Old Master Paintings

Once Overlooked, Female Old Masters Take Center Stage

By Sotheby's

I n 1971, pioneering feminist art historian Linda Nochlin penned the now-iconic essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” – a powerful critique on the ways in which women had been excluded from art history. Nearly 50 years later, the stories of the remarkable women who did break boundaries to achieve artistic acclaim are just beginning to be told. This January, Sotheby’s celebrates trailblazing female artists from the 16th through the 19th centuries with The Female Triumphant, a group of exceptional works of art that will be offered in our Masters Week sales. In spite of extraordinary obstacles, talented artists such as Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Fede Galizia, Michaelina Wautier and Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau paved the way for future generations of artists everywhere. Below, four expert voices discuss how these artists changed painting forever.

Old Master Paintings Specialist Calvine Harvey recounts the story of how Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, the personal painter to Queen Marie Antoinette, used her royal connections to paint a striking portrait a visiting Indian ambassador. Painted in 1788, Vigée Le Brun’s monumental Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan has been unseen on the market for over a century.

Sotheby’s Courtney Kremers reintroduces Fede Galizia to the Art History narrative via her luminous still life A Glass Compote with Peaches. Complex layers of glazing create the incredibly soft skin of the peaches, which contrast with the cold solidity of the glass compote. Her careful modulations of light and shadow to convey the leaves on the apples and the ripeness of the peaches reflect her unique ability to bring flora and fauna to life.

Nineteenth-century European Painting Specialist Alexandra Allen celebrates the achievements of Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau through two of her works, Les Trois Amis and La Captive. As one of the most accomplished Salon artists of her time, she exhibited a total of thirty six paintings between 1868-1914, more than any other foreign or American female artist. In 1887, she had the distinction of becoming the first and only American woman to receive a Salon gold medal. Painted for the 1883 Salon, La Captive reflects Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau’s careful treatment of figures, faces, hands, feet, and drapery within a subdued, tasteful color palette.

Discover the sophisticated iconography and elegant naturalism of Michaelina Wautier's Garland of Flowers with Brooke Lampley, Vice Chairman, Global Fine Arts. While the skulls suggest death, Wautier's precise rendering of the petals and the lifelike activity of the insects seem to defy nature by both bringing beautiful things to life and preserving them in their thriving state forever. Wautier was not confined to a single specialty and also excelled at portraiture, as exemplified by her precise Study of a Young Boy.

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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