- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

There are potboilers as well as exquisite paintings in the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ challenging “Italian Women Artists From Renaissance to Baroque” — works rolled out to make money as well as those expressing genuine, sometimes violent, emotion.

The exhibit’s female painters — Sofonisba Anguissola (1535-1625), Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654) and Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) as well as others — weren’t home baking cookies.

The museum presents them as among “the first professional women artists in modern Italy” and claims this as the first exhibit picturing their economic, social and historic status.

Competition existed, of course. Chiara Varotari (1584-1663) beat out others to paint a noted beauty from Padua, her stunning “Portrait of a Lady (Pantasilea Dotto Capodilista?).”

Varotari concentrated on the Pantasilea’s social status. The intricately woven, symbols-embossed, gold-brocaded silk dress, glistening jewelry and elaborate hairdo express the subject’s wealth.

Not so with Gentileschi’s celebrated “Judith Slaying Holofernes.” Stylistically following the now famous, criminally violent Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Gentileschi shows the biblical Judith savagely beheading the notorious Assyrian general.

Raped by fellow painter Agostino Tassi in 1611, Gentileschi was forced to testify against the artist in a well-publicized seven-month trial.

In obvious retaliation for the humiliation, Gentileschi gets even in the most graphic of ways. With powerful, Caravagesque arms and hands, Judith sinks a dagger into the drunken general’s neck. Her partly revealed breasts, with which she previously enticed Holofernes, spill from her dress.

Female artists also had to bring in cash. Dominican nun Plautilla Nelli (1524?-1588) earned money for her order. Fontana — a row of her paintings hangs in the exhibit’s last gallery — painted dozens of portraits.

Women even earned cash for their dowries. Amilcare Anguissola, father of six daughters, educated them as painters.

He promoted the most talented, Sofonisba, even presenting her work to the great Michelangelo Buonarroti. She later became lady-in-waiting and painting instructor to Isabel de Valois, who was the third wife of Philip II in Spain.

To emphasize these female accomplishments, exhibit co-curator and museum senior curator Jordana Pomeroy divides the show into “Giorgio Vasari and the Renaissance Virtuosa,” “Education and Training,” “Marketing Strategies,” “Patrons and Power” and “Public Identity.” Each grouping intensifies the previous one until “Public Identity” — in the last gallery — with its overly large portraits and dramatic historic works (such as Sirani’s “Portia Wounding Her Thigh”) explosively ends it.

Miss Pomeroy begins by discussing Vasari’s art historical theories in “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” (1550), the first systematic chronicling of Italy’s art that includes women.

Vasari admired Anguissola’s paintings the most, so her charming early “Chess Game,” confident “Self-Portrait at the Easel” and “Self-Portrait Playing the Spinet” lead off the show.

Fontana follows closely in the second gallery, where she, too, plays the early version of the piano. Gentileschi’s enormous “Woman Playing a Lute (Saint Cecilia)” shows musical training as part of women’s education.

Marketing strategies weren’t so different from today’s, though promotion and sales were homebound. Even the angelic-seeming Anguissola created multiple self-portraits to sell.

Sirani painted sweet “Madonna and Child” scenes and accepted expensive jewelry as barter.

Fontana set hard-nosed prices for her art.

The “Patrons and Power” section reveals that, like men, women had to fulfill the demands of elites. Artists such as Fontana and Sirani competed for Counter-Reformation commissions.

“Public Identity” further illustrates women’s push for power through their paintings of rich women and the establishment of their own personas through self-portraits.

The museum wisely made the show an international effort by working with co-curator Vera Fortunati, professor of art history at the University of Bologna, Italy, to make this a multidisciplinary effort.

By doing this, it made the show both an aesthetic and an intellectual delight.

WHAT: “Italian Women Artists From Renaissance to Baroque”

WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through July 15

TICKETS: $10 for adults; $8 for students and seniors 60 and older; free for NMWA members and those 18 and younger.

INFORMATION: Click on www.nmwa.org or call 202/783-5000.

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