Mari Ness (mariness) wrote,
Mari Ness

The Louvre, the gendered gaze, and artistic assumptions

Some years back I happened to be in St. Augustine and decided to go on the St. Augustine historical reenactment tour. It was awful, but this post is not about that. Rather, it's about the woman who was doing the candlemaking demonstration, who told me that before the 19th century, no women could read.

"At least three of Henry VIII's wives were very literate," I noted. "His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, could speak several languages, was trained in classical humanism, and worked as her father's ambassador for a time writing diplomatic letters. Anne Boleyn read widely and could write. Catherine Parr was a popular, published writer of religious works. And this was all before St. Augustine was founded."

"I never knew that."

So I told her a little more about women writers in the 16th, 17th and 18th century, the French salon fairy tale writers (primarily if not entirely women), the educated Spanish mystics and so on.

"I didn't even think women wrote until this century," she said. "Well, except for Louisa May Alcott. And Jane Austen."


Flash forward to last night, when on Twitter girliejones linked to an otherwise interesting article which stated that the Louvre does not have a single piece by a female artist.

This is a wildly exciting claim, and untrue.

The Louvre's "modern" pieces (by which I will for the purposes of this post call "after 1600 C.E." although I should perhaps use "after 1350 C.E." but if I start arguing about the start date of the early modern period I shall never finish this post) do, it is true, focus on men, and certainly, the men primarily responsible for the initial organization of the Louvre after the Revolution were not eager to include women artists, a bias that continues. (Some contemporary biographies of the French Revolutionary artist David, which I haven't discussed here because they haven't irked me on the bisexuality issue, address this point and shed some intriguing light on the problems that the Revolution caused women artists.) But a search of the Louvre's databases showed that yes, the Louvre does own and display pieces by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-LeBrun (according to the Louvre's database, displayed someplace on the second floor); Anne Vallayer-Coster (also displayed someplace on the second floor), Annibale Fontana, Judith Leyster (debated), and more. (I only searched for a few minutes and did not search for 19th/20th century women artists, so this list is incomplete.)

Make no mistake: compared to the number of male artists on display, this barely even counts as tokenism. To add to the problems, if I am reading the database correctly, many of the women artists are displayed in a "Vigee-LeBrun" room, problematic since this focuses on them as women artists, rather than as, at least in Vigee-LeBrun's case, innovative artists working alongside their male counterparts to develop the Romantic vision in art and new artistic techniques. And the Louvre's current online special displays do seem to be focusing on male artists.

Ok, you say. So given that, I'm nitpicking, right?

Not really. Because the article ignores one other critical part of the story: Anonymous.


Much of the Louvre is not at all interested in modern art. Instead, it focuses on Assyrian, Egyptian, "Classical" (I have issues with this term) and medieval art. Much of this was originally collected to display the spoils of empire and war and showcase the rise of the glorious, scientific and rational French society (and to educate the French public about art), and others better equipped than I can discuss the problematic issues behind the Louvre's original collecting process, but that's not the point I'm going for here.

Which means that much of the art of the Louvre was created by "Anonymous."

Before I continue, a few caveats. First, I'm focusing on western (i.e., European) art here, since although I love Japanese woodcuts and African art and so on, I really don't know enough about those vast, vast fields to discuss them intelligently, and the Louvre has focused more on the western artistic tradition in any case. Second, the "medieval" period, as generally designated, covers about a thousand years and several countries and rising and falling cultures, and, critically, some plagues. During this period, the status of women naturally ebbed and fell – in one century, we find women happily owning businesses and land and having the right to ask for (not receive) a divorce (marriage laws get incredibly complex) and working as artists and writers and musicians and supporting artistic and religious colonies. And in the very next century we have women oppressed nearly everywhere, except perhaps not there - there being precisely where we find them oppressed next, just as women are doing better elsewhere. In other words, this is a complex picture without a status quo. A woman merchant in 14th century London (and there were many) may not have had that much, culturally, in common with a 12th century woman in London, but potentially quite a lot with a 10th century woman in Germany. It all depended. But for various irritating reasons outside the context of this post, most Americans are simply not taught about the tremendous cultural and political variety of medieval Europe, let alone the Islamic empires and China and Zimbabwe and Ghana. Instead, what people usually hear is, "Roman Empire fell, there was this Charlemagne dude, feudalism rose in England/France, Crusades made people kinda mad and brought spices over to Europe, and, Columbus!" This assumes people even get this much. And they rarely, if ever, hear about the rich and varied history of women.

But one common theme throughout the European medieval period was an embrace of anonymity. It's not that medieval artists never signed names to their works. Sometimes they did. Sometimes other people gave them credit. But for the most part, we have paintings and sculptures and songs and poems and tales written by anonymous.

Intriguingly enough, in some periods, we find that the stained glass artists and stoneworkers and sculptors getting paid for these works were women. But the works themselves have the names "anonymous" assigned to them – and anonymous, all too frequently, is assumed to be a man.

No doubt many – perhaps most – of these works were done by men. But documentary evidence from Italy, France and England suggests that some were created by women, and indeed, we have enough names of women poets and musicians to know that women did enter the arts with their own names. In addition, we find that women did create the tapestries, wall hangings and furniture covers of the period (although again, some scholars have credited these anonymous pieces to men).

The problem is even worse when it comes to the Classical period. Here, we do know that some sculptors were definitely male. But the vast majority of artwork (sculpture, fresco, mosaic, etc.) in the Classical period – 98% is unsigned. We can be reasonably sure that women in Classical Athens (the Plato/Socrates period) probably did not work openly as sculptors. We absolutely cannot say this with any certainty when it comes to the Roman period. Archaeological and documentary evidence shows that women did work as artisans and merchants, and Roman women seemingly had considerably more freedom than did their Greek counterparts. I say, seemingly, because the evidence for Greece focuses on Athens, and we know cultures and customs could differ between cities. The same is true for Rome. But from multiple sources – including not particularly sympathetic-to-women early Christian texts – women appeared to have relative independence, and at least sometimes had their own wealth and careers. (Think of the letters of the generally misogynistic St. Paul on this point.) Back to pagan sources: goddesses were shown not only as inspirers but as creators of art.

