The venerable New Orleans fine art and antiques specialists M.S. Rau Antiques have taken on a vast and complex subject for their latest exhibition. Innocence. Temptation. Power. The Evolution of Women in Art aims to chart the representation of women in art from the 15th century through the Modern era. The exhibition comprises over 50 works dating from c. 1420 to the 1960s, which we are invited to appraise as products of their time and place, and to peel back the layers of conditioning that attend each portrayal.
A year in the making, the exhibit showcases works from M.S. Rau Antiques’ own collection alongside handpicked loans from partner galleries and collectors. In approaching the extensive subject of the current exhibition, co-curator Amanda Wallich describes how “there were a lot of stories that we wanted to tell around the representation of women, and in each instance we had to find the very best work to do that.”
The Evolution of Women in Art is orchestrated in three movements, defined as “The Dawn of Discovery,” “The Age of Transformation.” and “Liberation and the Modern Era.” The narrative moves from the representation of women as allegories of religious virtue and as idealized symbols of perfection, through to dreamy, docile objects of desire and currencies of wealth, and culminates with powerful, nuanced representations of women as subjects in their own right.
Giovanni dal Ponte (di Marco), Madonna with Child Enthroned, Circa 1420-1425, Tempera on gold ground panel, 41 1/4" high x 23 1/4" wide
“The Dawn of Discovery” opens with a representation of woman as mother and paragon of religious virtue at a time when the Church was the most powerful patron of the arts. Madonna and Child Enthroned by Giovanni dal Ponte (di Marco) (c. 1420-1425) is notable of its time for its humanism, featuring tender communication between mother and child, and is a blueprint for images of maternal virtue that have endured for centuries.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The Alchemist, Circa 1600, Oil on oak panel, 27 x 37 3/4 inches
Other images are driven by story and allegory. The Feast of Esther (c. 1644) A recently rediscovered masterwork by Johannes Spilberg the Younger depicts Queen Esther as modest and unassuming at the dramatic moment when she accuses the king’s court favorite. Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s The Alchemist (circa 1600) presents us with an allegory of godly virtue: a woman searches in vain for money before turning to the church for salvation, while her husband commits to a fruitless pursuit of alchemy.
Examples of 18th century society portraits render their subjects with a serene and beatific—yet inscrutable and characterless—beauty. The sitter of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Mary Townshend (c. 1757), for example, was born into a well-connected and politically influential family and this portrait reads more as a celebration of familial wealth and material opulence than as a representation of the individual in question.
Jean-Léon Gérome, Cleopatre et Cesar, Painted in 1866; Signed "J.L. Gérôme", Oil on canvas, Canvas: 73 1/8 x 50 3/4 inches
“The Age of Transformation” presents women playing historical and mythological roles—both powerful and vulnerable—in famed French academic painter Jean Léon Gérome’s Cleopatre et Cesar (1866) and Leda and the Swan (1895). We also see women reduced to the decorative by the British Neoclassicist Revivalist John William Godward. The seemingly inevitable theme of voyeurism, firmly characterizing women in the sexual frame, is represented here by Through the Keyhole (no date given) by Maurice Stiffer, and Peeping Roofers & the Woman’s Bath (1880) by Jehan Georges Vebert, where workers peer through the roof down into a harem.
George Morren, Le Renouveau, Signed and dated 1892 (lower right); signed, titled and dated en verso, Oil on canvas, Canvas: 31 7/8 x 36 1/4 inches
The work of an emergent group of radical young artists, such as Toulouse Lautrec, who were committed to a new ideal of modernity, here herald a turning point. George Morren’s Pointillist/Luminist piece Le Renouveau (1892) is a startling example of how the Impressionists captured the rapidly revolutionizing world around them, including the changing landscape for women and their roles within it. The subject, whom at first glance we may assume to be the mother of the child she feeds, is in fact a wet nurse. Her disengaged face implies impatience. This is a scene of a worker, not a nurturing mother.
Significantly, at this point onwards the work of female artists begin to feature, including Louise Abbema, Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, and Claire Colinet. While the exhibition does not directly address the subject of women-as-artists, the question of who is viewing these women and who is crafting these representations is unavoidable. Undoubtedly the distinct majority of artists represented are male—in large part due to the comparatively low proportion of female artists practicing at the time, especially at a commercial level. Gratifyingly the balance begins to be redressed in the later selection of works.
(left) Louise Abbema, Sarah Bernhardt Hunting with Hounds, Circa 1897, Oil on canvas, Signed "Louise Abbema" (upper left), Canvas: 33 1/2 x 24 inches
(right) Berthe Morisot, Jeune fille au manteau vert (Girl in a Green Coat), 1894, Oil on canvas, Canvas 45 7/8 x 32 1/8 inches
Louise Abbema’s Belle Époque work Sarah Bernhardt Hunting with Hounds (circa 1897) depicts the legendary actress imagined in the role of Diana of the hunt, wearing stately hunting gear and commanding a group of dogs. Famed for her portraits of the leading ladies of the high society, we here see Abbema continue the tradition of mythological representation to empowering effect. Berthe Morisot's work from just a few years earlier provides an enriching contrast, allowing us access to the private domestic world of women. Executed on a grand in scale, Jeune fille au manteau vert (1894) depicts an anonymous young woman of the Parisian elite. The woman herself is beautifully and vividly rendered, while the background is only loosely finished. That an unidentified woman dressed in her own contemporary fashion should be the clear subject of the painting and allowed to command our attention without distraction or costume is a powerful statement and fitting point of departure for the next phase of the exhibition.
Martha Walter, Employment Station New York, Signed lower right; Circa 1915, Oil on canvas, Canvas: 32 x 40 inches
“Liberation and the Modern Era,” the final chapter, is triumphant and self-assertive, and characterized for the most part by images in which women are represented confidently and with character in the context of their own lives: women as subjects in their own right. Employment Station (1915) by Martha Walter is a remarkable work of social realism depicting a young woman waiting to be seen by an employment officer, that is imbued with of strength and confidence. Claire Colinet’s Joan of Arc, an exquisite bronze sculpture of the historical figure, conjures both dignity and honor. Norman Rockwell’s Excuse Me (no date given) depicts a young woman defiantly snubbing a wealthy beau in favor of an officer—a choice that might not have been celebrated or even hers to make even one generation earlier. In addition, self-assured portraits—both of named individuals and anonymous women—such as those of Mrs. C. Burton by Winold Reiss and La Danseuse du Lido (c.1950) by Jean Gabriel Domergue show women meeting the gaze of the viewer with pride and poise.
(left) Winold Reiss, Portrait of Mrs. C. Burton, Circa 1930, Pastel on Whitman board, Board: 39 x 26 inches
(right) Jean Gabriel Domergue, La Danseuse du Lido, Circa 1950, Oil on canvas, Canvas: 25 5/8 x 21 1/4 inches
The exhibition undoubtedly shines a spotlight on a wide range of works of outstanding quality, and although not all the contentious questions about evolving representations of women in art are openly articulated, it creates an interesting overview and framework for appreciation of the subject. In building the exhibition the time frame was fluid, and as such rationale for the launch point and conclusion date is not immediately evident. However, the three phases of the exhibition work well to relax the expectation of a clear linear chronological development and to allow for the thematic shifts to become evident. It is an ambitious and extremely interesting curatorial mission that Rau has set, which is enjoyable to view and prompts much consideration.
Innocence. Temptation. Power. The Evolution of Women in Art at M.S. Rau Antiques runs through May 4, 2015.
(Image at top: Norman Rockwell, Excuse Me, This painting was the cover of Judge magazine in July 1917, Oil on canvas, Canvas: 28 x 25 inches. All images courtesy of M.S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans)