A few days ago, on Twitter, the esteemed Hasan Niyazi posted a link to an amazing online gallery of women artists, containing over two hundred portraits – most of them self-portraits – of female painters at work. The bulk of them are from the modern period and only eight of the images predate the year 1500. The first of them is a prehistoric cave painting showing the print of a woman’s hand. The other seven all show medieval women in the act of painting and are simply labelled “Anonymous, 15th century”. And that, I’m afraid is all the information one gets about those paintings. So I figured I’d do a post about them here… The thing is, all the 15th century images in the gallery are actually illustrations from manuscripts of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris [Of Famous Women] or its French translation Des Cleres et Nobles Femmes.
Now, today Boccaccio is best known as the author of entertaining, often frivolous tales written in his native Italian, but in 15th century France his fame rested mostly on his ‘serious’ humanist works in Latin. These included a collection of biographies of famous men (De casibus virorum illustrium) and its counterpart, the aforementioned De Mulieribus Claris, written c. 1360/70. As Boccaccio himself explicitly states in the latter’s introduction, it was the first book in Western literature dealing exclusively with biographies of women and as such it exerted considerable influence, for instance on Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women or Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies.
Boccaccio’s work collects the life stories of 106 women from both history and mythology, all of them exemplary of what the author believes to be particularly female virtues or, in some cases, vices. Most of this material was drawn from the traditions of Roman antiquity, from the works of writers such as Ovid, Suetonis or Pliny the Elder. And it was Pliny, too, who provided Boccaccio with the biographies of two women artists.
One of them is a certain Marcia, Daughter of Varro. Of her, Boccaccio writes:
“It has long been known that in Rome there was a woman named Marcia, daughter of Varro, who remained a virgin all her life. But I do not remember having found out which Varro it was or even when she lived.
I believe that this woman should be extolled all the more because she was legally independent and preserved her virginity in its full integrity of her own free will, not because of the coercion of a higher authority. As a matter of fact, I do not find that she was bound by holy orders to Vesta or subject to a vow made to Diana or entangled in another commitment – all reasons which curb and restrain women. I believe it was through purity of mind alone that she conquered the sting of the flesh, which occasionally overcomes even the most illustrious men, and she kept her body unblemished by any relations with men until her death.”
“Although Marcia deserves great commendation for her laudable constancy, she is to be praised no less for her intellectual ability and her manual dexterity. We do not know if she learned from a teacher or was naturally gifted. What appears certain, however, is that, scorning womanly occupations and not wanting to waster her time in idleness, Marcia devoted herself completely to the study of painting and sculpture; in the end, she was able to carve ivory figures and to paint with such skill and finesse that she surpassed Sopolis and Dionysius, the most famous painters of her day. Clear proof of this is the fact that the pictures she painted were sold for better prices than those of other artists. And what is still more extraordinary, our sources say that, not only did Marcia paint extremely well (a fairly common accomplishment), but she could paint more quickly than anyone else.
Specimens of Marcia’s art survived for a long time. Among them was a self-portrait which she painted on a panel with the aid of a mirror. She rendered the color, features, and expression of the face so faithfully that none of her contemporaries who saw it had trouble identifying the subject of the painting.”
“As regards her unique moral sensitivity, we are told among other things that, whether she was painting or sculpting, it was her practice to reproduce especially images of women, and those of men rarely if ever. This was occasioned, I think, by her purity and modesty. In antiquity figures were, for the most part, rendered as nude of half nude, and it seemed to her necessary either to portray the men in an unfinished state or, by adding all the details, to forget maidenly delicacy. To avoid either alternative, she deemed it better to abstain from both.” *
The other woman painter in Boccaccio’s book is Tamaris. Her biography reads as follows:
“Tamaris was a female artist famous in her own day. Time may have destroyed most of her efforts but not, at least up to now, her distinguished reputation and skill. Reportedly she was the daughter of the painter Micon and lived during the ninetieth Olympiad. (…)”
“Tamaris scorned womanly tasks and practiced her father’s craft with remarkable talent. When Archelaus was king of Macedonia, she gained such acclaim for her painting that the Ephesians, who had a particular veneration for Diana, long preserved as a celebrated image of this goddess a panel painting done by Tamaris. This work of art endured for many years and provided such convincing proof of her ability that it seems worthy of remembrance even today – indeed, eminently so if we compare it with the usual spinning and weaving of other women.” **
So I guess that in the gallery of women artists through the ages, the illustrations from Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris may actually stand for both antiquity and the middle ages. What they show are medieval women in medieval artists’ workshops, but at the same time they claim to show female artists from ancient Greece and Rome. There were, of course, women painters in the Middle Ages: Nuns were often involved in manuscript illumination, and so were worldly women, often working in a team with their husband. And it’s safe to assume that in many cases a painter’s wife would help out in his workshop. Sometimes, this may only have meant sweeping the workshop floor, but other times it may well have included her collaborating in the works of art produced by her husband. But, of course, usually it would have been the man who was the head of the workshop and who signed both contracts and paintings. So yes, there certainly were women artists in the Middle Ages, but unlike Marcia’s and Tamaris’ their names are lost.
* Giovanni Boccaccio, Famous Women, translated by Virginia Brown, Harvard University Press, 2003, pp. 135-137.
** Ibid., pp. 114-115.