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Eve, Elizabeth Harvey-LeeWomen as Models; Women as Printmakers

While women printmakers are scarcely recorded till the 17th century, images of women date from the very earliest days of printmaking. From c1390 they are portrayed in incidents from the life of the Virgin and as images of holy saints, produced as woodcuts for convents and centres of pilgrimage. In secular imagery they appear on playing cards and tarot cards. In intaglio prints they appear in similar contexts from c1440.

Already from the later 15th century occasional examples are found of genre scenes with knights attending ladies, rustic courting and merriment in taverns, and even studies of women’s heads, though not defined portraits. Many of the genre scenes were intended to be symbolic of the transience of life.

By the 16th century women were being portrayed in many roles. The development of book illustration extended the diversity of range. Though the majority of prints still represented biblical passages from the old and new testaments, the Renaissance introduced new or parallel themes from the classical mythology of ancient Greece or Rome; or from contemporary authors such as Dante or Boccaccio; or drawn from the more homely advice proffered in emblem books. In this way, particularly in northern Europe, where artists tended to transpose biblical scenes to a contemporary setting, every aspect of life and relationships between the sexes came to be interpreted in print. The Renaissance awareness of the temporal, the individual and history led to the development of the portrait, both male and female.

Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque prints of women can thus be enjoyed on several levels. Iconography offers an enormous scope of intellectual concepts, which yet can be couched in the manners, dress and customs of everyday life. Accepted timeless truths are presented in the reality of the artist’s own time. The artist’s family is a mirror of the Holy Family. Examples such as 'Samson & Delilah' and 'Judith & Holofernes', demonstrate the power women can gain over men. Certain aspects of moral worth and religion, abstract ideas of truth, justice and beauty, counterbalanced by evil, deceit and envy, are demonstrated through the female form. Giving gender to inanimate objects and persona to abstract concepts, according to characteristics recognised by mankind as essentially male or female is inherent in human thought. Most Latin and Germanic languages still designate nouns as masculine or feminine. However had society been dominated by women in classical times would Beauty be personified as a man rather than a woman?

By the close of the 18th century artists were beginning to approach the imaging of women differently, demonstrated in the work of Goya, last of the Old Masters and first of the Moderns. Goya anticipated the satire of Daumier and the impressionism of Manet.

In the modern period artists have tended to delight in the individual model herself and the technical and stylistic means of achieving their desired expression. No longer an ostensibly elevated intention of purpose was felt necessary for the excuse of depicting the female form; Venus abdicated while Leda vanished. Eve was no longer reprehensible for the fall of man. The Impressionists were artist-reporters, their eyes objective even when affectionate. Paris was the centre of the art world and the Parisienne, whether gamin, trottin, grande dame or simply femme, whether wife, mother, companion, sister, mistress or other role, epitomised the art of the period, to such an extent that in her honour the end of the 19th century is called La Belle Epoque.

However the modern period has its dichotomies. The dialogue between the naturalistic 'real' and the 'ideal' had followers on both sides. The pre-Raphaelites and their followers in England and later the Symbolists in France and Germany demanded more of the medium than art for art’s sake or a small piece of reality encapsulated. They sought a distillation of eternal truth, which was also most frequently expressed through an image of womankind.

Eve, Elizabeth Harvey-LeeIn Modern British printmaking of the early decades of the 20th century some artists specialised in images of women, most specifically Brockhurst and Russell Flint; for others the subject was incidental though responsible for the occasional memorable female image.

Until the most recent times, it has long been acknowledged that women excel at the literary and musical arts but do not in general attain the same achievement in the plastic arts. Did these require a single-mindedness to which most women in the past have been unable to commit themselves and instead the relationships and demands of family life have taken priority? Käthe Kollwitz recognized in herself a bi-sexuality and put her artistic self down entirely to the masculine in her make-up. It is noticeable that it is only in the 20th century, when women are socially and economically free as never before to lead independent lives, that women artists have proliferated.

