The difficulty women have faced becoming artists

It has always taken exceptional people to master the arts.  Any of the arts.

Women in particular, in whatever time period or culture you find them, have had to swim like salmon against the current to reach the place they are drawn to.

The so-called “father” of the study of western art history, Giorgio Vasari, noted one lone female artist, Properzia de’Rossi (c. 1490-1529), in the first edition (1550) of his famous Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.



Properzia de’ Rossi was a sculptor from Bologna, where, Vasari tells us, her fellow citizens recognized her talent and “…regarded her as one of the greatest miracles produced by nature in our days.”  She was a talented sculptor and engraver and Vasari even owned some of her drawings, including her portrait.  He used that portrait as an illustration of the artist as here:


Below is a photo of her most famous work, the marble relief sculpture of The Chastity of Joseph, now in the Museo di San Petronio, Bologna. The relief was originally carved for the portal of the cathedral of same name.


In this masterful composition, Vasari correctly noted the contrast between the voluptuous, eager wife of Potiphar and Joseph’s determined escape from her clutches. Vasari, in a moment of insight that is both breathtaking for his time period as well as in its chauvinism, suggests that the artist herself attained some therapeutic relief through her art.  He said that by expressing the subject here, she gave catharsis to her own unrequited love.  Well, he was probably correct that her art had therapeutic value for her, as it has become recognized it does for most everyone, but isn’t it just like a man to ascribe emotional motives to her artistic production?

Vasari revealed himself as not only as an important first chronicler of which artists were the most important for the history of western art, but also as a perceptive critic, noting that “It is an extraordinary thing that in all those arts and all those exercises wherein at any time women have thought fit to play a part in real earnest, they have always become most excellent and famous in no common way, as one might easily demonstrate by an endless number of examples.”

Even more perceptive and completely characteristic of all women’s struggles at all times and in all cultures, Vasari noted that through the machinations of a rival male sculptor, Properzia was both poorly paid for her work and prevented from gaining more commissions for the Bologna cathedral.  Typical.

Vasari published another edition of his famous Lives in 1568, 18 years after it was initially printed.  In the later edition, Vasari again included Properzia, but expanded into her short biography some remarks on two other women artists: Sister Plautilla and Sofonisba Anguissola of Cremona.  So, by 1568 women’s contributions to the history of the fine arts reached the high water mark of exactly three.  Women still had a long stream to swim against ahead of them.  And, for all of our amazing achievements, we still do.

Vasari concluded his discussion of these three artists with a quote from Ludovico Ariosto’s contemporary poem, Orlando Furioso: “Women have been excellent in every art they have tried.” No shit, Sherlock.  Thanks for noticing.

You can read more about Properzia de’ Rossi here:



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