Beyond Iconography: Food in The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Orsola Maddalena Caccia’s lavishly detailed painting The Birth of St. John the Baptist (1635), currently on view in Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, features still-life arrangements nestled into the sacred narrative. A hallmark of Caccia’s oeuvre, these small renderings of food and flowers are imbued with symbolic significance. However, Caccia’s still-life embellishments are not only emblematic of the sacred story, but relate to a female viewer’s life experiences.

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, (Nascita di San Giovanni Battista), ca. 1635; Oil on canvas, 112 1/4 × 77 1/2 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, (Nascita di San Giovanni Battista), ca. 1635; Oil on canvas, 112 1/4 × 77 1/2 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

This scene is derived from popular narratives of Mary’s life. The nativities of the Holy Family were often commissioned by and for women, and often depicted true-to-life rituals and objects that would have accompanied a woman as she prepared to give birth. Here, St. Elizabeth is sitting upright in bed after successfully, and safely, delivering her son. The baby, St. John the Baptist, is held near the painting’s center. His eyes meet those of the Virgin Mary, as fluted rays of light from the painting’s top left corner form a delicate halo. Almost every corner of the canvas is filled, advancing the narrative and alluding to Biblical themes.

The piled bunches of grapes foretell Christ’s sacrifice and the sacramental wine of the Eucharist. Other small fruits are depicted as well: pears, for the sweetness of Virtue, and a quince, which had been associated with both immortality and fertility since Antiquity. The eggs held by Elizabeth’s attendants were symbols of birth and resurrection; their pale luster also resembles pearls, one of Mary’s attributes as well as a symbol of purity and virginity.

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, (Nascita di San Giovanni Battista) (details), ca. 1635; Oil on canvas, 112 1/4 × 77 1/2 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, (Nascita di San Giovanni Battista) (details), ca. 1635; Oil on canvas, 112 1/4 × 77 1/2 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

The two attendants and their tray of eggs would also have reminded a female viewer of her own experiences within such a room. Childbirth in the Renaissance was a particularly dangerous experience, often accompanied by complications during and after the birth. The health of mother and child was an overwhelming concern. Renaissance medical texts were very specific about the necessary nutrition that a new mother required immediately after giving birth. Sweetmeats and nuts were brought to new mothers almost immediately after a baby was born. Poultry and eggs had long been especially recommended for women immediately after their labor. Even an exemplary figure such as Elizabeth required this sustenance; by including these staples, Caccia emphasizes the humanity of Elizabeth and John.

Food is one of many theological symbols reminding viewers of the sacred nature of the scene. When shown alongside attributes of Christ and the Virgin, the nativity of St. John the Baptist acts as a precursor for the miraculous birth of Christ. Viewers at the time could also see Caccia’s painted details as a means of connection, meant to foster a bond between this sacred story and their everyday lives.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Visit NMWA to see Picturing Mary, on view through April 12, 2015. Click here to learn more!

5 Fast Facts: Artemisia Gentileschi

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (Rome, 1593–Naples? 1656), whose work is currently on view at NMWA in Picturing Mary.

1. Wunderkind
Gentileschi completed several of her best-known works, including Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino) (1609–1610) and Susanna and the Elders (1610) before her 18th birthday. Check out Madonna and Child at NMWA in Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, December 5, 2014–April 12, 2015.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

2. Baroque, not Broke
Considered the only female artist to follow the tenets of Caravaggism (after Caravaggio), Gentileschi skillfully depicted extreme contrast between light and dark in works like Judith and Holofernes. This ability to evoke drama caught the eye of wealthy patrons including King Philip II (Spain) and Charles I (England).

3. Mistaken identity
Artemisia trained and worked side-by-side with her father, Orazio, in his painting studio. Owing to their similar aesthetic and entwined professional relationship, scholars today disagree on the attributions of many works from the Gentileschi workshop.

4. In the stars
Gentileschi led a progressive life for a woman of her time by sustaining a career independent of male oversight. Finding a kindred spirit in the unconventional Galileo, she befriended the famed astronomer while living in Florence and maintained their relationship through letter-writing.

5. Wanderlust
Gentileschi lived and worked in Florence, Naples, London, and Rome. Gentileschi’s legacy lives on in these cities, all of which are home to works by her hand. Stateside, you can see her paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Columbus Museum of Art, and Detroit Institute of Arts.

