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All Objects Great and Small: Making Her Mark at the Baltimore Museum of Art

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BmoreArt’s Picks: November 21-26

It wouldn’t be a show about early Modern women artists without the requisite paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes, and the Baltimore Museum of Art’s exhibition, Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400-1800 doesn’t disappoint.

The opening gallery pairs Artemisia Gentileschi’s Caravaggesque “Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes” (c. 1623-25) with Fede Galizia’s 16th century take on the topic alongside two other severed male heads: Luisa Roldán’s twin polychrome sculptures of Saint Paul and Saint John the Baptist. The effect is one of a lot of murder, by the literal hands of female artists. 

These stunning depictions of violence are nested in the first gallery of the exhibition, which welcomes the viewer with carmine red walls and works by some of the most famous women artists of the era, including Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun and Lavinia Fontana. Overall, you’re left with an impression of a kind of curatorial iconoclasm or an art historical joke about “killing your darlings” that is both funny and a bit on the nose. But what makes this opening gallery particularly interesting is that these canonical works of women’s art history surround an elegant centerpiece of 17th century lacework from the BMA’s own Cone Collection. From its very entrance, the exhibition whispers, “Come for the blockbusters but stay for the decorative art and material culture.”

Co-curated by Andaleeb Badiee Banta, Senior Curator and Department Head, Prints, Drawings & Photographs at the BMA and Alexa Greist, Curator and R. Fraser Elliott Chair, Prints & Drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Making Her Mark intentionally breaks down the categories of canonical art history, showing work by women from traditional high art disciplines like painting, drawing, and sculpture alongside often anonymous, or uncredited (and sometimes originally miscredited) works of decorative art, craft, and material culture like embroidery, paper-cutting, and lacemaking.

 

Installation view including (left to right): Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes. c. 1623; Luisa Roldán’s twin polychrome sculptures of the severed heads of Saint Paul and Saint John the Baptist; and Maria Maddalena della Riviera and workshop at Barberini Manufactory, Rome, Apollo and Attendants Flaying Marsyas. c. 1662.
Installation view, Making Her Mark at the BMA
The smaller it is, the stranger it seems, probably the cooler it is.
Andaleeb Badiee Banta

Making Her Mark is itself is a multi-year, collaborative project that deliberately expands the work of pioneering feminist art historian, Linda Nochlin, author of the oft-cited essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” 

I must admit that when I first heard about the show, I thought, Didn’t Linda Nochlin already do this in the 1970s? Indeed, the curators acknowledge in the exhibition catalog that Making Her Mark is a response to Anne Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin’s pivotal Women Artists, 1550-1950, which was first installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976.

While that exhibition was foundational in the field of feminist art history, Banta and Greist are critical of the fact that the show relied on an assumption that the artistic culture of early modern Europe consisted almost entirely of works that fit “the male established criterion of singular brilliance with the paintbrush.” The move away from centering painting is what makes Making Her Mark so special.

As we wandered the show’s galleries, Banta confided, “Keep an eye out because the smaller it is, the stranger it seems, probably the cooler it is.” 

The show is organized into four thematic areas: Faith and Power, which focuses on religious works and political commissions; Interiority, which includes often overlooked work largely from the domestic sphere; The Scientific Impulse, which focuses on scientific illustrations and naturalist drawings and paintings; and The Entrepreneurial Spirit, which is organized around women’s roles in the business of arts and education.

Each section of the show is designated by a different wall colorall equal in opulence to the opening galleries’ cadmium redand wall text highlighting the historical context of the diverse array of works on display.

Faith and Power includes both religious and secular works commissioned by the rich and powerful of the era. As you pass the oil paintings, severed heads, and fine lace work, don’t hesitate to linger on the smaller religious works that follow. There’s a stunning 17th or 18th century Ursuline reliquary that functions as a kind of trompe l’oeil. At first pass, the “Quilled Agnus Dei Reliquary” appears to be covered in expensive metal filigree, but in actuality, it is constructed with hundreds of tiny gilded strips of paper, cut from the page-edges of bookswhat supply they had access to in a conventand rolled into fleurs-de-lis. This is one of a handful of works in the exhibition that utilize this technique. Many of these devotional objects include everyday items like cardboard and straw in their construction, demonstrating the ingenuity of monastic craftswomen in this period.

