Guest post by Isabelle Hawkins, Honors student in art history, McGill University

Statuette of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to read, by Luisa Roldan.
The Education of the Virgin, 1680s, by Luisa Roldán. Polychrome paint and wood, 76 x 63 x 43 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

One of the many intriguing pieces on display at Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400–1800 is the sculpture pictured above, of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read, watched over by a cherubic face. On view at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) until July 1, 2024, the exhibition is co-curated by Dr. Alexa Greist and Dr. Andaleeb Banta, and co-organized by the AGO and the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). Featuring over 230 pieces by European women makers across four centuries, the exhibition is expansive and thorough.

Pastel portrait of a woman by Rosalba Carriera in Making Her Mark exhibition at AGO.
Portrait of a Woman, c. 1720s, by Rosalba Carriera. Pastel on blue paper, 31 x 25 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Author photo.

Making Her Mark opens with Linda Nochlin’s foundational question for feminist Art History: “Why have there been no great women artists?” To remedy this curatorial and scholarly void, Making Her Mark asks us to look outside the male dominated canon, the primacy of individual genius, and the hierarchy of mediums to appreciate the contributions of celebrated women and unsung makers.

Plate 29 in Philippe-Étienne Lafosse’s Cours d’hippiatrique, ou Traité complet de la médicine des chevaux…, 1772, by Barbe Michel Adam Fessard. Bound volume with hand-colored engraved illustrations, 50.2 x 33.3 x 5.1 cm. Yale Center for British Art. Author photo.

A Medley of Mediums

Until recently, Western Art History has condescended to “craft” mediums. These forms of expression are often domestic, utilitarian, and dominated by women. Making Her Mark challenges the hierarchy of mediums with a thematic approach: different forms, equally important, sit side-by-side. The exhibition also includes an incredible quantity of mediums: painting, sculpture, print, book arts and illumination, ceramics, enamel, silver, furniture, quilling, weaving, tapestry, embroidery, hairwork, lace, drawings, pastels, watercolors, and scientific and natural illustration.

Illustration of lunar phases from the late 17th century by Maria Clara Eimmart.
Lunar phases observed on 29 August 1697, 1693–1698, by Maria Clara Eimmart. Mixed media on paper, 64 x 52 cm. Courtesy of Alma Mater Studiorum—Università di Bologna. Author photo.

Even when women practiced painting, long considered art’s noblest form, they were barred from guilds, encouraged to paint only in their youth, and thought to lack the necessary talent to make good art. To stress the seriousness of women painters on display, the exhibition considers the artists’ innovative techniques, impact, and pieces formerly credited to celebrated male artists. Judith Leyster offers one example of such misattribution: for centuries after her death, her paintings were attributed to Frans Hals or to her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer. Object labels also highlight revealing information in the artists’ biographies that may have furthered or limited their creative production.

Judith Leyster painted Self-portrait, on loan from the National Gallery of Art.
Self-Portrait, c. 1630, by Judith Leyster. Oil on canvas, 74.6 x 65.1 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

A Multi-Sensorial Experience

As art is a visual medium, sight is often the only sense we use to understand it. By appealing to vision, hearing, touch, and smell, Making Her Mark invites visitors to engage with objects in original ways. The variety of items in this exhibition—in terms of construction, size, and texture—is such that the eyes are never bored. Most rooms of the exhibition also display lace-like motifs projected on the floor.

Example of lace-motif light projection on the floor in Making Her Mark exhibition at AGO.
An example of the light projections on the floor at Making Her Mark, AGO. Author photo.

In the exhibition’s first room, music composed by women in the 1600s and 1700s and recorded by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra plays aloud. There are four touch stations throughout the exhibition. Though the BMA also invited viewers to touch certain materials, the AGO’s stations are different. Here visitors may run their fingers over samples of lace, quilling, hair, and beaded embroidery. The AGO has also included four scent stations, created in collaboration with Dr. Melanie McBride, founder of the Aroma Inquiry Lab:

  • the first transports visitors to the cloister with incense and damp stones;
  • the second combines floral parfum with body odor;
  • the third evokes a snuff box with spiced tobacco; and
  • the last replicates a garden with flowers, herbs, and soil.

Making Her Mark neglects only one sense: taste. Given that AGO does not allow food and drink in the galleries, including taste might be an unreasonable request.

