New 'By Her Hand' exhibit at DIA finally gives female Italian artists during Renaissance their due

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

At a time when women artists couldn't attend art academies, earn their own money or do nearly anything without their husband's or father's permission, Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi forged her own path.

In 1649, Gentileschi, who'd been taught to paint by her father, who was also a painter, sent a letter to Don Antonio Ruffo, an important Sicilian nobleman and collector, asserting herself as an artist.

"I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do," Gentileschi wrote. 

And she did. Gentileschi's powerful, detailed work is part of an illuminating new exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts that opens Sunday to the public. "By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800" pays homage to 17 female Italian painters from all over Italy who worked during the Italian Renaissance but for various reasons largely haven't gotten their due. 

A piece entitled 'Judith and a Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes,' about 1623-1625, by artist Artemisia Gentileschi.

The exhibit, which features dark walls and moody lighting to really bring the paintings to life, showcases 57 works. It marks the DIA's first ever show devoted to earlier women artists, said curator Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, now the Curator and Head of Italian and Spanish Paintings Department at Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art. She said one of the reasons female artists haven't gotten more recognition is because art history, which really coalesced as a field of study in the 19th century, was initially largely devoted to male artists.

"There's a lot of works in the show that were thought to be by male artists that now we've studied and compared" to realize that they weren't by them, said Straussman-Pflanzer. "...It's only since the Feminist Movement in the 1970s that there's been a lot more scholarship on these women artists and we have a better sense of their work to then compare works and revise attributions. It's really a process. It's ongoing. This show in 1972 would've been so different."

"By Her Hand" features everything from self-portraits — there are three of Gentileschi alone; artists used mirrors to paint themselves — to still lifes. And as was common at the time, religious themes are a popular subject matter.

A piece entitled 'The Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandria,'1581, by artist Lavinia Fontana at the new 'By Her Hand' exhibit, exploring Italian female artists from the 16th through the 19th century at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Michigan on February 4, 2022.

The largest portion of the exhibit is devoted to Gentileschi's work, likely the most famous of the featured artists in the exhibit. Born in Rome, Gentileschi, who even pursued her art career after she married and had five children, moved throughout Italy and worked in London at one point.

"Artemisia was ambitious in the same way male artists were that in the period," said Straussman-Pflanzer. "She was actively writing to the most important patrons."

Her stunning "Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes," an oil on canvas painted circa 1623-1625 that's part of the DIA's collection, is a show highlight. It depicts Jewish heroine Judith beheading Assyrian general Holofernes. Shadows created by candle fall across Judith's face in the painting and "it's one of the most beloved" paintings, Straussman-Pflanzer said.

Near the opening of the exhibit is a small, round 16th century watercolor self-portrait on parchment by Sofonisba Anguissola, who learned to paint after her father hired someone to teach his daughters. The intricate painting would've been something sent to prospective patrons "as a way to get them interested in the artist," said Pflanzer.

Visitors enjoy two pieces of art by artist Lavinia Fontana entitled 'Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani,' 1594-95, and 'Portrait of a Lady of the Gonzaga or Sanvitale Family,' around 1584.  The new 'By Her Hand' exhibit, exploring Italian female artists from the 16th through the 19th century at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Michigan on February 4, 2022.

"Some collectors were interested in works by women artists as a curiosity because there were so few," she said.

For women to get training as an artist at all during the Italian Renaissance was a struggle. Some of the featured artists in "By Her Hand" either were taught by their fathers or other teachers; one was a nun who painted for her convent. But formal art academies, which were starting during the period and often used nude models, weren't open to women, said Straussman-Pflanzer.

She said these artists couldn't get formal training, couldn't travel without chaperones, fought to be taken seriously and to secure major commissions. And yet, they pursued their art.

"For the 17 women that are represented here, there were dozens more that we either just know by name or we don't have any surviving works," said Straussman-Pflanzer. "Hopefully people see there were women artists in this period. But there's a lot of women artists that have yet to be discovered but we know existed."

'By Her Hand'

Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800

at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Feb. 6-May 29

Admission is free to Macomb, Oakland and Wayne County residents.

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