Sotheby’s Magazine

The Women Who Dared to Paint

As a group of works by female Old Masters heads to auction, encounter the women who bravely practised art despite those who doubted their talents and tenacity.

In an essay written to introduce her sister Vanessa Bell’s paintings, Virginia Woolf often contemplated the generations of daughters who might have become artists, but whose fathers “would have died rather than let her look upon a naked man”.

still life of spring flowers in basket
Marie-Victoire Lemoine, Still life of spring flowers in a basket. Estimate $80,000–120,000.

Painting was the preserve of men. Women were excluded from valuable apprenticeships, lacked access to academic training, and – as Woolf memorably noted – were forbidden to paint the nude. Queen Charlotte, consort to that episodically enlightened King George III, had successfully lobbied to have two female painters, Angelika Kauffmann (1741–1807) and Mary Moser (1744–1819), elected among the founding Academicians of London’s Royal Academy in 1768. But where in Johann Zoffany’s 1771–72 portrait of this gentlemen’s club are they? Relegated to the back wall, shrunk to postage-stamp size, unframed, unfinished and a little out of focus, there only as paintings. To add insult to injury, Richard Cosway, husband of Maria Cosway, a successful painter in her own right, is shown resting his cane on the belly of a female torso. Women are there only in fragment and on sufferance, too delicate to be exposed to the two male nudes adopting classical poses for the benefit of the Academicians.

A glass compote with peaches, jasmine flowers, quinces, and a grasshopper.
Property of a West Coast Collector. Fede Galizia, A glass compote with peaches, jasmine flowers, quinces, and a grasshopper. Estimate $2,000,000–3,000,000.

Nevertheless, some women artists did break down these barriers to enjoy prolific, international careers. Kauffmann, not to be deterred, and not to be at a professional disadvantage, made her own plans. If painters, such as James Northcote, were going to criticise her works as having no “fist” in them, no manly “strength and muscle”, then she would find a way to see man’s muscle for herself. The gossip of the time was that the Swiss-born Kauffmann paid a male model to sit for her when she first came to London in 1766. Asked about this incident years later, when he was in his 80s, the model, Mr Charles Cranmer, gallantly replied that he had never exposed more than his arms, shoulders and legs – and that Angelika’s father, Johann Joseph Kauffmann, had been in the studio at all times.

The Gilded Age Revisited: Property from a Distinguished American Collection. Angelika Kauffmann, RA, Portrait of three children, almost certainly Lady Georgiana Spencer, later Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Henrietta Spencer and George Viscount Althorp. Estimate $600,000–800,000.

Such was Kauffmann’s dedication to her art. She was rewarded with vast success. Praised for her charm, wit and intelligence, Kauffman commanded the attention of the “ton” – the fashionable social set in London, Rome and Naples. Her clients included artists, writers, aristocrats and the crowned heads of Europe. The art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann admired her as a “paintress” of unmatched gifts. “The whole world”, said one engraver who couldn’t reproduce Kauffmann’s paintings fast enough, “is Angelika-mad.” Joshua Reynolds called her “Miss Angel”. The parliamentarian John Wilkes thought her “the first [best] painter in Europe; and her paintings are allowed to have the grace of Raphael, the warmth of Correggio’s colouring and the delicacy of Guido [Reni].”

There is grace, warmth and great delicacy in Kauffmann’s Portrait of three children, almost certainly Lady Georgiana Spencer, later Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Henrietta Spencer and George Viscount Althorp. They are as thick as thieves. Look at their shy smiles, at George’s conspiratorial glance. You feel sure they are plotting some trick. The moment you turn your back – twang! – one of George’s arrows will be shot into your retreating bottom. The Spencers, one of the wealthiest families in England, and their circle of friends, called on Kauffmann for decades to come, even after she left England for Rome. Kauffmann painted the three siblings again – more pensive now, more self-aware – when Georgiana was 17 and soon to be married to the Duke of Devonshire. “She is amiable, innocent and benevolent,” wrote her mother Lady Spencer, “but she is giddy, idle and fond of dissipation.” It is Kauffmann’s gift to capture some of Georgiana’s contrariness: her impudence and winning softness.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Saint Sebastian tended by Irene. Estimate $400,000–600,000.