When it comes to Egyptian and Assyrian art, the simple truth is, we don't know. We have no idea if this art was created by men or women or both. Many scholars have assumed that Egyptian tomb artists were male, but these were often the same scholars who assumed that the pyramids were built by slaves, which turns out to be not so true.

It's entirely possible that each and every piece of Assyrian art at the Louvre was created by a man.

It's entirely possible that each piece was created by a woman. The final truth is that we don't know.

Men – and women – have looked into the past and seen what they wanted to see. Such views are frequently colored by political and yes, gendered views. In one relatively well known case, scholars assumed that only men acted on the Roman stage because it is known that only men acted on the English Renaissance stage. (The English Renaissance, whatever I may have said about the education of Henry VIII's wives, was not one of the brighter periods of feminist history.) After further research of pictures and writings, scholars determined that women did act on stage in some periods of Roman history, but probably/possibly not in others, because these scholars specifically set out to ask the question, "Wait, are we applying English Renaissance assumptions here?" Sure enough, we were. A more nuanced picture showed variety, and a suggestion that some Roman cities may have welcomed women actors, while other cities shunned them. (It is clear from the writings of Paul and other early Christian authors that the status of women varied considerably from city to city even in the same year, although we can't say with certainty that this also applied to the status of actresses.)

Adding to the difficulty: the documents that have survived from ancient and medieval times are incomplete, and selected. Sometimes, they were selected through natural fortune/misfortune (fires, how close they were to hungry mice, and so on); sometimes through deliberate choice. Men who had little interest in what women did back then would naturally choose to preserve manuscripts discussing the lives of men. We know several classical texts have vanished, and it's certainly possible that gender played a role in that disappearance.

Sometimes women could contribute to this. The 10th century German dramatist Roswitha, a Saxon nun, for instance, wrote religious plays and histories focused on the lives of men since her primary interest was in martyrdom and sainthood, although she also wrote about women and certainly touched on issues of gender. It's pure luck that Roswitha's plays happened to survive and be published. It's also possible (but completely speculative) that some classical women may, like 19th century British authors, have chosen to write under male names, hiding their gender, further distorting the picture. (Intriguingly enough, some readers bought into this, assuming that Jane Eyre was too passionate to be written by a woman and Middlemarch too realistic to be from a woman's viewpoint.)

And so, someone reviewing the Centre Pompidou and needing to see its exhibitions as radical can state that the Louvre does not own artworks by women, despite the very real fact that a significant portion of art at the Louvre cannot be assigned to any gender at all.

Any view of the past is, by nature, distorted and imperfect. But there's distortion by accidental omission, there's distortion for political purposes, and then there's distortion by assumption. It's not just that a statement like "The Louvre doesn't have any art by women" which can be easily disproven allows others to drag out the canard of "oh, feminism is all about exaggeration." It's that this sort of thing helps hide the achievements of women. It contributes to the myth that women didn't paint in the Renaissance (several women actually had highly successful careers as portrait painters); contributes to the myth that women were illiterate, that women have traditionally always worked at home and only entered the workplace in the 1960s and later; and so on. It contributes to the myth that tapestries depicting war must have been designed and created by men, even when documentary evidence for the Bayeux Tapestry, to name just one example, says otherwise, and contributes to the myth that art focused on traditionally male interests must have been created by men. We have faced enough real historical subjugation without adding to it.

Again, this is not to ignore the reality that American and European museums* have traditionally and historically ignored or demeaned the work and art of women, or the reality that women are still underrepresented in the (attributed) art work seen in the major museums of the world. Nor is it to ignore the reality that women usually did face greater odds and difficulties as artists, and rarely had the opportunity to compete on an equal footing with men. (And the biological reality that until the 20th century women typically had shorter lives because of the risks of childbirth, which killed many women in their 20s and 30s, drastically reducing their artistic output.) Nor is it to ignore the reality that the definition of "art" has frequently been made by men, who have often assigned the word "art" to male dominated fields instead of creative endeavours traditionally dominated by women, such as tapestries, quilts, silk screens, chair coverings and so on, often called "crafts," nor the reality that when said "crafts" focus on traditionally male subjects such as war (as in some tapestries), observers have assumed that the work must have been guided or created by a man/male gaze. (This particularly happens with tapestries, where I've been assured - by men - that the war tapestries were woven by male weavers.) Nor is it to ignore the reality that men and women often can and will approach art in different ways and focus on different issues and aspects.

But I do want to note that the artistic world is more complicated than this. That yes, sometimes women artists will take on "male" issues, for whatever reason, that yes, women artists have chosen to conceal their genders or their names. That yes, women continued to produce art in male dominated worlds under great difficulties, achievements that should be celebrated. (And making me wonder just what we could achieve under full equality, and no, we aren't there yet.) That yes, women did read in the 17th century. And that yes, sometimes Anonymous is a woman.

Meanwhile, when someone looks at Assyrian art and arbitrarily assigns all of it to male artists, I flash back, again, to being told that The Lord of the Rings is just for the boys, that women don't get it. I flash back to being told that I like dolls (well, I do) but not firetrucks. To someone telling me that Batman is a boy's comic, so why would I want to read it? To someone telling me that women write fantasy and romance, not science fiction.

It lets me believe that the Louvre would never collect the art of women.
Tags: ancient cultures, anonymous, archaeology, art, gender, louvre

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