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3.3: Renaissance Art (1400-1600)

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    Economic wealth through trade routes around the world brought money into Europe and the coffers of the church and wealthy families. Artists flourished, workshops and educational opportunities grew, and artists were in demand. Many male artists during the Renaissance received monetary support from families like the Medici and the Catholic Church. Education was necessary because the Renaissance was based on classical antiquity and philosophical concepts. Studying mathematics and anatomy was also crucial, and they were not skills just learned as an apprentice. However, during this period, women were expected to learn the skills to be wives and mothers, not well-educated people or artists.

    Talented women succeeded in the Renaissance because they were nuns in a convent, a noblewoman whose families allowed them to paint, or were born into a family of painters. Women, in general, were controlled by their parents and then given to a husband who controlled the woman. If a woman remained unmarried, she was expected to move in with a male relative or go into the convent to become a nun. If a woman did become an artist, she was still expected to be respectable and "virtuous, pious, and obedient to God and her father/husband. An artist failing to meet these standards could end her career."[1]

    Interactive Element: Where are the Women Artists of the Renaissance?

    As good as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, or Botticelli, but the women artists of the Italian Renaissance have lacked recognition for five hundred years. Linda Falcone, head of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, is working to change that.

    The town of Bologna in Italy was very progressive in the 16th century and had over 300 active professional artists—26 were women artists. One artist, Lavinia Fontana, was the first woman to rely solely on her commissions to support her family while her husband raised their eleven children. Unfortunately, this was the exception, and gender imbalances limited women over thousands of years. History valued male artists over female artists, and art previously attributed to male artists is now correctly attributed to its rightful creative female artist. Prevailing stereotypes fit women into a "craft arts" category, and men are "fine artists" even though women are just as talented as their counterparts. Rewriting history today includes documenting lost or discounted female artists. Female artists of the Renaissance include:

    • Catherine de Vigri (1413 – 1463)
    • Properzia de Rossi (1490-1530)
    • Levina Teerlinc (1510–1576)
    • Suor Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588)
    • Catharina van Hemessen (1528–1588)
    • Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625)
    • Lucia Anguissola (1536 or 1538 – 1565 to 1568)
    • Diana Scultori Ghisi (1547–1612)
    • Fede Galizia (1578-1639)
    • Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665)
    Interactive Element: Women as Artists and Patrons

    Productive women artists and their patrons during the Renaissance

    Catherine de Vigri

    Catherine de Vigri (1413 – 1463) is one of the best-known Italian early Renaissance convent painters of the 15th century. De Vigri's family was upper-class, and she was raised as a lady-in-waiting at Niccolo III's court. She learned to read, write and play the viola, all part of a wealthy girl's training. In 1426, de Vigri left the court and entered the convent. She lived most of her life in Ferrara in the convent she founded. When de Vigri died in 1463, she was buried at the convent; however, an unusual smell emanated from her gravesite, and authorities exhumed her body. Believing it was a sure sign of holiness when her grave was incorrupt, she was canonized in 1526 and reburied.[2] Vigri became a saint (Catherine of Bologna). March 9th is the day in Italy when her achievements as a charismatic teacher, faithful nun, and devoted artist are recognized.

    De Vigri began her art career by painting images on the wall of her convent and illustrated manuscripts. The manuscripts or prayer books contained about 500 pages, and de Vigri illustrated approximately fifty images of Christ using primary colors. The Madonna of the Peach (3.4.1) is a classic story about three herd boys in the fields at night who were frightened by strange sounds. A tall woman in a dark cloak, holding a baby, appeared and asked them for food. After eating, she began to disappear; she took a peach from the top of one of the trees. Then she was gone, leaving no trace of her appearance except a peach pit. The boy's story was exalted as a visit from the Madonna and a miracle. Artists frequently recreated the story. De Vigri painted her with gold stars flanking the gold crowns and halos and Mary wearing her traditional red gown and blue overcoat—the baby Jesus was swaddled in a reddish-orange blanket with a red cross around his neck. The white veil surrounding Mary's face and shoulders is also in the baby's grasp while Mary holds the iconic peach.

