T wo paintings offered in the upcoming sale, Old Masters including Portrait Miniatures from the Pohl-Ströher Collection in London this spring highlight how women painters – while pursuing different subjects in different centuries and living disparate lives – were often united in their drive to paint against the odds. These two works – a still life and a rampaging set-piece – are by artists who had little in common: one was a much-feted chronicler of Imperial adventures, the other a cloistered woman of faith. Both were contradictory characters, however, and obsessed with the palette.
"I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism,” wrote the painter Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, or Lady Butler as she would become upon her marriage in 1877 to Lieutenant General Sir William Butler, a mutton-chopped veteran of campaigns in Manitoba and Ashanti. Thompson was everything a Victorian lady should and shouldn’t be: a loyal wife as illustrious as her husband, a woman who painted not flowers and Grand Tour vistas but blood and guts and the toils of war.
Thompson’s best-known painting The Roll Call (1874) caused a sensation. It depicts a group of worn-down English soldiers lined up on the battlefield during the Crimean War. It made her famous overnight and was bought by Queen Victoria. The painting by Thompson offered at Sotheby’s is a whirl of action, depicting Yeomanry scouts galloping across the South African Veldt (another of her husband’s campaigns).
In his Revisionist History podcast, the author Malcolm Gladwell describes Thompson as the archetype of the “first outsider to enter a closed world”. Here was a woman not only crashing into the male realm of art galleries, but becoming celebrated for it. And while the Royal Academy didn’t elect Elizabeth into its fold it had to employ a policeman to deal with the thronging crowds who came to see her work at the Summer Exhibition.
More than two centuries earlier, a nun from Piedmont was absorbed in a quieter venture. Orsola Maddalena Caccia was the daughter of the painter Guglielmo Caccia, called il Moncalvo, a successful painter of church frescoes. Along with her five sisters, Orsola took the veil, with the Ursuline order of northern Italy, and lived in a convent in the village of Moncalvo that her father had founded to house his daughters. She began as her father’s assistant, and within the convent walls, where she created a studio of nun-painters, became one of the first prominent female artists of the Renaissance.
Caccia painted for half a century in Moncalvo and, among other achievements, is believed to have been responsible for the first recorded flower painting in Italy. Caccia’s Still Life of Birds, offered at Sotheby’s, offers a composition of fancies – the bumble bee and snails are a joy – and subtle spirituality. For Sister Orsola, birds were often flitting religious symbols. Her extant paintings are peppered with the feathers of goldfinches, hoopoes and partridges.
Although the works of Caccia and Thompson possess contrasting aesthetics, the two artists were as similar as they were different. Both were Catholics who exhibited a humanistic streak – the empathy for the soldier, a search for the divine – and both, in their own very different ways, were pioneers.