise? Drawing a line between now and then as if my brain’s capable of crafting a believable narrative, much less a cohesive one, out of observing details found in a sequence of carefully-selected examples. As if inside of every work of art hides the code to understand the person who created it; and the time period in which they lived, sufficient context for what they made.

Art is a collage of details spun together to create a surface.

Art is a collage of details spun together to create a surface. Curious folks may approach it at first glance compelled by details of how the work takes up space, the ways in which it manipulates its own pattern, the feelings aroused in the viewer based on their own history, sensibilities, taste, religion, encounters that preceded the moment of their witnessing. After a period of sustained contact, they may become aware of the brain of the entity: the coagulation of disparate elements spun together into a meeting, twisted with the effort an artist, if visible, put into the construction of an object. Depending on where the work sits on the spectrum between realism and abstraction, as well as how much an observer may know about an artist’s background, following a viewing they may feel in closer proximity to the experiences of its creator. Alternatively, they may know nothing factual and simply come away from their examination, feeling less lonely. Enlivened maybe, or pensive instead; nourished, uncertain, empty, or full.

Devotion Might Not Be So Linear

I rarely begin anything I make from a logical starting point. Frequently, I start by rubbing my hands together as they run cold, especially in the wintertime. I wrap my hands around a hot cup of coffee, for good measure. I shake. I listen to a song. I listen to a song again. I look around. I take off my t-shirt, or put on a sweater. I look up at the ceiling and a chip in its surface reminds me of how I brushed up against a stranger when thinking about a fight with a friend the day before, and in the word friend, I remember the last hug I had with her and I’m off, following the rhythm of that thought down a road in my mind loosely reminiscent of a conversation I’ve never had. From there, I’ll never know where I’ll go, whether detailing various pigments of green or the family history of this friend with whom I’m on the rocks. Or maybe I start researching the origins of the word ‘friend,’ learn of its Germanic origin. Regardless, I’d say the way in which the writing moves, as opposed to what it’s about, evidences my point of view. 

In search of some measure of solidity, we pretend. But when trying to write about the present with any kind of authority, language itself starts to stiffen, aware of the insufficiency of its attempted objectivity.

In my own experience, the historical context in which I live isn’t one I’m aware of until I exit it. Not necessarily because I’m not paying attention to the details of my surroundings. More, that the present moment is a set of circumstances much too complex to be understood from a perspective humming with clarity. Impossible to represent it, as if it lives in a snow globe: perfectly designed, insulated from surprise, contained in its own singularity. In search of some measure of solidity, we pretend. But when trying to write about the present with any kind of authority, language itself starts to stiffen, aware of the insufficiency of its attempted objectivity. What often feels more accurate, to me, is when an arrangement of words evokes something dormant in my psyche. The resonance of their composition reminds me of a sensation I’ve experienced before, a moment or a relationship. Or, its essence eerily reminds me of a scenario in my own life, as if it was a permutation of something designed by a mind not mine.  

Individuality in an Artistic Legacy

Barbara Longhi was born and most likely lived her entire life in Ravenna, Italy, the first capital city of the Western Roman Empire. By the time she was born on September 21, 1552 though, it had been eight hundred years since Ravenna’s moment of glory. Living during the Counter-Reformation, in the artistic moment between the Renaissance and Baroque periods (terms of course coined by historians centuries in the future), she made under twenty known paintings, mostly of the Madonna and Child. Historical records from her lifetime, as well as eyewitness accounts from the sixteenth century, detail there were likely many, many more, now lost to time.

Liana De Girolami Cheney’s book, Barbara Longhi of Ravenna: Art, Grace and Piety, published in December of 2023, marked the first comprehensive account of Longhi’s career. A child and sister of painters, Longhi was most likely able to craft a career as an artist because of her access to her father’s materials and mentorship. Nothing much else is known about Longhi, including whether or not she ever married, had children, or left her father’s home. This might be relevant precisely because Cheney writes that, ‘Barbara Longhi (1552–1638) was the first female painter to concentrate in her oeuvre on small devotional paintings associated with the concepts of love and tenderness between the Mother of God and Christ (Madonna and Child).’ She goes on to claim that Longhi ‘paved the way’ for other women painters in her depiction of motherhood as not just a noble but a caring pursuit.

Over and over again, the Madonna and Child reappear in her paintings, as if there was nothing else of interest to her. In one, a unicorn appears—like a hiccup. If I look at her work in order to learn something new about the Bible, I leave them disappointed. At first glance what’s most distinctive is the brightness of the skin of her subjects, it always looks supple enough to touch. Unsurprisingly, the subjects all have white skin, are healthy-looking; unrealistic for the realities of the scenes she’s portraying. All in all, these images aren’t so interesting to me, not the kind of art that usually catches my eye.