Decorated gold snuff box designed by a woman artist, in Making Her Mark exhibition at AGO.
Snuffbox with six scenes of putti at play, c. 1761–1762. Enameller: Mademoiselle Duplessis. Goldsmith: Jean Georges. Gold, grisaille enamel, and diamonds, 4.4 x 8.6 x 6.7 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

The Exceptional and the Ordinary

Even now, histories and museum walls are unlikely to mention women artists unless they qualify as “exceptional.” While the male artist-genius is the most revered figure, exceptionalism is not so rigid a qualification for men. Making Her Mark honors women recognized as exceptional, including paintings from Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Leyster, and Rachel Ruysch. The exhibition also honors exceptional pieces from less well-known makers, such as Sophia Jane Maria Bonnell and Mary Anne Harvey Bonnell’s paper filigree cabinet with hairwork panels. This piece stands out because of its unusual medium, extraordinary detail, and quality of preservation. As a piece of furniture decorated with thousands of pieces of tightly rolled paper, it is extremely fragile and subject to the wear and tear of daily use.

Filigree cabinet made of rolled paper and hair by women artists in Making Her Mark exhibition at AGO.
Paper filigree cabinet on stand, 1789, by Sophia Jane Maria Bonnell and Mary Anne Harvey Bonnell. Wood, paper, metallic paper, silk, hair, and adhesive, 105.4 x 58.4 x 39.4 cm. Baltimore Museum of Art.

Giulia Lama’s Sketch of a man seen from behind, which appears only in the AGO version of the show, is exceptional not only for its beauty and accuracy, but for its subject matter. Mastery of the human body was understood as the foundation to artistic achievement. Women, however, often did not have access to live male nude models. While such opportunities for life drawing were not impossible, the onus was on the women who participated to create and negotiate them.

Red and white chalk male nude by Giulia Lama in Making Her Mark exhibition at AGO.
Sketch of a man seen from behind, seated and looking to his left, first half of 18th century, by Giulia Lama. Red chalk and white chalk on paper, 59 x 43.1 cm. Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Gabinetto dei disegni e delle stampe, Ca’ Rezzonico. Author photo.

Making Her Mark attends equally to art from unknown artists. Of all the lace exhibited, only one lace engraving has a known maker. Including such a large amount of anonymous work challenges the art historical trope of the known male artist–genius. With pieces of lace, embroidery, and weaving it is less likely that we can identify the authors by name, and it is more likely that women executed them. In order to recognize women’s contributions, it is essential to exhibit items by authors whose names we don’t know.

Tureen and stand by women artists in Making Her Mark at AGO.
Tureen and stand, c. 1725. Decorators: probably Anna Elizabeth Auffenwerth Wald, and possibly Sabina Auffenwerth Hosennestel. Manufacturer: Meissen Porcelain Factory. Hard-paste porcelain with overglaze enamels, and gilding, 17.8 x 22.9 x 22.9 cm. Gardiner Museum, Toronto. Author photo.

Why You Should See this Exhibition

  • Galleries do not often feature mediums like book illumination and typesetting. This is a rare opportunity to appreciate practices that museum shows often ignored.
  • Exhibitions that engage multiple senses are rare. The invitation to touch lace, quilling, hair, and beaded embroidery violates the museum’s most prominent taboo: do not touch.
  • With an incredible quantity of makers, Making Her Mark can introduce you to artists you had never heard of or pieces you do not recognize by artists you know.
  • The exhibition is enormous and addresses fifteen themes ranging from art in the cloister, to the art of science, to entrepreneurial women. There is something for everyone.
  • Making Her Mark prompts you to reconsider what qualifies as art, and who these distinctions hurt and privilege.
Example of cut paper work by a woman artist in Making Her Mark at AGO.
Section of English manor house and gardens, 1707, by Anna Maria Garthwaite. Knife-cut cut-paper work, with pin pricking and collage, paper, and ink on a vellum backing, 32.5 x 40 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 

Isabelle Hawkins is a fourth-year undergraduate student pursuing an Honors BA in Art History at McGill University.

Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400–1800 runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario through July 1, 2024.

More Art Herstory exhibition reviews:

Making Her Mark, An Essential Corrective in the History of Art, by Chadd Scott

Reflections on Making Her Mark at the Baltimore Museum of Art, by Erika Gaffney

Carlotta Gargalli 1788–1840: “The Elisabetta Sirani of the Day,” by Alessandra Masu

Masters and Sisters in Arts, by Jitske Jasperse

Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris, A Review, by Alice M. Rudy Price

Material Re-Enchantments: A Review of Remedios Varo: Science Fictions, by Suzanne Karr Schmidt

Sofonisba Anguissola in Holland, an Exhibition Review, by Erika Gaffney with Cara Verona Viglucci

Rosa Bonheur—Practice Makes Perfect, by Ien G.M. van der Pol

The Ladies of Art are in Milan, by Cecilia Gamberini

In defense of monographic exhibitions of female artists: The case of Fede Galizia, by Camille Nouhant

“La grandezza del universo” nell’arte di Giovanna Garzoni / “The grandeur of the universe” in the art of Giovanna Garzoni, by Dr. Sara Matthews-Grieco

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap