Retrospective ,

From 1971: Editorial: Is Women’s Lib Medieval?

The following, published in ARTnews in January 1971, is a companion editorial to Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” It is reproduced in connection with our coverage of Women in the Art World today.

1971 COVER: Perhaps the greatest picture ever painted by a woman is the portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes, ca. 1800, long attributed to the great Neo-Classic master J.-L. David, now considered to be by Constance-Marie Charpentier, who had worked in David's studio. It was purchased in 1917 for $200,000 and bequeathed the same year to the Metropolitan Museum by Isaac Dudley Fletcher.

1971 COVER: Perhaps the greatest picture ever painted by a woman is the portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes, ca. 1800, long attributed to the great Neo-Classic master J.-L. David, now considered to be by Constance-Marie Charpentier, who had worked in David’s studio. It was purchased in 1917 for $200,000 and bequeathed the same year to the Metropolitan Museum by Isaac Dudley Fletcher.

The vexing question “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” is largely answered in this special issue by Prof. Linda Nochlin (see pp. 22-39); she shows that the question itself is a symptom of male prejudices and stereotypes whose irrelevance distorts much appreciation of art and undermines many scholarly assumptions in art history.

But the illustrations accompanying Prof. Nochlin’s essay in these pages suggest that a clause could be added to her question which makes it even more equivocal. It could be phrased: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists even though women have produced great works of art?

Take the famous portrait of Mlle. Charlotte du Val d’Ognes which was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum by Isaac Dudley Fletcher in 1917 (see cover detail and p. 5). ARTnews’ files preserve the press-release issued on the occasion; it states that:

“As one of the masterpieces of this artist, the Fletcher picture will henceforth be known in the art world as ‘the New York David,’ just as we speak of the Man with a Fur Cap of the Hermitage, or the Sistine Madonna of Dresden…Mr. Fletcher is said to have paid $200,000 for this great David.”

(As the press-release was prepared in collaboration with the gallery that sold the portrait, there is no reason to doubt the quoted price, nor that the Fletchers paid the contemporary equivalent of about $2 million.)

The painting was unanimously accepted by a consensus of experts as one of the great masterpieces by Jacques-Louis David, who founded the dominant 19th-century style of Neo-Classicism—until about 10 years ago when Prof. Charles Sterling published in the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum an essay proving (as conclusively as such matters ever can be proved) that the portrait is not by J.-L. David and that it is probably by Constance-Marie Charpentier. She had been one of David’s pupils, and her extraordinary power and originality was proclaimed, all unawares, by four generations of male-chauvinist art experts.

(Is Mr. Fletcher’s $2 million, one wonders, a record price for a woman artist?)

Nor is the portrait of Mlle. Charlotte an exceptional instance. The jolly toper in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (reproduced p. 27), for years was a favorite, world-famous Frans Hals—until modern cleaning revealed the characteristic initial “J*” which identified it as by Judith Leyster, one of Hals’ most brilliant followers. Also uncovered was a date, 1629, making it the earliest known work by Leyster, whose natural gifts (what Prof. Nochlin calls the “golden nugget of genius”) enabled her to rival the greatest master of the brushstroke at the age of 19!

Or take the Tintoretto portrait of Marco dei Vescovi, the artist’s father-in-law, for years a beloved and praised masterwork in the Vienna museum—but not so pleasing to scholars after 1920, when Venturi, noting that it is signed with an “M,” attributed it to Jacopo Tintoretto’s daughter Marietta. Documents indicate that Marietta was a well-known painter with a fluent production, but our museums claim almost no works from her hand—which indicates, of course, that three centuries of dealers and curators have “promoted” her pictures into her father’s oeuvre and have heaped extravagant analyses and eulogies on her work, while effacing her name.

We must grant, therefore, that women have produced works of art in the same league as the major masters, but as we do so the question shifts to the singularly ambiguous, modern issue of Originality. For if Constance-Marie Charpentier, Judith Leyster and Marietta Tintoretto were, respectively, as good as Jacques-Louis David, Frans Hals and Jacopo Tintoretto at their own games, they were not innovators of style. They stayed close to tradition and example. However, once the issue of Originality is raised, it becomes apparent that Prof. Nochlin’s argument around the question “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” is largely concerned with the last 500 years of art history, that is with art since the Renaissance, when originality and individuality were honored above all other qualities as the prerequisites of Genius.

But the history of art is some 5,000 years old. Who is to say that a woman did not design the pyramids of Egypt or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Furthermore, as research in the Middle Ages progresses, individuals artists’ names are beginning to be identified. There is Nicholas of Verdun, super-star in last year’s magnificent exhibition of “The Year 1200” at the Metropolitan Museum. And there is Giselbertus of Autun, artist-hero of André Malraux’s characteristically swashbuckling excursion into the Romanesque. But there is also the nun Ende who, with her collaborator, the monk Emeterius, painted the illustrations in the Beatus Apocalypse of Gerona (see p. 23), and in its hundred pictures created some of the supreme masterpieces of the 10th century—certainly on the level of accomplishment demanded of women by Prof. Nochlin in her Michelangelo-Cézanne line-up. And what about Sabina von Steinbach, sculptor-daughter of sculptor Erwin von Steinbach? When her father died in the middle of his work on the Strasbourg Cathedral, Sabina took over the campaign, and on its South Portal carved the statues of The Synagogue and of The Christian Church (1230-40) which for many connoisseurs, including Focilion, surpass her father’s work in originality of concept as well as in depth of feeling and esthetic rigor.

One of the great masterpieces of the Middle Ages is the Bayeux embroidery, which celebrates the Norman’s conquest of England; scholars believe that it probably was designed by a woman, as well as executed by nuns. And the celebrated Opus Anglicanum, England’s greatest contribution to the international arts of the 13th and 14th centuries, was the product of women—of embroiderers who perfected their craft to a high art and who, it is thought, also were responsible for the designs that made these vestments among the most prized treasures of the Christian world.

So as one takes a longer view of history, one can suggest a categorical answer to Prof. Nochlin’s question—Yes, there have been great women artists. And one can add the astonishing corollary—Women, or at least exceptionally gifted women, were freer and less subject to institutional and social pressures in the Middle Ages than they have been under the rule of the individual which was promulgated with the Renaissance.

In another connection, I have suggested that late 20th-century civilization is rushing full-tilt backwards to the Gothic. There is evidence in the verticality of our cities (Houston has the silhouette of Chartres), in our children’s crusades, our complication of bureaucracies and hierarchies which operate through the acceptance of a Higher Authority (usually worshipped under the sign “Top-Secret Classified Information”), in the reversion of arts to crafts (or technologies), the longing of individuals to merge into a collective, the breaking-down of the state into communities. Perhaps Women’s Lib is another symptom of the evolution (or re-volution?).

Back to sister Ende and Sabina von Steinbach?

Perhaps it’s not a bad thing? T.B.H .


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