—Adrienne Gayoso is associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Picturing (and Printing and Publishing) Mary

The catalogue for Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea explores depictions of the Virgin Mary in art from a unique combination of religious, cross-cultural, and contemporary art-historical perspectives.

CatalogueCoverIn addition to showcasing full-color images of the art on view and many comparative works, the catalogue for Picturing Mary, co-published by NMWA and Scala Arts Publishers, examines Mary’s image as an enthroned queen, a tender young mother, and a pious woman. Thought-provoking texts demonstrate how her personification of womanhood has resonated throughout history.

In the opening essay, exhibition curator Timothy Verdon, director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and canon of the Florence Cathedral, describes a fascinating work, Orsola Maddalena Caccia’s Saint Luke the Evangelist in the Studio: “This painting perfectly suits our theme, for it shows one of the authors of the Christian scriptures, the evangelist Luke, literally picturing—creating images of—Mary and her son. Since Luke dedicates considerable space to Mary in his Gospel, it is fair to say that his “images” were in the first place literary. . . . Among other noteworthy features, this work includes a soulful bull, a traditional symbol of Saint Luke, and, below the table, a dog, a traditional allusion to fidelity.”

Miri Rubin, professor of medieval and early modern history, Queen Mary University of London, wrote about Christian traditions of depicting Mary. She examines changes in these images throughout history, as well as the ways in which communities such as monastic groups interpreted Mary’s image. “Monks and nuns re-created the Virgin Mary as a European mother. They turned the mother of God into a member of their communities, a vibrant, loving figure, pure and human, demanding yet forgiving.”

Catalogue_TVopening-blogEssayist Amy Remensnyder, professor of history at Brown University, focuses on images of Mary used as a “Warrior and Diplomat.” She describes certain works of art showing Mary in warlike settings: “Straddling the boundary between manliness and womanliness, female virgins in many cultures have access to realms normally reserved for men, including warfare and hunting. Virginity, medieval Christian authors declared, armed female saints with the masculine virtues of strength and courage. It is perhaps significant that the Madonna delle Milizie does not hold her son in any of the extant images; this epitome of Mary as warrior rides alone—virginal, not maternal.”

Catalogue_Ag-di-Duccio-LippiWithin her essay, Melissa R. Katz, Luther Gregg Sullivan Fellow in Art History, Wesleyan University, describes the “porous and personal nature of Marian imagery.” She explores a statuary type called the Vierge Ouvrant, or Triptych Virgin, in which the Virgin’s moveable body serves as a set of doors to reveal imagery inside, and the “viewer is invited—indeed required—to touch the body of the Virgin with her hands in order to open and close the doors . . . inviting a true sense of intimacy with the saintly statue.” Katz brings her analysis to the present day: “More surprising than her persistence in the religious imagination is her presence in the contemporary art world. Where other sacred personages have faded to footnotes, the Virgin Mary has found renewed relevance as a feminist icon, spiritual touchstone, and banner of political identity.”

Click here to learn more about the exhibition and programming for Picturing Mary, on view at NMWA through April 12, 2015. Click here to purchase the catalogue!

Camille Claudel: Art as Exclamation

NMWA’s mission underscores the necessity of space for women as creators and consumers of art. The poignant story of artist Camille Claudel (1864–1943), who struggled to cement her own identity and place, reinforces that significance.

Photograph of Camille Claudel, 1884, by César. Courtesy of Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, Mairie de Paris, Paris, France

Photograph of Camille Claudel, 1884, by César. Courtesy of Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, Mairie de Paris, Paris, France

Camille Claudel’s romantic relationships and tragic life have threatened to distract from the extraordinary works of art she created. Born on December 8, 1864, Claudel eventually moved to Paris, where she was able to study sculpture. Biographers such as Odile Ayral-Clause discuss her early interests in sculpting and art-making, desires that continued throughout her life.

After meeting Auguste Rodin, already a noted sculptor, in 1882, she entered into an apprenticeship in his workshop. She worked as a studio aide, later becoming his lover and muse. After close to a decade of their turbulent relationship, she felt that his influence in both her life and career were too obtrusive, and she sought a clean break. Discussions of her artworks have nonetheless been mired in speculation and psycho-biographical readings of her life alongside Rodin and her eventual mental illness and turmoil.