    Catherine of Bologna portrait of a women and a baby
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Madonna of the Peach (ca 1440-144?) Public Domain

    Properzia de Rossi

    Properzia de Rossi (1490-1530) was born in Bologna, and her father was a well-positioned notary. De Rossi was highly educated and studied painting, music, and literature. It is believed she also attended the University of Bologna to study sculpting, a very unusual education for a woman. One historian wrote, "she was an expert in household matters as well as many sciences and played and sang better than any other woman of her city."[3]

    She became an Italian sculptor from Bologna whose talent emerged early. Because it was difficult for young girls to find any training except in managing a household, de Rossi learned to carve peach and apricot pits, an unusual material for anyone. The small sculptures were generally based on religious themes. After carving her intricate scene of the crucifixion on a peach pit, her talent was acknowledged, and she received training in marble at the university. She acquired a commission for a bas-relief panel sculpting Joseph and Potiphar's Wife (3.4.2), displaying her talent for carving marble, a skill not well received by other artists who frequently discredited her. In the basrelief, Joseph is running from a bedroom to escape someone else's wife, a common theme in the early days of the Counter-Reformation. The classical marble relief demonstrates de Rossi's detailed and expert carving skills, one of her commission pieces.

    Joseph and wife carved marble plaque
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Joseph and Potiphar's Wife (1520s, marble) Public Domain
    Interactive Element: Women Artists of the Renaissance

    In this video from The Renaissance Unchained, we are introduced to the wondrous and overlooked skill of the Bolognese artist Properzia de' Rossi.

    Interactive Element: The First Great Female Artist of the Renaissance

    In this clip from the BBC documentary The Story Of Women And Art, Professor Amanda Vickery explore how Properzia de' Rossi disrupted the 15th Century view that ‘real artists are male’ by establishing herself as a sculptor of incredible skill.

    Levina Teerlinc

    Levina Teerlinc (1510–1576) was a North European Renaissance miniaturist painter who worked in the English court of Henry VIII. Born in Bruges, Flanders, Teerlinc was trained by her father, Simon Bening, a renowned miniaturist artist and illuminator. After marriage, she moved to England and went to work in the Tudor court as a painter. Attributing Teerlinc's work is challenging as she did not sign her work, and many were lost in a fire at Whitehall, Westminster. A 1983 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum represented "the first occasion when a group of miniatures has been assembled which can be attributed to Levina Teerlinc."[4] The miniature painting A Royal Maundy (3.4.3) is a complicated scene of about 100 people in a tiny area. A religious service the day before Friday where a priest hands out small silver coins known as Maundy money (Queen's Maundy money), the details in this piece are precise and show dimension in the crowded room. Teerlinc painted the miniature Elizabeth I (3.4.4) when she was in the English court. The small image is exceptionally detailed, considering the little background she used.

    Elizabethan Maundy Teerlinc miniature painting of a religious ceremony
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): A Royal Maundy (ca. 1560, vellum on card, 6.9 x 5.7 cm) Public Domain
    Miniature portrait of Elizabeth the First
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Elizabeth I (ca. 1565, vellum on card, 5 cm diameter) Public Domain

    Suor Plautilla Nelli

    Suor Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588) was a Florentine painter whose nickname was "the nun artist" because of her spiritual attitude and religious paintings created while sequestered in the convent Santa Caterina da Siena in Florence. She was taught to draw and, over time, began an art studio with eight nuns. Some historians believe Nelli was one of the greatest artists despite her limited training and gender. She painted the Last Supper (3.4.5), which the Advancing Women Artists recently restored. Most art historians question the challenging work by Nelli since the composition and anatomy of the people in the painting place her work at the top of the Renaissance artists. They believe she would not have access to nude models.[5]

    The Last Supper hung on a wall in a Florence Monastery until it was removed from the stretchers, rolled up, and stored in a warehouse for decades. "The Florentine nonprofit's all-woman team of curators, restorers, and scientists then began the restoration process, performing tasks including removing a thick layer of yellow varnish, treating flaking paint, and conducting an analysis of the pigments' chemical composition."[6]

    Before starting the restoration, reflectography was used to determine any underdrawings. They did not give the impression Nelli knew what she was undertaking. The work at the time needed a workshop of people, scaffolding, and art assistants to finish the monumental work. The elaborate table (3.4.6) was set with fine china, several glasses of wine, plates of bread, and a whole roasted lamb, typical food in Florence in the 16th century.

    The last supper by Nelli prior to restoration
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): The Last Supper – before restoration (1550s, oil on canvas 6.4 x 1.82 meters) Public Domain
    The last supper after restoration by Nelli
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): The Last Supper - restored, Public Domain
    Interactive Element: Plautilla Nelli's Last Supper

    What was it like for conservator Rossella Lari to spend 4 years in the Florence restoration studio, ‘building and breaking’ this masterpiece? Is Nelli’s self-portrait in her Last Supper after all? Did Nelli emulate Leonardo’s Last Supper and become one of the few artists of her day who painted the Apostles overcome with emotion? This 3-minute trailer poses questions and answers about the world's largest work by an early women artist, restored to its original dignity and… finally in the public eye.

    Catharina van Hemessen

    Catharina van Hemessen (1528–1588) was a North European Renaissance painter and the earliest female artist with attribution to several small-scale portraits. She apprenticed in her father's studio, a well-known Mannerism painter. Besides portraits, van Hemessen painted religious figures with realism and depth of field. In Christ Carrying the Cross (3.4.7), Veronica is in the foreground carrying a picture of Christ on a cloth. The implied story depicts Christ as Veronica hands him a veil to wipe his forehead. When he returned the fabric to Veronica, his face was miraculously captured and known as Veronica's relic.[7] The painting represents how Renaissance artists captured an audience. Van Hemessen also painted in Mannerism, as evident in Young Women Playing a Virginal (3.4.8). The portrait is thought to be of her sister, Christina, a young woman in a dark dress against a very dark background. The golden headdress and face sharply contrast with the virginal, an early spinet with a keyboard and decorative scrolling on the side panels. The dark velvet dress presents a subtle pattern; the sleeves are highlighted with touches of yellow and orange. The young woman's delicate hands look like they are captured in the middle of a song. Although a gifted artist, van Hemessen had no surviving work after 1554 when she married, a common problem for young female artists.

    Christ meeting Veronica, religious scene with christ and the cross
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Christ Carrying the Cross (1541-1560, oil on panel, 38 x 28 cm) Public Domain
    Girl playing the Virginal in a dark room
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Young Woman Playing a Virginal (1548, oil on oak wood, 30.5 x 24 cm) Public Domain

    Sofonisba Anguissola

    Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was an Italian Renaissance painter born in Cremona and received a well-rounded education, including the arts. Anguissola possessed a gift for painting and was accepted into an apprenticeship to a master artist. She traveled to Rome, met Michelangelo and Milan, painted the Duke of Alba, and became an official court painter in Madrid. A letter written by her father described how fortunate she was to meet and perhaps study with Michelangelo. She painted over twelve self-portraits, a striking image for an artist of this period. In an early Self-portrait (3.4.9), she depicts herself painting the Madonna and child, although stopped mid-stroke and looking as though she was interrupted. Her later Self-portrait (3.4.10) was painted when she was seventy-eight, still a master of portraits.

    Self portrait of Anguissola painting a painting
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Self-portrait (ca. 1556-1565, oil on canvas) Public Domain
    Self portrait of Anguissola as an older woman
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Self-portrait (1610, oil on canvas) Public Domain

    Anguissola did not have access to male models and frequently used her family members to paint group portraits. In The Chess Game, she painted her other siblings, Lucia, Minerva, and Elena (3.4.11). One sister looks outward, and the subtle smile on her face seems to say, I won the game. Anguissola's attention to detail involved changing the textures of the brocade clothing, delicate laces, and perfectly braided hair. These family portraits and her self-portraits demonstrated her attention to elegance with the painted clothing. Her perfection in painting facial details helped Anguissola build her reputation. When she was only twenty-six, she was invited to become a painter in the Spanish Court and spent several years creating official court paintings of royalty and other dignitaries. Using muted, darker colors, the official portrait of Phillip II of Spain (3.4.12) displays the delicate lace around his neck and the perfect buttons on his gown, indicating her ability and successful career.

