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Drawn and Colored by a Lady:

Four Centuries of Female Artists

Arader Galleries

1016 Madison Avenue, New York, NY

February 1 to March 24, 2007

"A Plate of Figs" by Garzoni

"A Plate of Figs," by Giovanna Garzoni, bodycolor on vellum, laid on board, 9 3/4 by 13 7/8 inches, 1662

By Michele Leight

"Drawn and Colored by a Lady: Four Centuries of Female Artists" currently on view at Arader Galleries in New York is a fascinating pictorial journey back to a time when women artists did not have the freedom they have today - at least in democracies and wealthier nations. A visit to the Renaissance galleries in any world famous museum will not yield the name of a single female artist.

Unlike their male counterparts, seventeenth-century female artists were not allowed to draw or paint from nudes, create frescoes, or receive formal academic training, but they were allowed to tackle still life painting and natural history subject matter.

Despite these constraints, several of the female artists represented at the show earned a living from "making art," and their patrons ranged from the church to wealthy aristocrats to merchants, and, perhaps most intriguing of all, explorers and adventurers - scientists - returning from far-away places with exotic specimens in need of documentation.

From the vantage point of the present, botanical art can seem predictable, but these wonderful artworks should be taken in the context of their time to be fully appreciated - when most of the flora and fauna depicted was either exotic, or an entirely unknown and a yet-to-be-identified "species" - therefore, mysterious and rare. Tulips were the most prized, and collected by the wealthy as "curios," and drawings of them were especially valuable. The artists represented at the show include Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670), Maria Sibylla Merian, and Barbara Regina Deitzsch, but all the lady artists took advantage of a burgeoning private art market whenever an opportunity presented itself. A few had to survive and support families through their own handiwork, and one lady even used her skill to bail out a husband from debtor's prison.

"Still Life" by Garzoni

"Still Life with Flowers in an Elaborate Vase," by Giovanna Garzoni, tempera on vellum, 9 5/8 by 12/ 3/8 inches

The limitations set upon these women did not make a dent in their superb talents or their zeal, epitomized by Giovanna Garzoni's stunning "A Plate of Figs," which dates from her Florentine period, one of about twenty drawings commissioned by Grand Duke Ferdinando II de Medici. These are recorded in the 1692 inventory of Villa Poggio Imperiale in Florence, later transferred to the Pallazzo Pitti in the 18th century. This exquisite example of Garzoni's skill with a capricious medium - watercolor or "bodycolor" as it was soemtimes called - leaves little doubt as to why she was patronized by one of the most important Italian courts of the time. Her work was sought after by the courts of Florence, Turin, Naples, Rome and beyond the Alps to France. She moved at will between patrons, remaining independent, and earned a living from her artwork that made her rich and famous. She finally settled in Rome in 1651 where she lived in comfort untill she died. "Plate of Figs" is one of six from the original set commissioned for the Grand Duke currently in private hands. Its list price is $590,000. (Prices for other works in this exhibition begin at a more moderate $750.)

"Study of a Lily" by Merian

"Study of a Lily," by Maria Sibylla Merian, black lead, pen and black ink, watercolor and bodycolor on vellum, 13 by 8 3/4 inches

History plays strange tricks with "acceptable norms." While there were widespread disparities between males and females in 17th to the mid-20th centuries, tiny pockets of artistic and intellectual freedom did exist. Females dominated the French Salons in The Age of Reason, hosting cultivated soirées that included philosophers, kings, scientists and artists.

Study of a pigeon by Madame Antoinette Pauline Knip

"Original study for plate 32 'Colombe Vlouvlou' of Conrad Temminck and Florentine Prévost's Les Pigeons," by Madame Antoinette Pauline Knip, gouache on vellum, 21 3/4 by 14 3/4 inches

"Scientists," especially botanists, were eager to commission the work of skilled female artists, and the French King commissioned work by Madame Antoinette Pauline Knip, (French, 1781-1851), whose wonderful birds are represented at this show. This was called "The Feminine Age," a forerunner of the famous salons of Gertrude Stein in Paris and Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, and others, several centuries later. In the list of artists below, it is noticable that so many were French noblewomen - before the Revolution, which put an end to civilized "salons," and ladies making art, and the resulting "Age of Enlightenment" ironically did not bestow enough genuine enlightment to offer equality to females - instead they were regarded as inferior to men.

Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters (whose "pen" names were masculine, like George Elliot) frequently introduced watercolor painting into their novels, via a governess, a young lady going out of her mind with boredom, or as an occupation deemed suitable for respectable or genteel young ladies while they were waiting around for husbands. These typecast women have etched themselves on universal consciousness as Jane Eyre or Emma, but both of them mercifully were able to move on to more fulfilling lives, at least in the novels. There is sense of freedom in these fresh, gorgously executed art works that defy any suggestion that women were either reticent or incapable of performing as well as men. Perhaps the condescending opinions and constraints upon them served as an inspiration for growing women's suffrage, which was given a boost by the Industrial Revolution, and urbanization, which brought more women into cities where they could access training and work. A rising middle class also opened up the field of education to women. It is amazing to think that Virginia Woolf was denied access to the libraries of Oxford, where she took her degree. Despite numerous attempts to obtain permission to enter the libraries for research, only men were accorded the privilege.That was not so long ago.

"Dandelion" by Dietzsch "Dianthus" by Dietzsch

"Dandelion," left, and "Dianthus," right, watercolors with gouache and gold leaf on vellum, 11 1/4 by 8 inches ("Dandelion") and 13 7/8 by 10 1/2 inches (Dianthus), both by Barbara Regina Dietzsch

The star of the exhibition is Barbara Regina Dietzsch (German, 1706-1783) who, according to the catalogue, "was a member of an important family of painters, engravers, and musicians that flourished in Nuremberg during the eighteenth century." "The patrongage of Dr. Chrisophter Trew, the great botanist and bibliographer, made Nuremberg one of the foremost centers of botantical art in the world, and the Dietzsch family was one of the most noted of the era. Even at the time of its production, the work of Barbara Regina Dietzsch was much sought after by collectors in both the Netherlands and in England. It is recorded that some of the best-known painters of the time accepted her works as a form of payment, signaling the great reputation she attained during her lifetime - a celebration that has continued to grow in the intervening centuries....her work was of such outstanding quality that it was used by Trew and Georg Ehret for a number of plates in the Hortus Nitidissimus (1750-86)....What separates the work of Barbara Regina from that of her other family members is the remarkable clarity of depiction and skill in rendering. With unbelievable mastery and stylistic power, Dietzsch overcame contemporary estimations of wormen's inferiority in the field of art, creating watercolors of distinctive splendor."

It is the women who somehow managed to work and earn a living at something they loved that remain the most impressive - like Giovanna Garzoni, born into a modest Venetian family without connections or money, or an intrepid mother and daughter, both exquisite mistresses of the medium of watercolor: Maria Sibylla Merian, (German, 1647-1717) and her daughter Johanna Helena Graff. who was born in 1677. These dates give some idea of what they were up against, long before Jane Eyre or Ms. Austen's fiesty heroines.

Maria Sibylla Merian's father was a famous publisher, Mathias Merian (1593-1650), who died when she was three years old. A year later, her mother, Johanna Sibylla married the Dutch painter Jacob Marrell (1613-1681), who trained her in painting and introduced her to natural history illustration. When she was eighteen Maria married an apprentice of her father, and moved to Nuremberg, where she gave birth to two daughters - one of them, Johanna Helena Graff, also became an artist and is represented in this show beside her mother. In the midst of having babies and keeping house, Maria Sibylla Merian painted and sold watercolors on vellum - she earned a living, in the late 1600s, through her art. Her customers were clearly conoisseurs.

"Study of a fritillaria imperialis" by Graffe

"Study of a fritillaria imperialis," by Johana Helena Graffe, watercolor and gouache on vellum, 14 3/4 by 11 3/4 inches

The adventures of Maria were not over. In 1685, this intrepid woman left her husband, and with her mother and two daughters joined a spiritual community of the Labadist sect. Five years of this was enough for Maria; she left the order and moved to Amsterdam. Fourteen years later, in 1701, she and her daughter Dorothea went on a voyage to Surinam (Guyana), a Dutch colony alongside Venezuela, where she worked on hundreds of drawings of insects and flowers for her book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surnamensium. The jungles were full of insects and mosquitos, and without the contemporary luxuries of sterilized water and malaria pills, Maria did succumb to the illness, but her daughter Johanna Helena Graff became the family torch bearer, and her work is as alive and beautiful as her mother's.

Rosa Bonheur, (French, 1822-1899) is represented at this show by a single work, "Sheep Grazing in a Meadow," with an estimate of $45,000. Most famous in America for "The Horse Fair," her enormous painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this amazing woman wore her hair short, sported trousers and smoked in public. She loved animals, and the bucolic drawing of Scottish Highland sheep gives no hint of the rigorous anatomical research Bonheur undertook for any project; in this instance she visited butcher shops and slaughterhouses to better understand her subject.

Bonheur worked as an "animalier" and kept a menagerie in her home that would be banned today, including a lion and lioness, a stag, a wild sheep, gazelle and of course horses. She kept close quarters with and played with them, fearlessly. She exhibited regularly at The Paris Salon in the years 1841-1853, and her reputation was sealed by the commission of "Ploughing at Nivernais," ( Musée Nationale de Chateau de Fontainbleau) by the government of the Second Republic, which was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1849.

"A bouquet of roses and tulips" by Domenica Monvoisin

"A bouquet of roses and tulips," by Domenica Monvoisin, née Festa, watercolor and gouache on vellum, 15 1/8 by 12 inches

There are wonderful stories attached to each of the female artists represented at this show, in the richly illustrated exhibition catalog "Drawn and Colored by a Lady: Four Centuries of Female Artists," but the original artworks must be seen "in the flesh" to be fully appreciated. Domenica Monvoisin, an Italian artist who died in 1881, studied painting with her father and was married to a painter. The catalogue notes that "Although Domenica Monvoisin is not technically classified as a follower or pupil of Pierre-Joseph Redouté, the influence of his work is unmistakable," adding that she was thought to have been employed by the Sèvres factory in the early 1840s.

"Eucalyptus" by Demarcay

"Eucalyptus caesia in a vase," by Camille Demarçay, watercolor on paper, 21 1/2 by 15 inches

While most floral still life painters usually depicted more than one kind of flower in their paintings, Camille Demarçay, who was born in Paris where she would study with Eugenie Hautier, concentrated on only one variety of bloom in her paintings. "The rationale for this," the catalogue maintained, "was to show the species to the fullest, thus celebrating the beauty of each plant.'

The artists represented are, in chronological order, from the mid-seventeenth century to the present: Giovanna Garzoni, Maria Sybilla Merian, Johanna Helena Graff, Barbara Regina Dietzsch, Madame Peigne, Madame Antoinette Pauline Knipp, Claire Brosselard, Emelie-Anna Graff, (nee Reinhart), Augustine Benard, Comtesse D'Aubigny D'Afoy, Comtesse de Genlis, Comtesse de Brady, Comtesse de Valence, Baronne de Finguerlin, Mademoiselle la Marechal Gerard, Lady Edward Fitzgerald, Eugene Adelaide Louise D'Orleans, Priscilla Susan Bury, Domenica Monvoisin, Rosa Bonheur, Clara Poteau, Camille Demarçay, Jenny Phillips, Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Coxen Gould, Augusta Innes Baker Withers, Sara Anne Drake, Priscilla Susan Bury, Jane Wells Loudon, and Bertha Hoola Van Nooten.

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