Two views of Camille Claudel’s Young Girl with a Sheaf, ca. 1890; Bronze; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photographs by Lee Stalsworth

Two views of Camille Claudel’s Young Girl with a Sheaf, ca. 1890; Bronze; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photographs by Lee Stalsworth

Regardless of their personal entanglements, her unique position in Rodin’s studio allowed her unprecedented access to anatomy and studies of the male nude, markers of artistic education not often allowed to women. Claudel’s Young Girl with a Sheaf, in NMWA’s collection, is a hallmark of her individual style. Gallery-goers can still see the lessons and references to Rodin’s innovations: the sculpture shifts as viewers walk around it. From different sides, the curves of the bronze reveal different angles and features. But the materiality of the sculpture and its forms are unmistakably Claudel’s. The curves of the wheat sheaf, upon which the female figure leans, are modeled to display the artist’s own hand as it worked. The rough-hewn treatment of the sheaf and the clumsily uneven texture of the skin reveal her work; it almost seems like the artist’s hands become visible, revealing her touch through the sculpture’s imperfection. The sculptor does not revel in the sensual nature of the figure, but rather focuses attention on the bronze itself.

Claudel’s later life was plagued by mental illness, a splintering family, and her frustration with a public that refused to see her as an individual and an artist. Through her sculptures, however, contemporary viewers can appreciate the incredible skill and talent that she demonstrated as a rare working female artist. Her works act as visual exclamations of the identity she forged as a woman and an artist.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

There’s something about Mary . . .

Tomorrow, December 5, the National Museum of Women in the Arts opens Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea. This new exhibition explores the concept of womanhood represented by the Virgin Mary—who has for centuries been viewed as an ideal figure by Christians—as well as the social and sacred functions her image has served. Visit the museum to encounter this iconic figure through more than 60 Renaissance- and Baroque-era artworks.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

How did artists represent this figure of “ideal” femininity? How did Mary’s depiction change over time? From a queenly, exalted figure in the medieval era, to a human and nurturing mother in the Renaissance, each image reflects its society and time.

These works, from the Vatican Museums, Uffizi Gallery, and other museum, church, and private collections in Europe and the United States, are presented in six thematic sections. Mary is shown as a daughter, cousin, and wife; the mother of an infant; a bereaved parent; the protagonist in a rich life story developed through the centuries; a link between heaven and earth; and an active participant in the lives of those who revere her.

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), also called Madonna of the Book (Madonna del Libro), 1480–81; Tempera and oil on wood panel, 22 7/8 × 15 5/8 in.; Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; inv. 443

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), also called Madonna of the Book (Madonna del Libro), 1480–81; Tempera and oil on wood panel, 22 7/8 × 15 5/8 in.; Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; inv. 443

This exhibition examines Mary from a historical perspective, with works by male and female artists. Paintings by Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Orsola Maddalena Caccia (an Ursuline nun who ran a bustling painting studio in northern Italy), and Elisabetta Sirani highlight women artists’ images of Mary. Their works are featured alongside treasured paintings, sculptures, and drawings by Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Pontormo, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and others.

From altarpieces to monastic houses, to intimate figures used for personal worship, Picturing Mary illuminates many facets of the familiar Madonna figure.

A different variety of Madonnas appear in NMWA’s first-ever online exhibition, A Global Icon: Mary in Context, which showcases a broader artistic landscape. As Christianity spread to new areas of the world, due to missionaries, colonialism, and many other factors, Mary’s image spread, too, reflecting a profusion of diverse aesthetic traditions.

Visit NMWA before April 12, 2015, start online, or check out the varied talks, workshops, and programs on the calendar for Picturing Mary.

“Greetings” from the Archive

Between the years 1910 and 1915, American painter, illustrator, and printmaker Dulah Evans Krehbiel, along with artisans called the “Ridge Craft Girls,” designed a line of greeting cards.

Dulah Evans Krehbiel card, The Ridge Crafts, Parkridge Illinois 1911; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Dulah Evans Krehbiel card, The Ridge Crafts, Parkridge Illinois 1911; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Originally created for the Park Ridge Art Colony, the sample sales book of these cards, containing hand-painted greeting cards, place cards, and book plates, is now in the archival collection of the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center. With the holiday season approaching, the Library has taken on its first digitization project, making these beautiful cards accessible online to help spread the cheer and maybe even strike up inspiration for viewers’ holiday cards.

