Join me as I chat with Erika Gaffney, the creator of the ArtHerstory website at www.artherstory.net.
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Hello and welcome to Season 2 of The Art In Fiction Podcast. I'm your host Carol Cram, a novelist and avid reader of books inspired by the arts. This episode features Erika Gaffney, creator of the Art Herstory website that showcases the work of female Old Masters.
Erika is also a Humanities Editor in scholarly publishing. A major focus of her editorial work is the lives and experiences of women—including artists—throughout history. She also has an abiding fondness for fine stationery.
Welcome to The Art In Fiction Podcast, Erika.
Thank you. It’s so nice to be here.
I’m delighted to have you here today, Erika, to talk about your website, Art Herstory, that celebrates women artists, primarily from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. So, tell us how you got the idea to start Art Herstory.
It's an interesting story. I have a friend who is a feminist art historian, and I learned from Facebook that she had a birthday coming up and I thought, oh, that's so great. There's weeks to go. I have time to buy her a card with an image on it that was created by an early modern woman artist. And I'll put a Happy Birthday sticker in it and that'll be that. But it wasn't, because I couldn't find a card to buy that had an image that was created by an early modern woman. I could find Michelangelo, Vermeer, van Gogh, Monet, but not a card by a woman artist.
So, because I knew what I was looking for, I was able to get a card that had The Chess Game by Sofonisba Anguissola from Zazzle. You can get anything you want from Zazzle if you know what you're looking for, but of course the issue with so many of these early modern women artists is we don't know their names. They’re not familiar to our society today, so you won't necessarily know what you're looking for.
So, I bought the card and I sent it to my friend and, and I was very happy with that, but the thought would not leave my head for about four months that it just wasn't fair. It wasn't right. I just didn't understand why we could buy fine art note cards with images by men, but we couldn't find any with images by women from before the 19th century. And finally, one morning I said to my husband, I think there's something I have to do. And that is how Art Herstory was born.
That's a great story. It's funny how often the best ideas come out of this need that we didn't even know existed. It's interesting. When I first came across your website, I had to admit that I did not know the vast majority of the women painters that are represented on there, which, you know, is a real shame because I'm a huge fan of art and art history.
So, I think lately though, there's been a lot more work done with female old artists. Like, we're hearing about them more and more. What are some recent discoveries or recent developments in bringing this fabulous work into the public eye?
Well, some of the developments, the most recent one that I can think of is this week, the Getty announced that they had acquired a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi. This painting was sold at auction, I think last year. It’s a Lucretia and it was sold to a London art dealer for a record-breaking amount of money. And the Getty just announced they have acquired the painting. So that is very exciting news. It's the first one in their collection. And that helps to raise her profile in the US to sort of complement the way that it was recently raised in the UK when the National Gallery in London acquired her self-portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria.
Artemisia actually has done fairly well in the last several years, hasn't she? I saw a wonderful show of her work in Paris a few years ago. And actually, often when you talk about female artists, people say, oh, right, Artemisia, but there's way more, aren't there, that are now coming to the fore.
So, what are some other things that have been happening recently, like with exhibitions and with female artists of that period?
All right, well I'd like to mention a couple of big bequests that have come about recently that I think are very exciting. One is a couple of paintings, pastels actually, by Rosalba Carriera, an 18th-century Venetian artist, were left to the Frick in 2020. So they've recently announced those and have them on display. I think that's a very exciting development.
And also, The Met announced just earlier this year that there was a 2020 bequest that included a number of paintings, but among them were three paintings by a 17th-century Italian nun called Orsola Maddalena Caccia. And she left a number of works, but almost all of them are in Italy. Some of them are in private collections; many of them are in churches. So, it's very, very exciting that there's not only one but three in the public collection that is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which also happens to make its art freely available to view and see in high resolution detail on the website, which is just a wonderful gift that they give to the art-loving public.
Yes, and I'm wondering, you know, why has the work of female artists not been in the public eye until quite recently?
That is such a good question. And it is, it's one I ponder and I don't have a solid answer to it. All I can do is sort of further refine the question and ask when, at what point in time did these women fall out of the art historical record?
And the reason that I put it that way is they were famous. They weren't sort of somewhat talented artists who found some free time and managed to do a little painting on the side. They were famous. They were sought after in their time. Their work was coveted by Kings and popes and princes. So how do people who have that level of fame and recognition just disappear from art history? And the interesting thing about it is you might think, well, when they died, nobody sort of passed down their name, but that's not true.
