This New Database Aims to Become the World’s Best Resource on the History of Overlooked Women Artists

The project has already compiled information about 643 historical women artists. How many can you name?

Mary Beale, Mary Wither of Andwell (1670). Courtesy of A Space of Their Own.
Mary Beale, Mary Wither of Andwell (1670). Courtesy of A Space of Their Own.

Picture an artist in your mind.

Is that person male? Probably. The majority of famous artists most people can name off the top of their head are men. But that doesn’t mean that women haven’t had an important place in the history of art. And while most of them have yet to make it into the textbooks, a new illustrated database should go a long way toward providing the public with information about overlooked artists active between the 15th and 19th centuries.

The database is being compiled by researchers at Indiana University Bloomington, in collaboration with Florence’s Advancing Women Artists foundation. It is called A Space of One’s Own, after Virginia Woolf’s feminist text A Room of One’s Own.

The foundation’s founder Jane Fortune, who died in September at age 76, conceived of the database as an extension of the foundation’s mission to restore and promote the work of women artists, particularly those active in Italy. Fortune’s efforts—which thus far have identified 2,000 forgotten works and restored 61 of them—were aimed at writing women back into the history books.

“When you start asking museums what works they have by women, it is surprising to find how few have this information at their fingertips,” the foundation’s director Linda Falcone told Hyperallergic. “The ultimate goal of this project is to raise awareness among museum executives first, and then for the general public. It does not end with the database. It begins with the database.”

Sor Juana Beatriz de la Fuente, The Tree of Life (1805). Courtesy of the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Sor Juana Beatriz de la Fuente, The Tree of Life (1805). Courtesy of the San Antonio Museum of Art.

A Space of Their Own will become something of a virtual museum, providing the public with access to paintings that might otherwise languish in museum storage—although organizers are finding that that’s the case for fewer of the works than you might think—or haven’t yet been added to an institution’s website. The goal is to eventually have high resolution images of all the works in the foundation’s growing database.

To date, that database includes information about 643 women, including such obscure figures as France’s Césarine Henriette Flore Davin-Mirvault (1773–1844), who has a piece in New York’s Frick Collection, and Sor Juana Beatriz de la Fuente, a late 18th-century nun whose painting The Tree of Life belongs to the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Anna Dorothea Therbusch, Self Portrait (1777). Courtesy of A Space of Their Own.

Anna Dorothea Therbusch, Self Portrait (1777). Courtesy of A Space of Their Own.

Organizers, led by Indiana University art history professor Adelheid Gealt, believe the project “is destined to become the most comprehensive source of information about artworks by historic female painters, pastellists, printmakers, and sculptors,” according to their recent call for information from European members of CODART, an international network of curators of Dutch and Flemish art. (The project, launched in 2017, has already been gathering information from North American museums, having reached out to over 2,000 institutions to date.)

Existing projects of a similar nature include a database of women artists born between 1860 and 1972 from French nonprofit AWARE and the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative, featuring Canadian women artists. But there is no singular resource, and most are not consistently updated.

Cesarina-Henriette-Flore-Davin-Mirvaux, Portrait of Antonio Bartolomeo Bruni (1804). Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York.

Cesarina-Henriette-Flore-Davin-Mirvaux, Portrait of Antonio Bartolomeo Bruni (1804). Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York.

A Space of Their Own plans to launch in spring 2019. The hope is that as more facts are uncovered and compiled in one central location, a fuller picture will emerge, both of individual women and of female artists’ broader involvement in the art world throughout history.


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