Dulah Marie Evans Krehbiel circa 1908

Dulah Marie Evans Krehbiel circa 1908

Dulah Marie Evans was born on February 17, 1875, to David and Marie Ogg Evans, pioneer residents of Oskaloosa, Iowa. She graduated from The Art Institute of Chicago and completed her postgraduate work at the Art Students League in New York, where she won many first-place awards in illustration. She later studied at the New York School of Art under William Merritt Chase.

In 1906 she moved her studio to Park Ridge, Illinois, after marrying fellow Art Institute student Albert Krehbiel. Dulah and Albert were part of the Park Ridge Art Colony, a group whose goal was to create a society that would work for the encouragement of artistic culture. This colony is where Dulah Krehbiel and the Ridge Craft group designed and produced their line of greeting cards. These detailed and ornate engraved images and colored lithographs were designed by Krehbiel and hand painted by the Ridge Craft Girls. The set of 194 cards contain beautiful, delicate drawings, vivid colors, and incredible detail that evoke holiday cheer.

Dulah Evans Krehbiel card, The Ridge Crafts, Parkridge Illinois 1911; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Dulah Evans Krehbiel, who had become known as the “Park Ridge Modernist,” died on July 24, 1951, but her work lives on in galleries across the country and in the archives of the LRC.

Check out the library’s flickr and pinterest pages, take a look at these charming cards, and share them with your loved ones this holiday season!

—Molly Krost is the Library and Research Center intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Looking Forward: Women to Watch 2015—Organic Matters

NMWA is thrilled to host the fourth Women to Watch exhibition, Organic Matters, from June 5 to September 13, 2015. Developed in collaboration with the museum’s national and international outreach committees, the exhibition will feature work by emerging and underrepresented artists from communities across the country and the world. Committees collaborate with curators in their regions to choose a shortlist of artists, and then NMWA curators select one from each region, whose work will be shown at the museum.

Reto Thüring

Reto Thüring

We spoke with the Ohio Committee’s collaborating curator Reto Thüring, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the United Kingdom’s Lisa Le Feuvre, Head of Sculpture Studies at the Henry Moore Institute, to hear about the exhibition and its flora and fauna theme as well as their curatorial process. Stay tuned for more information about this inventive exhibition in the coming months.

What is the role of women artists in your community?
Reto Thüring:
Cleveland has a small, but very active and diverse, art scene with many women at the forefront of artistic innovation and community engagement.

Lisa Le Feuvre: The UK has so many strong female artists whose work is shown across museums, galleries, and project spaces. Stunning exhibitions in the U.K. of work by women right now include Phyllida Barlow at Tate Britain, Marine Hugonnier at the Baltic, Nasreen Mohamedi at Tate Liverpool, and at the Henry Moore Institute Gego and Lygia Clark.

How did your selection process work for Women to Watch?

Lisa Le Feuvre

Lisa Le Feuvre

LLF: We discussed many artists’ work. It was a real reflection of how many strong women artists there are in the U.K. We carefully thought through how each artist addressed the theme of flora and fauna and also how being selected for the award might stimulate new connections for the artists.

RT: I worked with Rose Bouthillier, the curator at MOCA Cleveland who has an extraordinary knowledge of the regional art scene. We first assembled a list of women artists from the region whose work we liked and that had something to do with the theme of this year’s exhibition. We then shortened the list down to six artists whose work we found particularly noteworthy and interesting. This process was very exciting. The discussions were enriching, having two perspectives and four eyes turned out to be a huge advantage for the selection process. I hope the discursive nature of our selection process is reflected in the diversity of the artists that we selected.

How did you work with the flora and fauna theme?
RT:
We tried to interpret the theme of flora and fauna as openly as possible but without becoming arbitrary. We agreed from the start that it was more important to nominate artists whose work we believe in than to match the theme in a too literal way.

LLF: The theme is one that is enduring. It was a very exciting prospect to think about how artists have addressed rather than represented this topic. I think our shortlist really shows this.

Installation of High Fiber—Women to Watch 2012

Installation of High Fiber—Women to Watch 2012

Do you have any final thoughts on the exhibition?
RT:
I enjoyed looking at Cleveland’s art scene from a specific angle, and through that I discovered artists whose work I did not know before. The theme provided a productive angle as it was neither too limiting nor too open. Given the richness and quality of artists and works that we discovered in our region alone, I imagine that the exhibition in Washington will be a great success and a wonderful opportunity to discover new artists.

LLF: Very simply, I can’t wait to see it!

—Ginny DeLacey is the development associate at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.