Review

Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists on View in Toronto

Bec Brownstone 10 June 2024 min Read

Featuring a who’s who of DailyArt favorites, from Artemisia Gentileschi to Sofonisba Anguissola to Rachel Ruysch, Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400-1800 at the Art Gallery of Ontario is an exhibit not to be missed! Exploring the artistic contributions of female artists, the displays include over 200 pieces that encompass a wide range of themes in many different mediums. They also open a discussion around sexism and bias in the art world that led to these artists being overlooked, with many only recently brought to the fore of attention.

Devotional Works

Making Her Mark: Fede Galizia, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1596, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL, USA.

Fede Galizia, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1596, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL, USA.

The exhibition starts off in a room with religious works including Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Fede Galizia and Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis by Lavinia Fontana. These women were equally as talented as the male artists of their era and it shows. Along with works by these artists, there are many works by unknowns, presumably mostly nuns. Just as monks in monasteries created a large number of devotional works, so did nuns living in convents. Particularly of note are the illuminated manuscripts that did not disappoint with their quirkiness!

Women and Craft

Making Her Mark: Maria de la Luz Letonia, Sampler of country scene and border designs, ca. 1737, Central America, Francis Lehmann Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA. Detail. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Maria de la Luz Letonia, Sampler of country scene and border designs, ca. 1737, Central America, Francis Lehmann Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA. Detail. Photograph courtesy of the author.

The second portion of Making Her Mark explores works that are more craft-based than fine arts. For example, works in embroidery, tapestry, lace, and even quillwork are represented. The detail in these pieces is spectacular and gives one pause to think about the immense amount of time that would have gone into making them. Maria de la Luz Letonia’s sampler features so many different designs for backgrounds one could look at it for hours and still find new and interesting details. Other interesting pieces here include a pillow-case embroidery sampler with a map of Europe by Elizabeth Hawkins and a curtain done in crewel featuring lavish flowers and other botanical imagery by M. K. Herbert.
The curators make a point of including an information panel explaining why so many of the works on display are by unknown makers. On the one hand, prior to 1800 women had very limited access to art education, especially from a professional stand-point. On the other hand, societal expectations of women dictated that they should primarily be household managers and mothers. These factors led to smaller outputs and subsequent lack of recognition.

Natural Beauty

Making Her Mark: Louise Moillon, Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus, 1630, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.

Louise Moillon, Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus, 1630, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.

These works segue well into the next portion of the exhibit that shows nature-inspired works. There are some absolutely amazing still-lifes by artists such as Rachel Ruysch and Clara Peeters. A set of four watercolors by Elizabeth Blackwell demonstrate great technical skill too. Again, a wide variety of mediums are present here, from works in oil to watercolors on paper and a really fun set of plates featuring birds.

Ceramics appear throughout the exhibition in the form of both useful objects like dinnerware and purely ornamental objects, such as the porcelain flowers produced by Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres under the direction of Marie-Henriette Gravant.

Shifting Norms

Making Her Mark: Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, c. 1630, National Gallery or Art, Washington, DC, USA.

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, c. 1630, National Gallery or Art, Washington, DC, USA.

The final section of the exhibition discusses inroads for women into careers in the arts. There are some beautiful portraits here including self-portraits such as this one by Judith Leyster. Increasing admission of women into academies and salons in the late 1800s allowed them to see themselves as artists in a way that previous generations had not. Although women continue to struggle for recognition in the arts, each passing generation gets a little closer to equality.

Take Away

Making Her Mark: Pauline Rifer de Courcelles (Decorator) for the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres, Vase with African Birds, 1822, and Six Plates from the South American Birds Service, 1819-1821, Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens, Washington, DC, USA. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Pauline Rifer de Courcelles (Decorator) for the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres, Vase with African Birds, 1822, and Six Plates from the South American Birds Service, 1819-1821, Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens, Washington, DC, USA. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Making Her Mark is a really beautiful and interesting exhibition. I did find that the lighting was quite dim. I assume this is because many of the works are paper or textile-based and exposure to harsh lighting can damage these works. Yet, oddly, there were no restrictions on flash photography. Sadly this exhibition is not slated to go on tour to more galleries or museums. It really does deserve to be shown in more cities than just Baltimore (where it was on display from October 2023 to January 2024) and Toronto. If you have a chance to catch it in Toronto it will not disappoint!
Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400-1800 runs until 1 July, 2024 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada. 

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