Recent library acquisitions: Bookplates by Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová

Museum visitors may remember the recent exhibition in NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center featuring wordless novels by the first woman graphic novelist, Czech artist Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová. Her bold black-and-white woodcuts visually narrate her life experiences, religion, and history.

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Shortly after the show closed, the library obtained a 1925 limited-edition portfolio of copperplate and woodcut bookplates that the artist personally designed for others. Although not complete—the library’s copy is missing two bookplates—the 13 prints nonetheless represent a likely commercial activity for the artist, a means of making a living. Additionally, the copperplate prints reveal her talent and skill with drawing, a very different medium from woodcuts. These works contrast nicely with the accomplished graphic work evident in her woodcuts. Much like her wordless novels and illustrated stories, her bookplates focus on quiet domestic scenes. Many feature a person reading in a library or in a pastoral setting.

Venice, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (left), and Student, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (right)

Venice, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (left), and Student, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (right)

Bookplates commonly contained the Latin words ex libris, which translates from Latin as “from the books of” or “from the library of.” These consist of labels that bear the name of a book owner and are pasted inside the front covers (endpapers) of books as an expression of ownership. This tradition became popular after printed books in the mid-15th century created a need for owners to distinguish between multiple copies of the same book. In the late 19th and early 20th century, collecting reached its peak as people began to view bookplates as miniature works of art. They were valued as much for the artwork as for what the plates portrayed about the book owners.

In Europe, wood and copper engravings, etchings, and serigraphs were popular among designers.  Eastern European artists produced especially distinctive book plate designs due to the region’s rich tradition of graphic arts, artistic experimentation, and dramatic social upheaval. The independence of Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s homeland, Czechoslovakia, after nearly 400 years of Austro-Hungarian rule, inspired artists and writers to create a national image influenced by Expressionist, Surrealist, Constructivist, Art Nouveau, Futurist, and Art Deco movements popular throughout Europe during that time.

Books for Young People, Ex libris Mor.zem. ústavu nevidomých v Brne; Woodcut engraving (left), and Birthplace, Ex libris Anka Součková; Woodcut engraving (right)

Books for Young People, Ex libris Mor.zem. ústavu nevidomých v Brne; Woodcut engraving (left), and Birthplace, Ex libris Anka Součková; Woodcut engraving (right)

Despite these trends, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s work, at least in the material that the library currently owns, seems to focus on domestic scenes, life stories, religion, and history from abroad. Did she deliberately avoid creating darker works that expressed oppression and nationalistic ambitions? As the library continues to collect material on and by this important graphic artist, it will be interesting to find out.

All are welcome to look at these beautiful bookplates and the other materials by Bochořáková-Dittrichová. If you’re touring the museum, the library makes a great starting point on the 4th floor. Interesting exhibitions feature archival manuscripts, personal papers by women artists, rare books, and artist’s books. Reference Desk staff are always happy to answer questions and offer assistance. Open to the public weekdays 10 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1 p.m.–5 p.m.   

—Jennifer Page is the Library Assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Sofonisba Anguissola

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Italian artist Sofonisba Anguissola (ca. 1532–1625), whose work is currently on view at NMWA in Picturing Mary.

1. All in the Family
Anguissola’s father, Amilcare, encouraged all of his children’s artistic pursuits. Sofonisba began her artistic training alongside her sister Elena, but it was her younger sisters Lucia and Europa who truly followed in their sister Sofonisba’s footsteps by pursuing careers as painters.

Sofonisba Anguissola (Cremona, ca. 1532–Palermo, 1625), Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556; Oil on canvas, 26 × 22 3/8 in.; Muzeum-Zamek, Łańcut; inv. 916MT

Sofonisba Anguissola (Cremona, ca. 1532–Palermo, 1625), Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556; Oil on canvas, 26 × 22 3/8 in.; Muzeum-Zamek, Łańcut; inv. 916MT

2. Mystifying Michelangelo
While Michelangelo didn’t officially take on Anguissola as a student, letters to him from Anguissola’s father show he gave advice to the young artist. He particularly praised Anguissola’s ability to render a crying boy in Boy Bitten by a Crayfish.