They were actually recognized in writings, a lot of times by men in the centuries after their death. So, in the 16th, maybe some of these women lived and painted in the 16th and 17th centuries. Their fame was promulgated in writing in the 17th and 18th centuries. But sometime between the 18th century and the 1960s, when Jansen's History of Art was published, their names just were gone from the art historical record. So was it on purpose? Was it by accident? I just don't know the answer to those questions, but they definitely bear investigation.
That is fascinating. I actually did not realize. I think I probably felt like a lot of people that they weren't particularly well-known in their time and, you know, they just happened to be painters, which is pretty unfair.
And it actually wasn't until I just read Lady in Ermine by Donna DiGiuseppe about Sofonisba Anguissola that I realized that yes, she was very famous in her day and she was known by Michelangelo. So that's interesting what you said, that what happened in the 19th century, I wonder, to kind of dampen down all of these female artists?
So, this is a question I would love to have an art historian discover the answer to at some point.
Yes. Now I want to ask you about your background. What is your background in art history?
Yes. I'm not a scholar. It's really important actually to recognize that I have never studied art history. I've never spent time in archives or anything like that. My background is that I am an Acquisitions Editor in scholarly publishing. So for many, many years, for close to 30 years, at this point, I have been publishing books having to do with early modern studies. And I have been in contact all these years with an organization called the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women.
So, I've been working with people who study women across disciplines in early modern scholarship, so in literary studies and history and art history, music. But just in the last few years, I had started to publish a few more books that had to do with women artists in the aggregate, such as there's an essay collection that I worked on that will be published later this year called Early Modern Women Court Artists. That's not the exact title, but it's definitely the topic. And I thought to myself, and I said out loud to actually the same feminist art historian friend to whom I sent that famous birthday card, I wish we could publish more about individual women artists.
You kind of have to be careful what you say out loud to the universe because what emerged from that was a number of books that have to do with individual women artists and there emerges a series that I'm working on with the London-based art books publisher, Lund Humphries, the series is called Illuminating Women Artists. And the first books will be coming out this fall and next spring.
The first book to come out in September of 2021 is to do with the Spanish sculptor Luisa Roldán. And then the next book to come out in March of 2022 is Artemisia Gentileschi. And then we've got another dozen books on individual women artists beyond that. So there doesn't seem to be any shortage of new research that we can publish to make these women artists better known to a 21st-century public. It's very exciting,
It’s extremely exciting. As I said, I did not realize there were so many amazing women artists from that period. I mean, my first novel was written about a female painter in the 14th century, and as far as I knew there weren't any, but I bet you there were, I just didn't actually know about them. Mine was fictional, but the more I'm hearing about all of these women in the Renaissance and beyond, I'm thinking, I think there were a lot more than we knew about in the 14th century.
Do you know, I’m just sort of curious about if you know anything about that period?
About the 14th century? There definitely were women who illuminated manuscripts, at least I think maybe not quite all of them were nuns, but a lot of them are nuns. You won't believe this, but I actually keep a list of artist nuns. And I have a few in this list from as early as the 10th century. There was a woman called Enda, for whom there are still some works extant that we can see even online. Then of course there was Hildegard of Bingen in the 11th century, a nun called Gouda in the 12th century and another called Hara. And then Clarica or Clarissia in the 13th century. Teresa Diaz is from the 14th century, but I am not sure whether or not she was a nun.
And then all the others in the list go on into the 15th century and then there are sort of more names per century after that. So, there's not a lot of information, at least not that I know of, again, I'm not a scholar ,having to do with nuns before the 15th century, but certainly they were out there. And unfortunately, it may be that a lot of their work is lost now, but it may also be that that more will come to light.
That seems to be the case that more and more is coming to light. And one of the issues I've read that sometimes their work was attributed to male artists.
Yes. That is so interesting, isn't it? Well, dismaying and interesting.
Is that the case with Judith Leyster? Wasn't she attributed to Franz Hals? Some of her work?
Yes. So that's a really interesting story because I was saying earlier that it's not as though these women were forgotten when they died, but it does actually seem in the case of Judith Leyster that that might be the case, that the documentation after her death attributed her work to the wife of Jan Miense Molenaer, who was also an artist.
