Women at the National Gallery: Re-thinking Art History

Molly Lindsey is one of Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s regular contributors.

There are roughly two-thousand three-hundred pieces of artwork in the National Gallery, but only sixteen pieces are by female artists. Of these sixteen works, only four are on display.

For my birthday this year, my boyfriend surprised me by booking us an eye-opening, female-focused, interactive tour of the National Gallery through an organization called Lon-Art. Framing the tour around female subjects and female artists, Lon-Art prioritizes a critical look at artwork presented in the National Gallery and other major institutions. I would highly recommend this tour to anyone, regardless of your art history background. Below are some highlights.

The Rape of the Sabine Women, probably (1635-40), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

The above piece was painted by artist Peter Paul Rubeuns, famously known for the drama and movement in his work. This particular painting depicts a story, as told by Greek Biographer Plutarch, of Roman men invading a neighboring tribe, the Sabine, to fulfill their need of women. Our guide explained that ‘rape’, as used in the title of the piece, meant abduction at that time. This image of disheveled women treated as property, coupled with such direct label, immediately made me uncomfortable. We were urged to consider where we see similar images today. Might this have been the pornography of the time? One can easily draw a parallel between historical depictions such as this and popular fetishize of forcing women into particular situations or acts. This led our group to discuss other references to the abuse/capturing of women. Topics that came up ranged from the 50’s musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (still popular in the U.S.), to rape culture, to the #MeToo movement.

The Judgment of Paris, probably (1632-1635), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

This piece shows three goddesses in front of Paris, a mortal man. The foreshadowing clouds remind us that this deciding moment ultimately resulted in the Trojan War. Hera offered to make Paris king of Europe and Asia, Athena offered wisdom and skill in war, and Aphrodite, offered the world’s most beautiful woman (Helen). Paris chose the most beautiful women. Our guides urged us to question the award of a women as an object absent her consent. We also considered the way in which the Goddesses are presented in the piece (barely covered), the contrast between the mortal man and Goddesses (who has authority?), and the comparison between the story in this work and beauty pageants/advertising today.

The toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus) 1647-51), Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)

This painting is artist Velazquez’s only known nude surviving the period of censorship that came alongside the Spanish Inquisition in the 17th century. The work displays Venus on a bed in front of a mirror held by cupid (reminding the viewer of the mythological elements of the work). The main subject’s eyes meet the spectator rather than herself which lends the question: who is a women’s beauty for? Our tour guide informed us that particular painting has a violent and political history. In 1918, suffragette, Mary Richardson slashed this piece seven times with a meat cleaver she snuck into the gallery. Her explanation was two-fold. First, this was a reaction to the arrest and jailing of suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst. Second, men constantly gape at the work (it’s still true, at the stop on the tour I watched one guy practically drool over this nude). Unfortunately, the label at the gallery does not include any of this social history, which led to a discussion of the erasing of women’s agency. Before its museum days, this piece, and others like it, would have been kept in a private home, likely behind a curtain, only to be shared and seen by men after dinner.

Saint Margaret of Antioch (1630-1634), Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664)

The above work is a portrait of a Saint Margaret of Antioch (modern day Turkey). Our guide informed us that the young girl was raised by a shepherdess after her mother passed. She became a Christian as a result of her upbringing which upset her father who was a pagan priest. There is a myth that Saint Margaret began receiving visits from the devil in various forms after declaring she did not want to marry. The devil came once in the form of a dragon-like monster who swallowed her whole. Saint Margaret was able to escape the monster, bursting through it completely unharmed. The label at the gallery briefly summarizes this story ending with “ …[Margaret] burst forth it unharmed – hence her role as the patron saint of women in childbirth”. We spend quite a bit of time attempting to connect a 15-year-old girl who escaped a dragon and never had children herself with her title as patron saint of women in childbirth. The dialogue led to us considering the monsters mouth as a symbol of the vagina. We discussed the consistent themes in horror movies of blood, and unnatural things bursting from a women’s body. Our guide offered a Freudian interpretation to ponder.

“A visit to a gallery… bombards us with so many images that it can be hard to take in anything at all, let alone to look at the works from a critical standpoint. Our contemporary visual culture, from ads to films, is highly influenced by the canon of art history and, through this, the predominant ‘gaze’ of Western patriarchy and its ways of representing the world. Yes, art from the past can be beautiful, but it is also telling us some often quite uncomfortable things. There is a lot to be gained from examining pictures in galleries to see how they can be relevant to issues in contemporary society, as well as to our own personal experiences.”

– The Lon-Art team

For more information/bookings: http://lon-art.org/

Next event; Sheroes in the History of Art: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/sheroes-in-the-history-of-art-tickets-42362528463






Leave a Reply