3. Like a Virgo
Anguissola often described herself as “virgo,” a young woman or virgin, in the Latin inscriptions she included on her self-portraits. In Self-Portrait, ca. 1556 the full inscription reads: “The maiden Sofonisba Anguissola, depicted by her own hand, from a mirror, at Cremona.”

4. Royal Affair
Anguissola’s talent eventually caught the attention of the wealthy Spanish court. In 1559, Phillip II of Spain invited Anguissola to court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabella. While there, Anguissola painted portraits of the royal family, gave the queen drawing lessons, and cared for the infantas.

5. So Nice We Showed It Thrice
NMWA’s 1995 exhibition Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman as well as Italian Women Artists in 2007 featured Anguissola’s Self-Portrait at the Easel. If you missed it, it’s back for Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea at NMWA, on view through April 12, 2015.

—Ashley Harris is the assistant educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  

Go Global with Mary

Did you know that NMWA launched its first-ever online exhibition, A Global Icon: Mary in Context, in conjunction with Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea?

NMWA’s digital engagement and curatorial teams collaborated with the Google Cultural Institute to present an online collection of images of Mary from around the world. The museum has been working with Google since joining the Google Art Project in March and being a pilot partner in Chromecast Backdrop since October.

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Take a tour of Mary in Context—the online exhibition is divided into six thematic sections that mirror Picturing Mary: Madonna and Child, Woman and Mother, Mother of the Crucified, Mary as Idea, A Singular Life, and Mary in the Life of Believers. Within each section, a short educational video introduces the theme, followed by a closer look into 3–4 artworks. Online visitors can examine these artworks in great detail and learn about Mary’s impact and significance to various cultures.

Left: Unknown artist, Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, 18th century; Wood, ivory, pigment, gilding, gessoed cloth, and silver, 25 7/8 x 27 x 10 1/4 in.; Brooklyn Museum, Frank L. Babbott Fund; inv. 42.384; Right: Unknown artist, Chapter 19 of Qur'an (Surat Maryam), 15th century; Ink and pigments on thin laid paper, 15 3/4 x 12 3/16 in.; Walters Art Museum; inv. W.563.274B

Left: Unknown artist, Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, 18th century; Wood, ivory, pigment, gilding, gessoed cloth, and silver, 25 7/8 x 27 x 10 1/4 in.; Brooklyn Museum, Frank L. Babbott Fund; inv. 42.384; Right: Unknown artist, Chapter 19 of Qur’an (Surat Maryam), 15th century; Ink and pigments on thin laid paper, 15 3/4 x 12 3/16 in.; Walters Art Museum; inv. W.563.274B

Echoing Picturing Mary, the online exhibition provides a historical context of the Virgin Mary, highlighting artwork spanning the 12th–19th centuries. These images represent a wide array of artwork about Mary, including the Black Madonna and Our Lady of Guadalupe. The online exhibition was curated to include a diverse range of mediums—from Chinese porcelain to Indian manuscripts to African pendants.

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Explore near or far! Check out the online exhibition and NMWA’s other online features, including an interactive preview of Picturing Mary and a YouTube playlist of related videos about Mary from Khan Academy’s Smarthistory, from the comfort of your home or at NMWA. These digital offerings are now available in the museum’s galleries for the first time.

—Laura Hoffman is the Manager of Digital Engagement at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 

Orsola Maddalena Caccia: “Picturing Mary” as a Renaissance Nun

Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea focuses on themes of femininity, motherhood, and ideal women expressed through the image of the Virgin Mary. The lives of women artists whose work is on view, including the Ursuline nun Orsola Maddalena Caccia, illuminate women’s varied roles in their culture.

St. Luke the Evangelist in the Studio (San Luca Evangelista nello Studio), ca. 1625; Oil on canvas, 109 × 74 3/8 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

St. Luke the Evangelist in the Studio (San Luca Evangelista nello Studio), ca. 1625; Oil on canvas, 109 × 74 3/8 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

Some of the earliest known female painters of the Italian Renaissance were nuns. Religious orders often encouraged nuns to create art as a means of devotion, as well as a means of financial support for their institution. Caccia is an example of a successful nun-as-painter.