So, some of her works got attributed to him, her husband, just sort of almost by an error of documentation or misreading of the documentation. And yes, some of them also did get attributed to Franz Hals and that went on, that went on for centuries. It wasn't cleared up until the end of the 19th century.
I'm glad that they're starting to figure it out. It sounds to me like there's an awful lot more scholarship to be done, isn't there?
I think so. Yes. Yes. And it's really exciting to see not only that there are people interested in undertaking it, but that there seems to be a willingness of funders, for example, to fund that kind of research, to fund research on that topic.
I’m just fascinated by all of this. I just find it's amazing that, as I said earlier, that they were well known in their times and now they're coming back into the fore, and also how fabulous the work is.
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And now back to the show.
I’d like to talk about a few of the artists that you have on your website that were brand new to me when I was having a look at it.
I knew about Artemisia and I love her work. It's remarkable. But you've got a lot of other ones too, so we can't do all of them. But maybe tell us a little bit about Clara Peeters. I see that she does still lifes.
She’s an interesting artist to talk about because there's a fair body of her work that's extant. So maybe some 40 paintings, but nobody really seems to know anything about her.
The paintings that you have on your website of hers are really awesome. I will have the link to Art Herstory in the show notes, and I really encourage people to go and have a look, but I love that Clara Peeters that you have on there with the still life with the cheese and all of that. So, when did she live?
It is believed that she lived in and around Antwerp in Belgium, present day Belgium, and she was born toward the end of the 16th century and lived sometime into the 17th century. She painted a lot of food still lifes and is maybe among the first to have painted what they now call banquet paintings. I don't know the word for it in Dutch. And she also painted some flower still lifes, which I think are just gorgeous.
They are. I’m looking at the one you have here and with the little, uh, insects all around it, it's just glorious.
It's one of my favorites. It was recently re-discovered, and it was acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2017. And I went to see it. When I first saw it, I just didn't know what to make of it because I didn't know a lot about Clara Peeters, but from what I did know, this particular painting seems so out of character and I just didn't know what to make of it when I saw it on the screen. But then I was able to go to the museum and see it in person. And it's much smaller than you might imagine when you look at it on screen and somehow in that format, it just, it makes more sense. So, it's, yes, it's very, very lovely.
Yes, and another one that I was looking at on your website who does a still life is Giovanna Garzoni. Her Still Life with Bowl of Citrons is one of your cards. That's remarkable as well. Can you tell us a bit about her?
Yes. I've actually just been reading the exhibition catalog from a show that was at the Uffizi in, I think it was May to June of 2020. I was so sad that I wasn't able to go see it because of COVID. Giovanna Garzoni was a 17th-century woman artist. My understanding is that she was born into an artistic family, but her parents weren't necessarily artists. So, she was sort of exposed to art in some way through her upbringing.
She did a lot of training in calligraphy as well as in painting. And there's a book of her sort of calligraphic exercises that's just stunning. She does very, very beautiful work, including copying a galleon, an image of a galleon, that is made with one single stroke. There's just all these lines and curls, and it's unbelievable to think that the pen was never lifted off the paper to make this image, but that's the case.
And she didn't invent the image. She copied it from a Dutch calligrapher, but it's really just beautiful and striking. And she painted miniatures and portraits and she did a lot of botanical illustrations. Drawings, not just a flower, but entire flower systems from the root to the tip of the flower. And she painted many, many fruit still lifes. A lot of her work was purchased by the Medici family, members of the Medici family. And she had other patrons as well. And it was said that her work was so amazing and so sought after that she could charge any price that she wanted for it.
Wow. See, now that puts the lie to the thing that there were no women artists. Well, yes, there were, and they were well-respected and well-renowned. That's totally fascinating that, and I love her work. I hope I get to see it one day.
Yes, I would like to see it too. Again, the Getty has the image of the Citron still life that I made the card from for Art Herstory. And there's another image in the United States at the Cleveland Art Museum that's a very beautiful painting of birds and fruit that's well worth the look at. I don't think I'll ever be able to make a card from it because it's very long and narrow. It just doesn't bear trying to fit the format. And I don't know that there's a detail that would work, but she's a fascinating artist, and I really wish that there were more of her work in the United States. Not because I think that United States deserves her work or anything, but because I live here, and I'd like to see more of it.
Exactly. Yeah. I'm just seeing on your website that there's an exhibition featuring her that opened in March in Milan. I wonder if it actually did happen.