    Three children sitting around a table outside playing chess
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): The Chess Game (1555. Oil on canvas, 72 x 97 cm) Public Domain

    Portrait of Phillip the second of Spain Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Phillip II of Spain (1565, oil on canvas, 88 x 72 cm) Public Domain
    Interactive Element: Sofonisba Anguissola

    During her lifetime, she was one of the most famous women in the Western world. Her fans included Michelangelo, Pope Pius IV, the Duke of Alba, and King Philip II of Spain, and her work influenced Van Dyck and Caravaggio. Yet, she faded into relative obscurity after her death, her paintings attributed to male artists Alonso Sánchez Coello, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, and even Greco.

    Lucia Anguissola

    Lucia Anguissola (1536 or 1538 – 1565 to 1568) was the younger sister of Sofonisba Anguissola. Both received education in the humanities and arts and became painters. Unfortunately, Lucia died at the early age of thirty and did not have the opportunity to establish an extensive portfolio. The man in the painting is Pietro Manna, a Physician from Cremona (3.4.12), believed to be a relative of the Anguissola family. He was painted with a limited palette of hues of brown and grey, a sense of personality on his face demonstrating Anguissola's capability as an artist. Anguissola depicted him sitting in the armchair, gazing outward at the viewer. He is holding the staff of Asclepius, the symbol of a physician.

    Anguissola self portrait as a young woman
    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): Pietro Manna, Physician from Cremona (1557, oil on canvas) Public Domain

    Diana Scultori Ghisi

    Diana Scultori Ghisi (1547–1612) was a high Renaissance engraver from Mantua, Italy, and was credited as the earliest documented women printmaker. Like many other women artists, her father was a sculptor and engraver (Giovanni Ghisi), and she worked in his studio from an early age. When she married an architect, they moved to Rome, and Ghisi received Papal Privilege to create and sell her work, an essential move in her career.

    The changing climate and enlightening shifts during the Renaissance allowed women to follow their artistic dreams. Although many women followed in their father's footsteps in learning to paint, it was uncommon for them to carve. Her print of Christ Making Saint Peter Head of the Church (3.4.13) may have been based on a drawing by Raphael. A popular genre, she exquisitely carved detail focused on Christ and Peter, a crowd to the right. A landscape of a small town is in the background, with fields in the midrange. Ghisi was the first woman to sign engravings permitting art historians to credit her thorough work.

    Etching of a religious scene of men outside having a meeting
    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Christ Making Saint Peter Head of the Church (1588, engraving on laid paper, 23.5 x 37 cm) Public Domain

    Fede Galizia

    Fede Galizia (1578-1630) was another Italian Renaissance painter of portraits and still-life—a genre in which she was well known. Born in Milan, she was raised in her father's (Nunzio Galizia) art studio, where she learned to paint. By the age of twelve, Galizia was an accomplished commissioned artist with a recognized European reputation in her time. Although she painted many portraits, her primary interests lay in still life. She pioneered the genre, and one of her most beautiful paintings is White Ceramic Bowl with Peaches and Red and Blue Plums (3.4.15). The detail on the canvas includes vibrant colors against the dark background, with leaves peeking out of the darkness, drawn to the light.

    The term still life emerged in the late 16th century when artists moved away from religious compositions, free to experiment. Paintings could contain fruit, silver, found objects, plants, and animals (dead). At the time, there was an explosion of interest in anything found in the natural world as trade ships brought back specimens from around the world. The fruit represented the nature of our existence as fresh and ripe, demonstrating abundance, vitality, and fertility.

    Galizia's work was in the style of Mannerism and displayed intense attention to detail in every brushstroke. The still life was usually in a ceramic bowl or a straw basket piled high with seasonal fruit. Perfectly balanced, the fruit was exceptionally lifelike. The light and shadows contrast the delicate white ceramic bowl against the dark, receding background giving the painting intense depth. One plum seems almost to tumble off the wooden table or countertop, a scene in anyone's kitchen.

    Cherries in a Silver Compote with Crabapples (3.4.16) is a still life on a stone ledge with a fritillary butterfly sitting on a crabapple leaf. The ornate silver compote holds the crabapples and is exquisitely painted with highlights from a light source to the left. The fruit appears from the darkness due to elegant stems with highlights matching the silver compote painted in light colors against a dark background. Of her surviving work—sixty-three in all—forty-four were still life, paintings emanating details of perfect fruit, picked ripe from the tree.

