by Erika Gaffney, Art Herstory Founder

Almost 100 years ago, Virginia Woolf famously speculated about what life might have been like for a woman with the artistic genius of Shakespeare. Thus, the phrase “Shakespeare’s Sister” entered our cultural lexicon. In the near-century since the publication of “A Room of One’s Own,” scholars have found that Woolf’s assessment was overly pessimistic. Some women of Shakespeare’s time did find, or make, opportunities to nurture and express their literary and/or theatrical abilities. 

Painting shows a man offering money to a young woman, who studiously ignores him
Man Offering Money to a Young Woman, 1631,
by Judith Leyster; held at the Mauritshuis

Of course, women’s talents are not, and never were, limited to a particular category. Scholars are bringing to light the achievements of women in all spheres of accomplishment—including the visual arts—going back at least as far as the Renaissance.

In 1928, if Virginia Woolf had asked, “what if Michelangelo had a sister,” her imagined life trajectory probably would have been as dismal as that of Woolf’s fictional character, Judith Shakespeare. But, there were female Old Masters! Though their names may not be familiar to us now, they were successful in their time. They supported themselves and their families through their art. And their works—portraits, mythological and biblical depictions, religious art, botanical illustrations, sculptures, and more—were not just local oddities. These women artists were internationally known, and their works were prized by kings, princes, diplomats, and popes.

This painting depicts a scene from the ancient Greek story of Danaë, who Zeus, in the guise of a shower of gold, impregnated
Danaë, c. 1612, by Artemisia Gentileschi; on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum

Rediscovering History’s Great Women Artists

Today, the world of the arts is abuzz with exciting discoveries about female Old Masters. Art historians, museum curators, art dealers, biographers, dramatists, and authors of historical fiction are among the professionals whose work focuses on history’s women artists.

Scholars and cultural heritage specialists are constantly discovering new material about or by Renaissance and Baroque women artists. Art historians are reattributing to women works that were once thought to have been created by men. World-class museums make a point of exhibiting such artworks created by women from past centuries as still exist today. Auction houses make a point of profiling the female Old Master offerings in their sales, and they are realizing record prices for works by women artists.

This portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi shows her in elaborate mourning costume. The costly brocade, lace, and pearls indicate her high social status.
Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani, c. 1595,
by Lavinia Fontana; on view at
The Walters Art Museum

Follow this blog and the Art Herstory social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram) to see more works by, and information about, the many female artists of sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century Europe. My next post will highlight the names and works of a dozen of these women. And, read here about the female Old Masters featured on the initial six Art Herstory note cards.

So, metaphorically at least, Michelangelo did have a sister—as did Velázquez, Donatello, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. Even now, experts are writing her back into the art historical record. We look forward to the day that the names of female Old Masters are as familiar, and beloved, as those of their brothers. 

As described on the Getty website, "Robust citrons with their leafy branches still attached fill a worn ceramic bowl to overflowing in this meticulous still life." There is a wasp on one of the fruits.
Still Life with Bowl of Citrons, late 1640s, by Giovanna Garzoni;
held at The J. Paul Getty Museum