Kauffmann was called a wunderkind; her fellow artist from France, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), was un enfant prodige. As Kauffmann entranced Queen Charlotte and the English aristocracy, so Vigée Le Brun dazzled Queen Marie-Antoinette and the Paris beau monde. As a child, Vigée Le Brun wrote: “I doodled constantly and everywhere.” When she had filled the margins of her schoolbooks, she started on those of her friends. She covered the walls of the dormitory at her Paris convent school with charcoal, “which, as you may imagine, meant that I was often in disgrace”. When she was seven or eight she showed her father Louis Vigée, a portrait pastellist, her sketches. He announced: “You are to be a painter, my child, if ever there was one.”

Antonietta Brandeis, Venice, a view of the Grand Canal, coming from Piazza San Marco towards Palazzo Balbi. Estimate $8,000–12,000.

An artist she became, admitted to the Académie de Saint-Luc at 19, a striking accomplishment then for a man, let alone a woman. She was a sensuous painter, her portraits high-coloured and flushed in the manner of Peter Paul Rubens. In 1783 she joined the Académie Royale and over the next six years painted 30 portraits of Queen Marie-Antoinette as maiden and matron, in outfits ranging from red velvet pomp to the simplest muslin.

On 4 August 1789, a mob, many of them women, dressed not in velvet or muslin but instead armed with pikes, approached Versailles and forcibly brought the King and Queen to Paris. Vigée Le Brun, known to be a court favourite, abandoned her house, jewellery and unfinished portraits, and, with a coarse handkerchief over her head, fled Paris. She travelled to Rome, Naples, Prague, Dresden, Berlin and St Petersburg. In 1803, she arrived in London with diamonds sewn into her stockings to protect her from highwaymen on the road from Dover. She painted portraits of Lord Byron, the Prince of Wales (later George IV) and Lady Spencer Perceval. At the time of the sitting, Lady Spencer was pregnant with the 11th of her 12 surviving children. It is a portrait lovely in its pastel looseness: escaping curls, tucked and pleated lace, a likeness of a woman who is content, confiding, and a little tired around the eyes. It’s a case of perfect sympathy between artist and sitter.

Kauffmann and Vigée Le Brun were both the daughters of enlightened male artists, as was Fede Galizia (1578–1630), whose father, Nunzio Galizia, was a Milanese miniaturist. Galizia was acclaimed from the age of 12 for her devotional works and portraits, though posterity has most admired her glistening, tempting still-lifes. A glass compote with peaches, jasmine flowers, quinces, and a grasshopper is a particularly ripe and seductive example. You reach to stroke the flesh of the peaches and breathe the scents of quince and jasmine. Only the grasshopper makes you pause. A little sinister, a little Biblical, suggesting plague and famine.

Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of Mrs Spencer Perceval, née Jane Wilson. Estimate $150,000–250,000.

Paintings by Vigée Le Brun, Kauffmann and Galizia all feature as part of Sotheby’s forthcoming The Female Triumphant: Women Artists of the Premodern Era, highlighting works in the Master Paintings Evening sale, Master Paintings & Sculpture Day sale and 19th Century European Art sale. They will be joined by a gallery of important female artists such as Antonietta Brandeis, Rosa Bonheur, Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau, Artemisia Gentileschi, Michaelina Wautiers and Virginie Demont-Breton. The January sales mark the beginning of a golden year of exhibitions dedicated to women artists: Vigée Le Brun at Dallas Museum of Art in January, Michaelina Wautiers at Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp, Artemisia Gentileschi amoung The Ladies of the Baroque at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, Lavinia Fontana at Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid and Berthe Morisot at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. This, after hugely successful shows in 2018 devoted to Frida Kahlo at the V&A in London, Mary Cassatt at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris and Martha Stettler at the Kunstmuseum in Bern. All evidence of a growing interest in women artists, not as women, novelties in a man’s art world, but as artists as good and praiseworthy as any man. •

Laura Freeman is a freelance art critic. She is writing a biography of Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard artists to be published by Jonathan Cape

The Female Triumphant: Women Artists of the Premodern Era will be on view in New York from 25–30 January.

Who Were the Female Old Masters?

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