Women in Art History

Women have always had a place in the arts for the entirety of modern human existence.  Even in prehistory there is documented evidence of women participating in the creation of art.  At Peche Merle Cave, France, 25,000 year old cave paintings of spotted horses are surrounded by images of hand stencils.  These images were analyzed by archaeologist Dean Snow and found that at Peche Merle, and many other prehistoric European caves, a large number of these hand stencils and prints were created by female hands.

Hand stencils created by women and spotted horses at Pech Merle Cave, France. Image courtesy http://france.cherylfortier.com.

Even though women have always played a vital role in the creation of art, throughout the historical period female dominated arts (such as textile, fiber, and needle arts) have been dismissed as “crafts” by society.  It is only recently that these arts have been included under the umbrella of fine and applied arts.  It is also important to note that women participated in many forms of fine arts throughout the ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance periods right alongside men.  Women in the arts often have a silent presence in historical accounts.  Sometimes acknowledged, but rarely named until recently.

The Caputi Hydria, a red-figure vase dated to circa 460-450 BCE, showing women painting vases.  The vase was found in a female burial.

During the European Medieval period, female artists worked as illuminators of manuscripts, embroiderers, and as textile artists.  Women were generally only provided the opportunity to become artists by being born into wealthy families or by living in nunneries.  These two subsections of European society allowed women access to resources that the general population would not have had, such as instruction in reading and writing.

Illumination from Liber Scivias, by Saint Hildegard of Bingen, circa 1151/1152. The illustration depicts Hildegard receiving a vision which she relates to her male scribe/secretary.

During the European Renaissance and Baroque periods female artists first rose to international acclaim.  A great number of paintings produced by women survive from the era.  During these eras we also see the first documented existence of female sculptors like Properzia de’ Rossi and Luisa Ignacia Roldán. It was unusual for women to become painters or sculptors, as the apprenticeship period involved living and training with an older artist for 4 to 5 years.  Women who did train in painting were typically taught by a close male relative such as an uncle or father.

Hercule Assommant une Amazone by Properzia de Rossi. Now housed at the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy.

One of the first examples of self-portraiture in oil painting was created by Caterina van Hemessen.  This painting gained Caterina a large amount of attention during her lifetime as it is the first self-portrait of an artist of either gender depicted with the tools of their trade.  It was typical before this point for oil painters to insert themselves into crowd scenes.

Self-portrait by Caterina van Hemessen, 1548, oil on oak board. Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel, Switzerland (The Basel Art Museum).

The emphasis on the academic study of art made it difficult for women to fully integrate themselves into the world of fine arts.  Women from the middle and lower classes, if they painted or drew, were not considered true artists as they generally lacked formal training.  Only women from wealthy families had the means to provide access to classes and the time to devote to instruction by famous painters.   In 1791 the Salon Exhibition in Paris opened its doors to non-academic painters; however, it was not until 1872 that Elizabeth Jane Gardner became the first woman to win a gold medal at this exhibition.

The Imprudent Girl by Elizabeth Jane Gardner, 1884, oil on canvas.

In the modern era women continue to blaze trails and push boundaries in the art world.  With less emphasis on the requirement of formal training to qualify as an artist, access to this world is now open to people from all walks of life.

Baskets woven by Dat So La Lee (1829-1925), a member of the Washoe People that rose to national prominence in the 1890s.
Grandfather and Grandson at Manzanar Relocation Center by Dorothea Lange, circa 1941-1945.

Painting Medium: Gouache

Gouache (goo-ah-sh or gwaush) is a lesser known painting medium, but has been in use since the 1300s in Europe.  Gouache is similar to watercolors in that it consists of pigment and binding agent (usually gum arabic) suspended in water.  However, gouache is opaque, with larger pigment particles than traditional watercolors, a higher pigment to water ratio, and added inert materials such as chalk.  The larger particles and higher pigment content gives gouache a smooth, velvety look with higher light reflective qualities than watercolors.  It is also known as opaque watercolor or bodycolor and is commonly used alongside watercolors to highlight certain parts of the painting.

Dragon Arum and Tortoiseshell Butterfly by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, circa 1580, watercolor and gouache on paper, Arader Galleries

Gouache as we know it was used as early as the 14th Century in Europe, but is more commonly seen from the 1500s and later.  We have historical examples of botanical illustrations from Europe, as well as illuminations from Indian manuscripts and paintings on cotton fabric from what is now Afghanistan.  In the 1800s Frederic Remington used gouache to create illustrations which were then sent to lithographers to copy the work for mass book printing.