Artist unknown, Quilled Agnus Dei Reliquary, 17th or 18th century
Installation view featuring Anna Maria Garthwaite's Silk Gown, 1726, at the BMA
Installation View, Making Her Mark at the BMA
Up close, the rolled paper becomes apparent and the watercolors are likewise not what they appear; the landscapes are rendered with human hair.
Siân Evans

Interiority takes you into the domestic sphere. These galleries showcase furniture, embroidery and needlepoint samplers alongside gorgeous Baroque still life paintings by Josefa de Ayala (1630-1684) and later works by Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818).

For me, the highlight of these galleries is yet again paper art (with bonus hairwork): the BMA recently acquired an 18th century cabinet, decorated with paper filigree and hairwork panels, by English artists and stepsisters, Sophia Jane Marie Bonnell and Mary Anne Harvey Bonnell (1763-1853).

The practice of paper filigree or quillwork—the meticulous application of dyed or metallic rolled paper onto wood—was common for women in the early Modern period, but this piece is exceptional: it is one of only six surviving examples of furniture in this medium. From a distance, the cabinet appears to be decorated with a rich, burgundy marquetry and black and white oval watercolors adorning the cabinet doors. Up close, the rolled paper becomes apparent and the watercolors are likewise not what they appear; the landscapes are rendered with human hair.  

The cabinet pairs nicely with another piece of hairwork, a self-portrait also by Mary Anne Harvey Bonnell (1789). The particularly female practice of hairwork in this era is largely sentimental and commemorative: by including a person’s hair in a work of art you are effectively enshrining a person’s essence within a treasured object. Like the previous gallery’s reliquary, these works also function as both a memorial and an inside joke or well-kept secret: their appearance belies the intimate delicacy of their construction.

 

Sophia Jane Maria Bonnell and Mary Anne Harvey Bonnell, Paper Filigree Cabinet on Stand with Hairwork and Watercolor Panels, c. 1789.
(detail) Sophia Jane Maria Bonnell and Mary Anne Harvey Bonnell, Paper Filigree Cabinet on Stand with Hairwork and Watercolor Panels, c. 1789.
Installation view including Anne Seymour Damer's Shock Dog (nickname for a dog of the Maltese breed) c. 1782, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As you continue to move through the show, you leave the domestic sphere and enter the natural world in the galleries dedicated to The Scientific Impulse. Here, you’ll find works by amateur and professional naturalists as well as botanical paintings and more.

As you pass beautiful anatomical and astronomical prints sourced from collections around the world, it’s definitely worth pausing for the life cycle illustrations of caterpillars by Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). Although trained as an artist, Merian’s work was relied on heavily by 18th century scholars and scientists like Carl Linnaeus in their taxonomies of the natural world.

The curators’ wall text also points out the ways in which the documentation of the natural world worked hand in hand with the colonial impulse in the early Modern period, affording female naturalists and painters travel to document the continents under European occupation. For example, many of Merian’s works were products of her visits to the Dutch colony in South America. 

The final galleries, centered around The Entrepreneurial Spirit, include a wide variety of work, from painting to dressmaking to sculpture by female makers. Again, there are some stand-outs, like Judith Leyster’s (1609-1660) stunning self-portrait, which was misattributed to Frans Hals until 1949, and another Vigée Le Brun, both on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The paintings in these galleries demonstrate the opulence of the upper classes as well as the artists’ technical prowess: the shimmering folds of silks and satins, bright colors, and delicate lace. 

But, again, don’t sleep on the stranger works in these galleries. I particularly loved the marble sculpture, “Shock Dog” (c. 1782) by English sculptor to King George III, Anne Seymour Damer (on loan from Barbara Walters in remembrance of Chacha). The sculpture is a life-size rendering of a Maltese-type dog, often called shock dogs due to their rough coat.