Orsola Maddalena Caccia (Moncalvo, Italy, 1596–1676),was born Theodora. Like the more familiar Artemisia Gentileschi, who was trained as a painter by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, Caccia was trained by her father, Guglielmo Caccia, who created large-scale religious works. She was renamed Orsola when she took her vows and entered an Ursuline convent in 1620. Five years later, she joined the Ursuline convent in Moncalvo, which was founded by her father. Although five of her sisters joined her in the convent, only Orsola and her sister Francesca became painters. None of her sister’s work remains, but viewers can still find many of Orsola’s artworks in the spaces for which they were commissioned.

Caccia’s father’s influence on her career persisted even after his death: Guglielmo left artistic tools and drawings for his daughters at the convent for their use after his death. Despite the steady business of painting at the convent, his will stipulated that these tools be returned to his male heirs after all six of his daughters had passed away.

Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Madonna col Bambino e Sant’Anna), ca. 1630s; Oil on canvas, 113 × 72 7/8 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Madonna col Bambino e Sant’Anna), ca. 1630s; Oil on canvas, 113 × 72 7/8 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

Despite this dynamic, Orsola’s paintings provide evidence of female agency in art. Painting was encouraged in the Ursuline order, as it provided a means of support for the religious institutions. She became abbess and organized a painting studio within the convent. She created flower paintings during this time, as well as large-scale religious works and altarpieces, many of which feature carefully detailed renderings of still-life objects. These act as small reminders of the daily lives of the painting’s subjects; for example, a painting of the birth of John the Baptist is made all the more real by the delicately painted stoneware that litters the foreground, and Caccia also included details showing the exact foods served to women who had just gone through labor.

Orsola Maddalena Caccia’s work provides important examples of paintings created for patrons who sought artwork made by a female religious artist. Her careful consideration of the details of place and scene gave her a unique voice among the heavily male-driven art world of Renaissance Italy.

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

Click here to learn more and plan your visit to Picturing Mary, open through April 12, 2015.

NMWA to be Awarded 2015 Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom

The Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom announced today that it has chosen to honor the National Museum of Women in the Arts with its annual award. NMWA will be the first U.S. organization to be presented this award, which will take place during a ceremony in Paris on January 9, 2015.

Simone de Beauvoir; Photo by Pierre Boulat, collection Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir; Photo by Pierre Boulat, collection Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), French philosopher, novelist, essayist, and author of The Second Sex in 1949, was a major theorist and feminist of the 20th century. Throughout her life she demonstrated her full support of the defense of women’s freedom. The Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom was created in 2008 to mark the 100th anniversary of Simone de Beauvoir’s January 9, 1908, birthday. Each year the prize is awarded to laureates who are selected by an international jury. The prize is supported by the Institut français, the Mairie de Paris and Paris Diderot University.

“The National Museum of Women in the Arts is extremely honored to receive the prestigious Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom,” said NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling. “NMWA is dedicated to providing a platform for women’s free expression and filling the void in recognition of women artists past, present, and future. The museum empowers women and girls through inspirational examples in the arts and connects great art and ideas by women to people around the world.”

NMWA visitors; Photo by Dakota Fine

NMWA visitors; Photo by Dakota Fine

NMWA was founded in 1981 with the singular mission to bring to light remarkable women artists of the past while also promoting the best women artists working today. The goal of this mission is to directly address the gender imbalance in the presentation of art, therefore assuring great women artists a place of honor now and into the future. NMWA remains the only museum in the world solely dedicated to recognizing women’s creative achievements.

Judy Chicago next to Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937, in NMWA’s collection galleries

Judy Chicago next to Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937, in NMWA’s collection galleries

Renowned feminist artist Judy Chicago has long supported the museum: “My study of women’s history made me acutely aware of the fact that women’s achievements along with too much of women’s cultural production has been erased, marginalized, under-recognized, or in other ways diminished. My understanding of this tragic loss led me to devote my life to creating art that could help change this situation so that women’s accomplishments would become a permanent part of our cultural heritage,” said Chicago.

“When Wilhelmina and Wallace Holladay founded the National Museum of Women in the Arts, I became a staunch supporter. I long for the day when women around the world are accorded equal rights, equal pay, and equal recognition in all aspects of human life. Until our art museums, schools, and universities fully integrate women’s history, experiences, and perspectives into their collections and curricula we desperately need our own institutions so that our contributions will be honored in the same way as men’s have been. My congratulations to the museum on this well-deserved award.”

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.