Many elements must come together for a painting to be considered successful. Perhaps paramount in 17th century Europe were the guidelines set forth for art following the Council of Trent: Clarity, realism and emotional stimulus. Many artists fulfilled these requirements in their own ways: Rubens employed his mastery of drawing, while Caravaggio masked his apparent lack of skill by inventing a new way of painting, tenebrism (Caravaggism). While clarity could be established relatively easily, this doesn’t mean images had to be simple.
One of the most complex elements of Baroque painting is the use of women as subjects, particularly women of power, be they royal, biblical, or artists themselves. Artemisia Genteleschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620) presents a female painter drawing on her own experiences to depict a heroine defeating a great enemy as only a lady could. Peter Paul Rubens’ Medici Cycle (1622-25), specifically The Presentation of Her Portrait to Henry IV, shows the product of a woman patron trying to glorify herself as a queen and justify her political ideals while being presented quite literally as an object to her husband-to-be.
Finally, Diego Valazquez’s Las Meninas (1656), a royal family portrait focusing on the daughter of Philip the IV and Mariana of Spain, but using the commission as a vehicle to draw attention to the artist and praise his craft. Using these three works, one can conclude that a woman, present as the artist, the patron or a decorative faux-subject, was a very powerful tool in Baroque art. Artemesia Genteleschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes shows the Old Testament story of a Jewish widow and her maidservant beheading the Assyrian commander Holofernes to save the city of Bethulia.
The history of the artist is a strong influence on this work, as Artemesia was raped at age 17 by an associate of her father. Mary O’Neill points out in her article “Artemesia’s Moment” that rape in the 17th century was a crime against a family’s honor rather than the victim herself. This surely doesn’t mean there is an absence of the psychological harm that accompanies the crime, and this work is seen as a “revenge painting”, an outlet for the artist to voice her feelings on a personal subject.
Maybe one of the first examples of art therapy, a very powerful and deliberate action is taking place empowering women while keeping their femininity in tact, as mentioned in Mieke Bal’s article,”Head Hunting: Judith on the Cutting Edge of Knowledge. ” Bal says the three major jobs in women’s lives are life-giving, in this case, saving the city and its residents; life taking, the killing of Holofernes; and in between, hard work, the two women with their sleeves rolled up, completing a task. The fact that the artist is female plays a large part in the mood and reception of the painting by both men and women.
In this case we can compare it to a male-painted version of the same event. Caravaggio’s, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599) shows the two women as apprehensive toward their charge and unwilling to make a mess, but the most striking visual difference is the red sash present in the background of both paintings, in Caravaggio’s, it remains hanging as it should be in the space, in Artemesia’s, it has fallen over the victim (victim? ) suggesting a battle has taken place and the women have triumphed.
In Rubens’ Medici Cycle, Louis VIII had come of age while his mother acting as regent, ruled France, when he grew tired of her policies, Marie de Medici commissioned the artist to make 26 paintings depicting events in her life to be shown to members of the French court and important visitors, with the intent to glorify herself as a legitimate ruler of France, “Painted Propaganda”, as David Freedberg puts it in his book Peter Paul Rubens: Oil Paintings and Oil Sketches. She was not meant to be shown as a mere member of the royal family, but as the single ruler of the country in which her son was the rightful ruler.
The fourth painting in this series, The Presentation of Her Portrait to Henry IV, shows the lady patron as a portrait, an object, being presented to a man, her husband-to-be. Though a woman as an object is generally seen as degrading, the way in which she is presented by deities and allegorical personifications strengthens the perception of the Medici: Hymenaios and Amor escort the portrait to the King while Jupiter and Juno look on in approval and France stands behind Henry in support of the union. She also engages the viewer, staring directly out of both frames, something the Kings isn’t able to accomplish.
This series wasn’t meant to be viewed differently by men and women, only to glorify the “Queen Mother of France” to all people of France. The painting was produced at a time when Marie de Medici needed the support of her people, and although her attempt to keep the throne was ultimately unsuccessful, this painting among the series is a strong example of what women could accomplish as patrons to artists. Diego Valazquez’s Las Meninas shows the more traditional negative way women can be shown as objects. composition dominated by women, the foreground depicts the Daughter of Philip IV and Mariana of Spain, Infanta Margarita surrounded by maids, dwarves, pets, other people important to the royal family as she goes about seemingly unimportant tasks. To her right, stands the artist, aposentador to the King, staring out at the audience as he paints. The king and queen are alluded to in a mirror on the back wall, present in the viewers space, as their physical presence in a portrait with the artist would be disrespectful. The artist takes advantage of this commission to raise his own status as an artist and member of the court.
He does this by pretending Margarita is the subject, Magnificently dressed and centered, but bored and uninterested, only there to showcase the artists skill as a painter along with her servants. The Queen is also taken advantage of, present with her King in the background. Michel Foucault points out the objectivity of the King and Queen in his in-depth interpretation of the work in the first chapter of The Order of Things, “In the midst of all those attentive faces, all those richly dressed bodies, they are the palest, the most unreal, the most compromised of all the paintings images. only present to enhance the idea of the work the raise the artist and the art higher in the community. Men and women would both view this work similarly, showcasing the artists mastery of spacial representation and perspective, with underlying tones of narcissism as they discover the highly decorated and scholarly painter peeking out from behind the canvas. In these three very different views of women in paintings, as artists, as patrons, and as objects, we see how women were depicted, or used, as subjects in seventeenth-century art.
It seems views of women have remained the same in the few hundred years since these works were completed, they can be seen as powerful, inspirational and strong, but also passive, boring, or as mere filler. The differences in composition, mood, and ideas were fun to discover as you move from a woman painter depicting a biblical event while drawing from her own experiences to a man attempting to keep a woman in the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed and not be executed himself.