Oh, it hasn't, it hasn't opened yet. That looks like a wonderful exhibition. And it has, I don't know, some 30 or 40 Italian women artists in it. It's to die for. I would just love to see it. And I believe that it never did open. It was slated to open maybe finally in early March after a couple of delays. And then just the day before it was supposed to open, the lockdown had to recur in Milan and it wasn't able to,
Gosh, I hope it's on. I'm still hoping to go to Europe in the fall, although who knows if I'll be able to and Milan is on our itinerary, so maybe it'll be on then. I can always hope.
And that would be so wonderful.
Well, I'm now so excited about all of these female artists. Another artist I'd like to ask you about is Ann Vallayer-Coster, which I probably didn't say right.
I'm particularly pleased to have had a guest post about this artist for Art Herstory this year. Kelsey Brosnan wrote a guest post about her that people can find on the Art Herstory website. She was an 18th-century French painter and one of the first women to be accepted in the French painting academy, which was a signal honor. She painted portraits to an extent, but she was especially well known for flower paintings. And there's one particularly lovely one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is the subject of this guest post.
You know, what I'm really enjoying is finding all these new names that I didn't know that now I can look out for when and if I ever get to go back to great art galleries like in Europe and the Met, etc. So that's a wonderful service that you're doing. By having the Art Herstory website it's elevating the profile of these women. And we haven't talked about your cards, which look gorgeous. So how can we get some?
Oh, well, there's an online shop at the Art Herstory website. Unfortunately, I cannot mail, I cannot readily mail cards outside of the United States, just because the shipping costs are so prohibitive that sometimes the cost of shipping the parcel is more than the value of the parcel. But I do encourage people to email me if they live outside of the U S and would like to buy cards because sometimes, I can get around this by sending multiple small packages, as opposed to one large package, and we can find a way to rationalize things and make it so that the shipping isn't so prohibitive.
Because they're just lovely. I'd like to get some, except that I live in Canada. I'm interested where you actually get the imagery from.
For the most part, I download it from those museums which have this wonderfully liberal and generous policy of sharing high resolution artwork and allowing people to use it for whatever purpose they like without requiring permission or any kind of payment.
I'm glad to hear that that actually exists because I was wondering how you would have the rights to these wonderful paintings. So that's really great. I never even heard the museums are doing that.
Yes, many museums are doing it. It's more common, I think, in the United States and the Netherlands and a few other countries than elsewhere, but it does seem to be an emerging trend over the last few years. I know that the Metropolitan Museum and the National Gallery of Art have had this policy for probably at least four or five years, but some museums that have recently decided to go this route are the Cleveland Art Museum and the Clark in Williamstown, Massachusetts. And it does seem that it's a trend that more and more museums are adopting this policy.
Well, that's wonderful because then it enables people like yourself to get these lovely cards out.
So, as you know, several of the novels on Art In Fiction are inspired by a lot of the female artists that are included on your website. There are novels about Judith Leyster and Sofonisba, of course, and Artemisia. Have you read any of those novels and which ones did you enjoy?
I have read a number of them. I read the one that you mentioned earlier by Donna DiGiuseppe about Sofonisba Anguissola. I thought that was a marvelous book. And I read, um, A Light of Her Own by Carrie Callahan about Judith Leyster. I thought that was a wonderful story, wonderfully told. And, of course, I loved that Judith Leyster was one of the protagonists.
Yes, again, another artist that I've only just discovered since doing Art In Fiction was Judith Leyster.
And I read, um, I know that you must know this one too. It's a little bit later than a lot of the artists that we've been talking about but La Luministe.
Oh, yes, of course by Paula Butterfield, that's a great novel about Berthe Morisot. And that's a great segue into my next question is that at the moment you are focusing on Art Herstory on artists in the Renaissance and the Baroque. Have you plans for expanding into later centuries, into the Impressionists, for example?
So, kind of yes and kind of no. After about the 18th century, it feels to me as though there's such an explosion of women artists whose work is still available to us. And it's a little bit harder for me to kind of organize it. And it's a little overwhelming, a little intimidating, to consider all of the options.
So, what seems to be emerging is my twin focuses right now are female old masters. So, pre-19th century women artists, and also women botanical artists. For some reason, it's just emerged that way that botanical art seems to be the thread that's leading me out of pre-modernity and it feels safe and comfortable to sort of follow that thread.