Portrait of a Courier circa 1615, gouache on paper, originates from Bijapur, Deccan, India, housed at the British Museum

Claude Monet used pencil, watercolors, and gouache to create humorous drawings and caricatures.  Gouache is still prized by illustrators like Alex Ross and Syd Mead today for its smooth and rich qualities.

The Painter with a Pointed Hat by Claude Monet, circa 1857, watercolor and pencil highlighted with white gouache
Crossing Water to Escape a Prairie Fire by Frederic Remington, gouache on paper, Forsyth Galleries
Blade Runner Street Scene 3 (Blue) by Syd Mead, 1980-1981, gouache on illustration board
Wonder Woman illustration, plates 26-27 by Alex Ross, gouache on Strathmore watercolor bristol series 400 4 ply

Art Videos

Enjoy these visual representations of other forms of visual art on your Saturday!

Agnes Cecile paints for the entrance of her solo exhibition.

The art of paper marbling.

Blindfold art

Renowned art quilt artist Laurie Swim

An excerpt from the BBC’s How Art Made the World covering Greek sculpture.

Featured Artist: George Rodrigue

George Rodrigue, best known for his Blue Dog paintings and prints, was born in 1944, in the Acadiana region of the state of Louisiana, USA.  His strong Cajun roots influenced his art throughout his life.  Indeed, the Blue Dog was created from a combination of memories of the local Louisiana legends of the loup garou (a French Louisiana variant of the European werewolf tale) and his deceased pet dog.  Originally the Blue Dog appeared in his paintings and prints as a more menacing character with glowing red eyes, but later transitioned into a more humorous figure.

My Baby Made a Clown of Me (Big Top Dog) by George Rodrigue, 1991, acrylic on canvas

He attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, but it was in Los Angeles at the Art Center College of Design that he was exposed to the pop art that greatly influenced his later work.  After completing his degree in Los Angeles, he returned home to Louisiana to pursue his career as an artist even though the major art scene was in New York City.  After a stint as an art director for an advertising agency, he began painting full time and in 1969 was commissioned by then Louisiana governor John McKeithen to create a painting that would become Louisiana’s gift to the Prime Minister of Quebec.

Stacked by George Rodrigue, 2001, acrylic on canvas

Prior to painting his first blue dog in 1984, George Rodrigue’s subjects focused mainly on oak trees, Cajun myths, people, and traditions.  He has exhibited his works in venues around the world and in 1992 was chosen by Absolut Vodka as an influential pop artist.  His works appeared in national advertising campaigns for Absolute Vodka alongside artists like Andy Warhol and Hans Godo Frabel.

The Wild Blue Yonder by George Rodrigue, 2000, acrylic on canvas

In 2005 George and his family were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.  He painted We Will Rise Again directly in response to the devastation caused by the storm.  This work later became the first in a series of five paintings used to fund his charitable initiative, Blue Dog Relief: George Rodrigue Art Campaign for Recovery, to aid the New Orleans Museum of Art.  The museum had been closed for months due to the massive flood damage caused by the storm.  Prior to Hurricane Katrina George became intrigued with the weather patterns of the storms that hit Louisiana and he began painting abstract images of hurricanes.

We Will Overcome by George Rodrigue, 2005, mixed media and acrylic on canvas. Note the return of the red eyes, a reference to his early blue dog work and the original loup garou myth.

George Rodrigue’s charitable work also includes campaigns for New Orleans levee protection, the Louisiana 2-1-1 phone system, and the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.  Mr. Rodrigue’s work continues to be recognized as some of the most influential pop art of the past thirty years.  The paintings on exhibit in the Reynolds Student Art Gallery at Texas A&M are on loan from the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Nannette by George Rodrigue, 2003, oil on canvas

George Rodrigue’s homepage.

His wife Wendy also has an art blog in which she often features George’s work: Musings of an Artist’s Wife.

Portrait of Pete Fountain by George Rodrigue, 1996, acrylic on canvas
Hot Green by George Rodrigue, 2000, acrylic on canvas
Nannette (2003), Elvira (2003), and Frederic (2002) by George Rodrigue, oil on canvas

The History of a Cassatt

Our new exhibition, “Highlights from the Runyon Collection,” opened on Monday, September 3rd, and runs until December 7th, 2012.  In addition to the many incredible pieces of Steuben, Tiffany, and cameo glass, we are also featuring a number of paintings from the collection amassed by Bill and Irma Runyon.  Every so often I plan to feature a piece on this blog and give you a glimpse into its history and travels before it came to us.  Within our object files you will find a slice of history and maybe some mystery as well!