Though nuns may have contributed to the incunabula of printmaking, historically women do not get recognized as printmakers until the 17th century, and then names are still very few. The likes of Geertruyd Roghman, Magdalena van de Passe and Claudine Stella all tended to be from families of engravers and pupils of their fathers, uncles or brothers. Their work however holds it own. Most were from Holland or France, though Elisabetta Sirani was an Italian exception. Occasionally widows, though not practising printmakers, took over their husband’s print publishing activities. In the 18th century one is aware only of Angelica Kauffman, working in England; but the century as a whole was dominated by reproductive engraving rather than original printmaking by either sex.

Women play an increasingly larger role as printmakers from the later decades of the 19th century onwards, when independent art education became available to them. Women such as Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Käthe Kollwitz, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Sonia Delaunay, Marie Larencin and Laura Knight have international reputations as artists, in the unisex context of art history.

It is interesting to note that in modern British wood engraving women made a significant contribution. Gwen Raverat, Clare Leighton, Agnes Miller Parker and Gertrude Hermes were among the leading exponents in the medium.

Ultimately the sex of an artist, like his or her race, religion or individual lifestyle, is irrelevant. It is the work that is of importance; the recognition of the initial concept, its successful achievement as a print, the combination of imagination and technique to create a memorable, significant and meaningful image. This said, the ‘sex’ of an unfamiliar print, signed only with an initial rather then the give-away first name of the artist, can frequently be ‘guessed’ correctly, for a certain indefinable ‘feminine’ sensibility does often inform images made by women.

Published 1992.
52 pages, 138 items described and illustrated.

(Out of print)

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Artists included in the catalogue:

Women artists are in bold

  • Altdorfer A.
  • Auerbach A.
  • Austin F.
  • Austin R.S.
  • Bacon M.M.
  • Belleroche A.
  • Bertram M.
  • Besnard A.
  • Binyon H.
  • Blakely Z.
  • Bonasone G.
  • Bonfils R.
  • Bosse A.
  • Boutet H.
  • Brockhurst G.L.
  • Brouet A.
  • Brown D.
  • Brusenbauch A.
  • Buckton E.
  • Buckland-Wright J.
  • Cameron K.
  • Chahine E.
  • Clanence J.
  • Claus E.
  • Clegg C.
  • Collaert H. (J.B.)
  • Copely J.
  • Corinth L.
  • Cottet C.
  • Cursiter S.
  • Dalrymple A.
  • Daumier H.
  • Drury P.
  • Dusart C.
  • Dyck A. van
  • Einschlag E.
  • Farleigh J.
  • Farmer M.M.
  • Flint W.R.
  • Freeth H.A.
  • Frood H.
  • Gabain E.
  • Gavarni P.
  • Gheyn J. de
  • Gill E.
  • Goeneutte N.
  • Goldthwaite A.
  • Goltzius H.
  • Gosse S.
  • Goya F.
  • Grammaté W.
  • Grant J.
  • Guignuet F.J.
  • Hislop A.H.
  • Hofmann L. von
  • Holmes K.
  • Hunt W.H.
  • Huys F.
  • Israels J.
  • Jacque C.E
  • Jacquemart J.
  • Jeanniot P.G.
  • Jode P. de
  • Kirchner E.
  • Knopff F.
  • Kolb A.
  • Kollwitz K.
  • Laurent E.
  • Lee-Hankey W.
  • Legrand L.
  • Legros A.
  • Leighton C.
  • Lunois A.
  • Maillol A.
  • Meid H.
  • Millais J.E.
  • Molitor M.
  • Moran M.N.
  • Morisot B.
  • Nash J.
  • Neumont M.
  • Orovida
  • Passe M. van de
  • Paterson V.
  • Picasso P.
  • Pissarro L.
  • Pissarro O.
  • Pryse G.S.
  • Ranft R.
  • Raverat G.
  • Robinson M.C.
  • Roghman G.
  • Rops F.
  • Roussel T.
  • Rousselet G.
  • Runciman A.
  • Sadeler G.
  • Sadeler R.
  • Saenredam J.
  • Schmutzer F.
  • Sherlock M.
  • Sparks N.
  • Staeger F.
  • Steinlen T.A.
  • Stella C.
  • Valadon S.
  • Vertès M.
  • Vigano V.
  • Vincent B.
  • Vuillard E.
  • Waterhouse J.W.
  • Wolff H.
  • Zorn A.

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