    Fede_Galizia_White_Ceramic_Bowl_with_Peaches_and_Red_and_Blue_Plums.jpgFigure \(\PageIndex{15}\): White Ceramic Bowl with Peaches and Red and Blue Plums (ca 1610, oil on panel, 30 x 42 cm) Public Domain
    Fede_Galizia_-_Cherries_in_a_silver_compote_with_crabapples.jpgFigure \(\PageIndex{16}\): Cherries in a Silver Compote with Crabapples (oil on panel, 28.2 x 42.2 cm) Public Domain
    Interactive Element: Rewriting Art History

    This January, Sotheby’s celebrates trailblazing female artists from the 16th through the 19th century with The Female Triumphant, a group of exceptional works of art. In spite of extraordinary obstacles, talented artists such as Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Fede Galizia, and Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau paved the way for future generations of artists everywhere. In this Masterworks: Expert Voices episode, Courtney Kremers reintroduces Fede Galizia to the Art History narrative via her luminous still life, A Glass Compote with Peaches. Complex layers of glazing create the incredibly soft skin of the peaches, which contrasts with the cold solidity of the glass compote. Her careful modulations of light and shadow to convey the leaves on the apples and the ripeness of the peaches reflect her unique ability to bring flora and fauna to life. Explore this work and more in Sotheby’s Master Paintings Evening Sale.

    Elisabetta Sirani

    Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) was an Italian Baroque printmaker and painter from Bologna, Italy, who helped establish an art academy for other women artists. She painted in swift motions with aggressive passion and produced more than 200 paintings and etchings in her brief career. After working with her father (Giovanni Sirani) in his studio, Sirani became one of the most renowned artists in Bologna, overshadowing her father. After her father's incapacitating illness, she became the family's primary breadwinner and supported them on commissions and fees from the studio.[8] Sirani was considered an excellent teacher and contributed to women artists' growth during the Renaissance.

    Sirani had meticulous records of all her paintings, etchings, and drawings and signed most of her work, so attribution has not been difficult for art historians. Although many doubted she painted so many commissions, "Sirani's exceptional prodigiousness was the product of how quickly she painted. She painted so many works that many doubted that she painted them all herself. To refute such charges, she invited her accusers on May 13th, 1664, to watch her paint a portrait in one sitting".[9] Self-Portrait as Allegory of Painting (3.4.16) is a dramatic late Renaissance and just one of many examples of Sirani and her technical bravura and artistic virtuosity with expressive and broad brushwork, fluid impasto, rich coloring, and deep shadows.[10] Her paintings were considered "beyond women's capabilities," but Sirani was an artistic genius in reality.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{17}\): Self-Portrait as Allegory of Painting  (1658, oil on canvas) Public Domain

    Interactive Element: Elisabetta Sirani at the Uffizi Gallery

    Overlooked and yet highly prolific artist Elisabetta Sirani, a 17th century painter in Bologna, is the subject of a current exhibition at the Uffizi Gallery.

    [1] Retrieved from

    [2] Arthur, K. (2020). Sister Caterina Vigri and “Drawing for Devotion.” (3).

    [3] Vasari, Giorgio (1913). Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects vol. 5. Translated by De Vere, Gaston du C. Florence: MacMillan & Co & The Medici Society. pp. 121–128.

    [4] King, C. (1999). What women can make. (p. 61).

    [5] Solly, M. (2019). Renaissance nun’s Last Supper painting makes public debut after 450 years in hiding. (10)

    [6] Ibid.

    [7] [1] Archaeological Intelligence". Archaeological Journal. 7 (1): 413–415. 1850. doi:10.1080/00665983.1850.10850808. ISSN 0066-5983.

    [8] Artist Profile: Elisabetta Sirani'. National Museum of Women in the Arts

    [9] Heller, N. (1991). Women Artists: An illustrated history. Abbeville Press. (p. 33)

    [10] Modesti, A. (2020). Elisabetta Sirani of Bologna (1638-1665).

    This page titled 3.3: Renaissance Art (1400-1600) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (Open Educational Resource Initiative at Evergreen Valley College) .

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