Yes. And I love botanical art. That is such an wonderful area. Actually, there is a novelist, Deborah Swift from England, who wrote a novel called The Lady’s Slipper, which is about a botanical artist in the 17th century.
That is so amazing. I have to write this down.
Yeah, she's on Art In Fiction. I read that quite a few years ago. And it was about this woman artist who did botanical art and in a way that was one of the books that was the genesis for me wanting to do Art In Fiction.
I will definitely look her up and I would love to read that book too.
I just love botanical art. My mother does a lot of botanical art. She's well into her nineties now, but she can still do it. And she does it with crayon pencil. But it's, it's such a fascinating area. I'm wondering, actually, if it was an area where women were able to excel.
Yes, I suppose that one of the reasons is that you didn't need a life drawing class in order to be successful at it. So, the material was ready to hand.
You didn't need a huge workshop necessarily. You could do it at a smaller scale. So in a way, it lent itself more to way that women lived.
Right. And in a lot of cases, not every case, but in many cases, the women were either the daughters and/or wives of natural scientists who relied on them quite heavily. I don't know how their work would have been illustrated if it hadn't been for their wives and/or daughters.
Ah, so it had that whole documentation piece. So, what is the future for Art Herstory. What's next for you?
Well, speaking of botanical art, I’ll give you this exclusive. My 2021 Christmas card is actually not a Nativity or an Adoration of the Shepherds, but it is a botanical design by a 19th-century English woman called Priscilla Susan Bury. And it's an amaryllis. I'm very excited to launch that card later this year. And beyond that, I will continue to have people contribute guest posts.
There are a lot of exciting guest posts coming up, including one about Adélaïde Labille-Guiard who was both born and died in the month of April. Her birthday is April 11th and her death date is April 24th. So, she was a contemporary of Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, and I'm very excited to have a guest post that I'll be able to publish on Sunday about her. And there are many more to follow behind that.
Yes, such a wonderful resource that you have done, the Art Herstory website, for people to go and learn about all of these great female painters. I gather that you've been having a lot of fun doing this website.
Oh, it's just been so much fun. I have to say that one of the best things about the whole project and this certainly wasn't in the, I didn't set out to make this happen, but there's just a sense of community that coalesces around the topic. I've met so many fascinating people.
I'm so excited and pleased and honored to have met you and Paula Butterfield and Amy Maroney. And so many people who have a stake in this world in one way or another, and there are so many different categories of people who are contributing. And I'm sure that you must find that with the podcast and with your own enterprise.
Oh, completely. I cannot believe all of the amazing people I've met in the last year, such as yourself. I never would have found the Art Herstory website if it hadn't been for Art In Fiction, and you're right. What's so cool is this fabulous community that I'm discovering in many, many different communities because, you know, I don't just do the visual art, there's music, there's all sorts of things. And there's authors all over the place that are inspired by the arts. And then the sort of spin-off things like your website, which, you know, specifically for visual art.
I think the whole thing is celebrating the arts and the creative arts, which I think nowadays is even more important than ever. We need the arts, don't we, we need the creative process.
Yes. I think we do. We need it for ourselves, for our own sort of spiritual growth and development. And I think it's also really important to be able to connect with historical figures.
One of the sort of buzz words that I hear in scholarship is about having ancestors. So, that is to say not our direct forebears in our sort of biological lineage, but people who were in some way grandparents to us in terms of a talent or an ability, or, you know, blazing a trail that we could follow. And it occurs to me, it occurred to me that male artists could trace that sort of lineage back to the Renaissance, if not even earlier, but until recently that wasn't really possible for women artists. We could trace our lineage back—I say we, I'm not an artist. I'm neither a scholar nor an artist— but women artists could trace their lineage back no more than maybe a couple of generations until quite recently. So having sort of this explosion of information and access to the work and life stories of women from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries gives women artists a lineage that they just couldn't even contemplate a few decades ago, which is amazing.
It is amazing. That's a really good point. It's suddenly has just opened up the world. I know, you know, when I was growing up, when I was younger, and I read Jansen for Fine Arts 125 which was the introductory art history course at university. And, you know, well there's no women artists or there's very few or, you know, and now that we know that's absolutely not true. As a young woman, and you want to, if you want to be an artist, yeah, you're right, you now have shoulders to stand on. That's huge.
I think so, too. Yeah.
Wow. Good point. Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Erika. This has been just delightful.
I'm so honored to have been included. Thank you so much.