5 Women Artists Who Ruled the Renaissance, From a Florentine Nun to a Flemish Portraitist
From the royal court of Spain to the Vatican, these artists were integral parts to the shaping of Renaissance art—and art history.
Renaissance art calls to mind some of the greatest names in art history—Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Donatello, just to name a few. Lesser known, however, are the influential women artists who shaped the era.
Referring to a period that bridged the end of the Middle Ages and early Modernism, the Renaissance was marked by a widespread effort to recover and advance the accomplishments of classical antiquity. Originating in Florence, Italy, but soon spreading throughout Europe, Renaissance art saw the advent of advanced linear perspective and an increase in realism. Many women artists—famous in their own time—were among these great visionaries.
Though for centuries, these women artists were largely overlooked in the annals of art history, contemporary scholarship has begun a long overdue reappraisal and rediscovery of their lives and works. Evidence of this resurgence of interest in the women artists of the Renaissance can be seen in the two current major museum shows in the U.S. that are dedicated to just that. “Strong Women in Renaissance Italy” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston brings together over 100 works from the 14th through early 17th century, exploring the lives and work of Italian women artists and is on view through January 7, 2024. At the Baltimore Museum of Art, “Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400–1800” is a sweeping exhibition that aims to rectify critical oversight and bring awareness to historical women artists, and is also on view through January 7, 2024.
In light of these two important exhibitions, we’ve brought together a brief introduction to five Renaissance women artists whom we think you should know.
Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588)
Plautilla Nelli was a nun of the Dominican order at the convent of St. Catherine of Siena in Florence—and is considered by many scholars to be the first-known woman artist of Renaissance Italy. A self-taught painter, Nelli led a women’s artist workshop from the convent, and she was one of the few women mentioned in Vasari’s seminal treatise Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Because she developed her practice without formal training and was forbidden from studying male nudes, Nelli frequently copied works by other artists, as well as motifs from religious texts and sculpture.
Nelli’s work recently came into the limelight for her immense painting Last Supper, dating to 1568. Measuring over 21 feet long and 6 feet high, the painting remained in her convent’s refectory until the early 19th century, before being moved to another convent’s refectory and, ultimately, being placed in storage. Following an early 20th-century restoration and several more moves, it went on view to the public for the first time in over four centuries at the Santa Maria Novella Museum in 2019. Hanging alongside other masterworks by artists like Brunelleschi, it finally is getting the widespread recognition it deserves.
Catharina van Hemessen (1528–after 1565)
Northern Renaissance painter Catharina van Hemessen was the daughter of prominent Mannerist painter Jan Sanders van Hemessen, and is the earliest Flemish woman painter with verified work that still exists today. Hailing from Antwerp, van Hemessen achieved success in her lifetime, including obtaining the patronage of Maria of Austria, regent of the Low Countries. She was included both in Vasari’s collection of artist biographies, as well as artist biographer Lodovico Guicciardini’s Description of the Low Countries (1567). Van Hemessen’s greatest claim to fame, however, is that she is attributed with completing the first known self-portrait of an artist at their easel—a compositional approach that has become a pillar of the art historical canon, as it has been taken up by artists ranging from Rembrandt van Rijn to Norman Rockwell.
Though she created religious images, she was most well known as a portraitist. Eight portraits and two religious compositions signed by van Hemessen have survived, dating between 1548 and 1552. Notably, there are no verifiable works dating to later than 1554, which have led scholars to believe she ceased painting following her marriage to organist Christian de Morien that year—though there are records she continued to teach three male apprentices.
Sofonisba Anguissola (ca. 1532–1625)
Sofonisba Anguissola was one of the most successful women artists of the Renaissance, with a reputation that rose to international acclaim in her lifetime. Born into a noble Milanese family, Anguissola was able to pursue her artistic aspirations with the support of her family, and began her formal training as a teenager; first apprenticing with Bernardino Campi for three years before working with Bernardino Gatti. Her position also allowed for her to become acquainted with Michelangelo, whom she exchanged drawings with. Her early career saw her complete numerous self-portraits as well as portraits of her sisters, including The Game of Chess (1555), which are noted for their realism and liveliness.
Anguissola’s reputation as a painter quickly spread, and she was invited to join the court of King Philip II of Spain in Madrid in approximately 1559. Throughout her 14-year tenure there, she completed many official portraits of both members of the royal family and members of the court, adopting the formal and intricate style expected—though unfortunately, no work from this period survived due to a palace fire in the 18th century. Having garnered considerable royal favor, she ultimately spent the remainder of her life continuing to paint as well as teach and engage with young, up-and-coming artists. In 1624, one such young artist by the name of Anthony van Dyck visited Anguissola and recorded his visit in a series of sketches and noted that he learned more about the principles of painting from her than from anything else he had encountered.
Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614)
Trained by her artist father Prospero Fontana, a teacher at the School of Bologna, Lavinia Fontana is considered the first professional woman artist insofar as she supported herself and her family solely on the income from her commissions. Unconventional for the time, her husband acted as her agent and took a primary role in childcare for their 11 children. She began her commercial practice in her mid-twenties, creating small devotional paintings, but later began and excelled at creating portraits—and became a favorite of Bolognese noblewomen who vied for her services. Unusual for the period, she also created large-scale mythological or religious paintings that occasionally featured female nudes.
In the early years of the 17th century, she was invited to Rome at the invitation of Pope Clement VIII and was soon appointed as an official portraitist at the Vatican, counting Pope Paul V as one of her sitters. Her career success continued to thrive, as evidenced by the numerous honors she received, and the bronze portrait medallion cast in her likeness by sculptor and architect Felice Antonio Casoni. She was also one of the first women elected to the Accademia di San Luca in Rome.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653)
Unlike many of her predecessors, Artemisia Gentileschi has maintained a level of renown over the centuries, with her dramatic and dynamic oeuvre that was unprecedented in her own time. Her Baroque compositions helped usher in a new era of painting. Today, her paintings draw the attention of global audiences. Born in Rome, her father was the painter Orazio Gentileschi, who trained Artemisia starting at an early age. Inspired greatly by the work of Caravaggio and his use of high-contrast compositions, her paintings garnered and maintained attention for their naturalism and nuance, as they broke from the idealism of generations past.
In 1612, Gentileschi relocated to Florence, which is where she first achieved major career success, including securing patronage from the House of Medici and being the first woman to attend the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. From her oeuvre, Gentileschi has become most well-known for her self-portraits as well as religious scenes, specifically the story of Judith Beheading Holofernes—of which there are at least six known variations she completed. Gentileschi’s tendency to portray women as the protagonists of her works—and as equals to their male counterparts—made her innovative in her time and has subsequently secured her legacy as one of the most influential artists within Western art history—of either sex.
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