Newsletter Issue:
Spring 2024

MAESTRAS: an Overdue Tribute to Women Artists Neglected by Art Historians

By Alicia Campos Massó Cohort ’22

Prehistoric cave paintings and artifacts reveal the long history of the artistic expression of women, displaying their intellectual capabilities, community orientations, and creative spirits. Professor Dean R. Snow shows evidence that women painted caves, erasing unwarranted assumptions that male hunters painted hunting scenes. Women have always been not only the creators of life and unifiers of communities but also painters and sculptors, a fact that has not been recorded or documented as women artists have been excluded for a long time from Western art history books and patriarchal artistic systems.

Figure 1. Group of women students gather around Marie Cazin’s sculpture, Girls, bronze, 1886. Photo by Alicia Campos Massó

The Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid recognized the cultural importance of women with an art exhibition of one hundred art pieces by women. The museum offers alternative approaches to the dominant patriarchal narratives that have dominated art museums for centuries in Spain. The title of this art exhibition is MAESTRAS: Women Masters, strategically curated by Rocío de la Villa; it groups the artworks thematically, showcasing a progression from the sixteenth century to women’s emancipation by the end of the twentieth century.

Figure 2. A couple at MAESTRAS. Photo by Alicia Campos Massó

Upon entering the first room, dozens of female viewers drew my attention. These women wondered, stared, and discerned the intimate dark aura of the gallery, the smell of oils, the gloaming of the purple wall, and the deviation of the light reflecting on the painting Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi. It tells the story of the imbalance of power between men and women, and their vulnerabilities. Susanna, a virtuous wife, was almost executed for adultery for refusing the sexual advances of the powerful elders, highlighting the potential for abuse under patriarchal societies. A recurrent theme in Gentileschi’s work that girls and women still carry today is the recognition of unbalanced legal procedures and conflicts of interest that favor the patriarchy.

Figure 3. Two women discussing Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi. Photo by Alicia Campos Massó

MAESTRAS showcases the full spectrum of female experience, from the joys of friendship to domestic burdens to the harsh realities of violence. This focus on and by real women in real situations starkly contrasts the male gaze that has dominated art history and the history of women for centuries, often portraying women as idealized and sexualized objects of beauty and desire.

The exhibition explores different themes, including female botanical artists who brought extreme detail to scientific plant and insect illustrations. Protected by a glass on a pedestal, the viewer finds a meticulous portrayal of a pineapple plant and several cockroaches by Maria Sibylla Merian, Dissertation sur la génération etles transformations des insectes de Surinam. Women artists rarely received recognition for this kind of scientific botanical work in the eighteenth century when it was made.

Figure 4. Maria Sibylla Merian, Dissertation sur la génération et les transformations des insectes de Surinam. The Hague, 1726. Biblioteca Histórica “Marqués de Valdecilla”, Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Photo by Alicia Campos Massó

Prior to the Enlightenment, Europe had a history of suppressing women’s intellectual pursuits; healers, mystics, musicians, writers, and artists were imprinted as heretics and accused of witchcraft. The Inquisition and the state oppressed women to an extreme. Adélaïde Labille-Guiard challenged gender norms with portraits celebrating intellectual women. Her 1787 Portrait of a Woman, maybe a portrait of Madame Roland, depicts the writer and revolutionary wearing a white dress and holding an ink feather, her gaze directly confronting the viewer. The woman shows herself as an individual, a subject who writes and challenges, carving aspace for women in the traditionally male-dominated sphere of academia.

Figure 5. The woman gaze at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza. Photo by Alicia Campos Massó

The perception of motherhood also underwent a profound transformation over time. While idealized portrayals of mothers and children persisted, a growing movement of women artists depicts the realities of motherhood. Lluïsa Vidal’s 1905 painting, Las amas de casa, portrays a mother and daughter working together washing clothes. This scene avoids sentimentalizing and idealizing motherhood, and instead highlights the day-to-day tasks and the growing independence of the child, offering a realistic perspective of mothering.

Every piece in MAESTRAS tells a story of resilience: women who defied the patriarchy and even remained anonymous in the history of art but kept marking a path as a testament to the progress that still needs to be achieved. MAESTRAS ran from October 2023 to February 2024, and in case you missed it, you can visit the virtual version at VIRTUAL MAESTRAS.

Figure 6. Mother and baby at MAESTRAS. Photo by Alicia Campos Massó

Works Cited

Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain.

Snow, D.R. “Sexual Dimorphism in European Upper Paleolithic Cave Art. American Antiquity.” 2013; 78(4): 746-761. doi:10.2307/43184971.

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