 

Installation View, Making Her Mark at the BMA
Maria Sibylla Merian, Convolvulus and Metamorphosis of the Convolvulus Hawk Moth, c. 1670
Mary Linwood, embroidered replica of Tygress by George Stubbs
“Tygress” encapsulates so much of what is notable about Making Her Mark. The work is deceptive, strange and actually more interesting than the Stubbs’ painting on which it is based.
Siân Evans

Another highlight of these galleries is Mary Linwood’s “Tygress” (c. 1789). On first glance, the framed piece appears to be an oil painting of a large, reclining tiger with gleaming yellow eyes surrounded by foliage, but upon closer inspection, you might notice that the surface of the canvas seems to shimmer and dance. This is because it is not, in fact, a painting at all. It is a replica of a George Stubbs painting in worsted wool embroidery, a medium for which Linwood was well known in late 18th century Europe, attracting royal patrons like Catherine the Great of Russia. 

“Tygress” encapsulates so much of what is notable about Making Her Mark. The work is deceptive, strange and actually more interesting than the Stubbs’ painting on which it is based. And, like the nuns’ paper filigree reliquary and the Victorian hairwork, it displays a canny (and in this case entrepreneurial) use of unconventional materials. Both serve as examples of women doing what they can with what they have access to, of making the best of the diminished position of female artists in early Modern Europe where they were largely denied the support and prestige of their male counterparts. However, this piece highlights the simultaneous power and prestige held by white women as Europe’s empires violently expanded outward during the colonial era. 

The Stubbs’ painting which served as Linwood’s reference is titled, “The Tigress presented by Clive of India to the 4th Duke of Marlborough,” itself a legacy of the extractive nature of the imperial impulse. Like Stubbs, Linwood documents the fact that “trade goods were part of a larger colonial shift, particularly on the part of colonial powers, to build national pride and reliance on continued expansionism.” 

While an essay in the exhibition’s catalog by Banta and Theresa Kutasz Christensen does address the role of European women on this world stage, it is only alluded to in brief text references and works like this throughout the show. These nods to the violence of colonialism, however, have a long shadow and I would love to have seen this thread expanded, for a more thorough reflection on the role of European women makers in the early Modern era. 

 

Judith Leyster, Self-portrait. c. 1633.
Sarah Biffin, Self Portrait, 1842
Artemisia Gentileschi, 'Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes.' c. 1623 - 25.
Marie Victoire Lemoine, Portrait of a Youth in an Embroidered Vest, 1785, Photography by Douglas J. Eng
Vasari’s approach to art historical analysis, often associated with the birth of art history as a line of scholarly inquiry, is one that privileges the singular authorial genius of the (presumed male) artist. Banta and Greist clearly intended to buck this tradition. 
Siân Evans

In the end, I left this show feeling like I had a much greater understanding of the diversity of artistic production in the early Modern period and women’s roles within it. The curators are deeply critical of a model of art historical inquiry that dates back to that great cataloguer of Renaissance art, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), and yet persists today. Vasari’s approach to art historical analysis, often associated with the birth of art history as a line of scholarly inquiry, is one that privileges the singular authorial genius of the (presumed male) artist. Banta and Greist clearly intended to buck this tradition. 

The fact that decorative arts and craft are not siloed into a single gallery, but weighted equally to painting and sculpture throughout, makes the layout of the exhibition particularly surprising and engaging. In a way, Making Her Mark is a challenge to art historians and museum professionals. It asks: what might art museums look like if we weren’t still so fixated on an outdated Vasarian art historical model? This type of work most certainly happens amongst non-Western and premodern art historical scholarship and curatorial practice, but what if it were expanded to include the early Modern era?

There’s ultimately something for everyone in Making Her Mark; you can, of course, come for the historically famed paintings, but it’s the small, weird stuff that will blow you away: the anonymous works that were never intended to sit in a museum gallery, the ruminations of cloistered nuns, the locks of hair collected to commemorate the intimate relationships between women. 

Collectively these pieces speak to our very human impulse towards making, documenting, and memorializing that extends beyond the early Modern era. In our current historical moment—when every hobby is a side hustle and when domestic labor is so deeply undervalued—a show that highlights the strange beauty we find in small things intended for those we love is oddly hopeful. Much of the best work in this show seems to ask us to question what we value in a work of art and what we even consider a work of art. Could it be a quilt? A friendship bracelet? A scrapbook? Or, indeed, a lock of hair and some rolled paper?

 

Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400-1800 is exhibiting at the Baltimore Museum of Art through January 7th. Admission is free to all on Sunday, December 3.

 

Marie-Victorie Jaquotot and Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, Tea Service of Famous Women

Images of artwork courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art

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