“Mother in a Large Hat Holding her Nude Baby, Seen from the Back View” by Mary Cassatt, circa 1909, Forsyth Center Galleries

Today’s feature will be in two parts.  This first post covers the history of the piece and where it has moved around the world.  The second post will cover the “anatomy” of the painting and will include images that look through the layers of paint (infrared reflectography).  Tune back in to the same channel for “The Anatomy of a Cassatt” coming soon!

Detail showing the vibrant brushstrokes used to create the background trees.

Today’s featured object is the oil painting Mother in a large hat holding her nude baby, seen from the back view by Mary Cassatt.  It is a lesser known piece by the famous female American impressionist and is dated to circa 1909.  As with most of Cassatt’s works, it features a mother and child.  The unnamed woman is holding a nude baby, who has his/her head laid on her left shoulder.  The mother is wearing a white hat with blue ribbon and a plum colored, short sleeved dress.  They are outside with the corner of a house and trees in the background.

Close up of the mother’s right sleeve

The background is mainly in vibrant greens.  The mother’s face and baby pop off the background with the highly contrasting colors between the green of the trees and the flesh, yellow, and pink tones of their skin.  In the lower right corner the painting is signed, “Mary Cassatt.”  It is one of her later works and was painted only 5 years before she was forced to stop painting in 1914 after developing cataracts.  The closeup images show the vigorous brushstrokes used to create the work.

Closeup showing the back of the baby’s head and neck
Mary Cassatt’s signature on “Mother in a Large Hat Holding her Nude Baby” circa 1909

The painting originally resided with the Cassatt family until approximately 1945 at which point it made its way to Paris with Jacques Seligmann.  Seligmann sold it to Pedro Vallenilla of Venezuela in 1960.  In 1961 it was purchased by Hirschl & Adler Galleries of New York, New York, after which it was purchased by Renee Helfer and was exhibited in 1962.  In 1969 it was purchased by the Coe Kerr Gallery for $140,000 (just under $874,000 if purchased today with inflation rates) and sold to Dr. Carl F. Rainone of Arlington, Texas, where it resided in his gallery (Fine Art Investment) until 1973.

A closeup of the brushstrokes that create the background.

Irma Runyon purchased the painting in 1973 for she and her husband Bill’s (Texas A&M class of ’35) personal art collection.  Bill & Irma Runyon created the Forsyth Galleries with an endowment and the painting came to reside with us.  Mother in a Large Hat has moved around the world from France to Venezuela to New York to several cities in Texas.  We’re very pleased to be able to display her for your enjoyment!

Detail of the mother and baby


Art in the News!

19th Century mural in a Spanish church ruined by an octogenarian amateur restorer who didn’t have permission to work on the painting.  Makes Jesus look like a bloated hedgehog.  Click here!


Image of botched Spanish restoration goes viral and it’s image is made in candy.  Click here!


Help buy the land and build a Tesla museum!  Click here!



A little vintage fashion: rare images of Edwardian street style in London and Paris.  Click here!



Photographer uses an combination of bulb mode and delayed focusing to capture unique images of fireworks.  Click here!



Maya murals found while renovating a family kitchen.  Click here!

The Marion E. Byrd Majolica Collection

Here are some selections from the Marion E. Byrd Majolica Collection, currently on exhibit at the Forsyth Center Galleries until November 3rd, 2012.  The Majolica (muh-jol-i-kuh) pottery presented in our exhibition dates to the 19th Century and was mainly produced in England during the reign of Queen Victoria.  It was originally conceived as an imitation of Maiolica pottery produced during the Italian Renaissance and imitates its bright colors and playful style.  However, Victorian Majolica pottery also features molded surfaces, a greater range of subject matter (including animal, floral, or whimsical scenes from fairy tales), and food vessels shaped like the food they were meant to hold.

Majolica Fish Vase, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries

Majolica pottery burst onto the scene in the 1850s and became instantly popular, especially with the growing British middle class created by the Industrial Revolution, as it could by manufactured cheaply and sold at a lower price.  A large number of pottery companies responded to the increased demand for Majolica.  Along with Mintons, Wedgewood, Trent, Royal Worcester, and many others produced Majolica.

Asparagus Dish and Underplate, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries

Around the time of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 the market had been so flooded by Majolica pottery that production waned sharply and was quickly superseded by the Art Nouveau movement.  The Byrd Collection is a recent acquisition for our Gallery and displays the range of colors, forms, and subjects that Victorian Majolica pottery presented throughout its production history.

Plate by Villeroy & Boch, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries
Plate with bird motif, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries
Fish-shaped plate, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries
Parrot-shaped pitcher, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries
Umbrella Stand, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries
Baby shoe with sand finish, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries
Multicolored dish, Marion E. Byrd Collection, Forsyth Center Galleries