- - Thursday, April 19, 2012

The gender gap in art and literature is not in the title of two exhibitions currently in Washington, but it serves as a subtext in both of them. At the Folger Shakespeare Library, the fascinating “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700” raises the question, Why aren’t some of them better known?

In the case of many of the 18th- and early 19th-century female artists on display in the equally fascinating “Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists From the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections,” on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts — we know why.

It turns out there were female poets in England, like Lady Anne Southwell, along with the Cavalier poets. And there were professional female playwrights earning a living in the Restoration theater, including Aphra Behn and Susanna Centlivre.

In Italy, the heroic poet Ludovico Ariosto had a female counterpart in the person of the prolific Lucrezia Marinella. In France, meanwhile, ladies of quality got together for literary evenings while their husbands were away seeking la gloire in battle. There’s an engraving of the 17th-century equivalent of a French ladies’ book circle in the exhibition.

“Shakespeare’s Sisters” contains what must be among the earliest glimmers of feminist writing: Marinella’s “La Nobilta et l’Eccellenza delle Donne, co’ Difetti e Mancamenti de gli Huomini” (“The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men,”) published in Italy in 1653; and, in England, Bathsua Makin’s 1673 “An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Women.”

An Abraham Bosse etching titled "Les Vierges Sages" circa 1640 depicts a French ladies' book circle, how women of quality got together while husbands were away. (Folger Shakespeare Library)
An Abraham Bosse etching titled “Les Vierges Sages” circa 1640 depicts a ... more >

“Had God intended Women only as a finer sort of Cattle, he would have not made them reasonable,” wrote Makin, tutor to the daughter of King Charles I.

Most of the writers covered in these exhibits would be unknown to the average visitor. However, women’s literary achievements in what academics call the early modern period have been known and studied by scholars since the 1920s, according to the exhibition’s curator, Georgianna Ziegler.

That was after the author Virginia Woolf raised the issue of female writers in Shakespearean England in her book “A Room of One’s Own” in 1929. In the book, she imagined that Shakespeare had a sister (hence the Folger exhibit’s title), Judith, whose literary ambitions would have been quashed by a combination of domestic obligations and male pressure.

But the show actually reveals the opposite: Within the social and economic limitations of 17th-century Europe, female writers flourished.

“‘A Room of One’s Own’ is a key text for the question of women writers,” says Ms. Ziegler, a specialist on women in the 16th and 17th centuries. “There are a lot of really good early modern women writers, right up there with the big guys. But in part because of the way college curriculums are structured, the subject is not often taught. Male teachers think it will be covered in the women’s-issues programs, but it isn’t. The other problem has been limited access: Until recently, there were no modern editions of the women’s works.”

If you can’t wait for the modern editions — and you’re feeling flush — copies of the actual manuscripts and early printed editions of 230 works from 15 libraries and archives in the United Kingdom and North America can be downloaded via a Web site called the Perdita Project (perdita is Latin for lost) — for a total cost of $19,000.

“Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists From the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections” brings together 77 paintings, prints and sculptures covering the period from 1750 to 1850.

Visitors to the Museum of Women in the Arts might recognize a few of the 35 female artists represented — notably Marie Antoinette’s favorites, the celebrated portraitist Elizabeth Vigee-LeBrun and the still-life painter Anne Velayer-Coster, but most are likely to be discoveries.

The exhibition “will help to banish the obscurity that has veiled the legacy of many 18th-century French women artists,” says Jordana Pomeroy, the museum’s chief curator.

But from the evidence on view here, some of the artists may not justify wider “discovery.” And it’s not gender that classifies them as minor painters.

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