But there’s something casual in her paintings, conventionally of subjects so revered. In particular, her Madonnas always seem at ease in her various environments and scenarios. A credit to Longhi—she must have built a supportive studio environment. A sign of kindness, or attentiveness, or both. 

Madonna and Child, Barbara Longhi (Madonna holding a book with a child on her lap)
Madonna and Child
Barbara Longhi
c. 1580–1585
H 17 1/4 × W 11 3/8 in.
Oil on canvas

In one of my favorites, the Madonna is reading a book while her child sits in her lap. Her sole source of contact with the child is the baby leaning against her chest. Otherwise, the only other place of contact is her index finger, holding him up from his armpit. 

Another favorite is one where she’s nursing the baby, Joseph behind her while the infant John the Baptist watches the event unfold. What might previously have been framed as a fetishized moment of heroine-worship is treated as a part of everyday life. Mary’s sole focus is on the baby. The first time I saw an image of this painting, my eyes landed on her right hand, tucked behind where the baby’s knee is bent. The baby’s posture is bent to a natural curve. The left foot of the baby is tucked between her knees. The way in which her hand rests on his skin, it’s so easy, so full of purpose; so confident. Not the kind of fragility I’m so used to, in paintings such as these.

Art, in periods of authoritarianism, has often served as a legitimizing force for those in power, coated with the softening tinges of beauty.

Famously in a lecture in Bologna, poet and dramatist Muzio Manfredi stated that, ‘You should know that in Ravenna lives today a girl of eighteen years of age, daughter of the Excellent painter Messer Luca Longhi. She is so wonderful in this art that her own father begins to be astonished by her, especially in her portraits as she barely glances at a person that she can portray better than anybody else with the sitter posing in front.’ I can’t compare Longhi’s work with her contemporaries, as many of them are lost to history.

The Power of Patronage in Longhi’s Art

Art is a collage of details spun together to create a surface. Curious folks may approach it at first glance compelled by details of how the work takes up space, the ways in which it manipulates its own pattern, the feelings aroused in the viewer based on their own history, sensibilities, taste, religion, encounters that preceded the moment of their witnessing. Barbara Longhi lived in Italy during a time when merchants and the Catholic Church both had the financial wherewithal to fund the creation of art. Corrupt members of the church as well as the ruling political classes knew that by promoting the creation of art that elevated their belief systems and narratives of glory, civilians may submit to their rule. Art, in periods of authoritarianism, has often served as a legitimizing force for those in power, coated with the softening tinges of beauty. Beauty, which can always exist as a source of distraction or as a source of nourishment, confusion; a refracted mirror of an artist’s subjectivity in relation with their social environment.

Her approach to its representation is the only way to gauge anything about her subjectivity.

‘Mecenatismo,’ a word that loosely translates to ‘patronage,’ became the way in which wealthy and politically-influential individuals funded art in order to divert the populace from noticing the circumstances in which they became powerful and corrupt. The Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and even in the less Christian-controlled political periods following the time in which Barbara Longhi was alive, predominantly featured art concerning stories from the New Testament, often featuring scenes of the Madonna and Child. Accommodating the Catholic Church was the surest sign of future financial support. 

Longhi would no doubt have been cognizant of this. It’s impossible to know whether or not she was religious herself, but it’s certain that the historical context of the moment in which she was alive, dictated the content of her art.

Her approach to its representation is the only way to gauge anything about her subjectivity.

The Pleasure in Uncertainty

After a period of sustained contact with a work of visual art, an observer may become aware of the brain of the entity they’re looking at: the coagulation of disparate elements spun together into a meeting, twisted with the effort taken from the artist, if visible, to make an object. A woman reads a book while a child sits in her lap, likely her own. Her sole source of contact with the child is the baby leaning against her chest. Otherwise, she’s holding them up from their armpit, with only her index finger. She trusts the kid to take care of themselves; she’s indulging in a personal pleasure. Depending on where the work sits on the spectrum between realism and abstraction and how much I may know about its artist, I may feel as if in closer proximity to the experiences of its creator, less lonely. Or, as if I may too, relate to the event at its center. Alternatively, I may know not that much about the artist and still come away from my observation feeling enlivened and maybe a little pensive; nourished, uncertain, empty, and full.

Featured image:
Self-Portrait of the Artist as Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Barbara Longhi
H 13 1/2 × W 11 1/4 in. (34.3 × 28.6 cm)
Oil on panel