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Portrayal Of Women In The Visual Arts Throughout The Ages

In discussing how women are portrayed in the visual arts, I realized that it's an endless topic.

Going back through the ages we think of the idealized goddesses and mythological characters portrayed in ancient Greek and Roman art. The Saint Louis Art Museum has wonderful examples. The Greek Kalistrate Stele is an excellent example of a memorial grave marker of an idealized beautiful young woman bedecked in jewels with flowing locks.

By the fifteenth century, portraits depicted realistic human beings usually commissioned by the wealthy to represent idealized versions of loved ones. Women were shown to be members of the very privileged class. Usually portraits of women were much more elaborately dressed with gowns of fine materials and jewels galore. The husbands wanted the portraits of their wives to reflect the affluence and power of the family.

A walk through the Renaissance and early European paintings at The Saint Louis Art Museum with Judy Mann, Curator of European Art to 1800, gave me wonderful examples of women in their many guises. Hans Holbein's portrait of Mary, "Lady Guildeford," shows the lady not only in expensive clothing, but wearing beautiful golden jewelry and her husband insisted that she be holding a book indicating that she was refined and literate. Dutch artist Honhorst's "Smiling Girl" shows a sassy roughed young woman, probably a courtesan, holding a picture showing the backside of a young woman. Vasari's "Judith and Holofernes" shows a muscular young woman in the process of beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes. And then we have Wtewael's “Cephalus and Procris,” the mythological characters, with Procris dying as Cephalus looks pathetically over his love. These, of course, are just a few examples of what is to be seen in these beautifully, recently reinstalled galleries at the museum.

More recently, everyone knows of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre with her mysterious smile, and of Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" with his fragmented women, and anyone who has taken an art course knows of Manet's "Olympia", the nude courtesan of 1863. And of course who could resist waltzing around Degas' charming "Little Dancer" also to be seen at our Saint Louis Art Museum.

Gustav Klimt working at the end of the 19th century in Vienna, portrayed women in the many stages of life. Klimt didn't limit himself to portraits of only young women, he depicted all forms of femininity, including pregnancy, aging and the loss of physical beauty. In accord with the attitudes of the time, Klimt viewed femininity as a phenomenon of nature, and he sought to express the natural cycle of development and decline in his portraits of women.

In modern times, examples of the depiction of women in the visual arts cover the gamut. During World War II, the government had a propaganda campaign to portray women in the work force and as a part of the war effort. Remember "Rosie the Riveter" and coming up to very contemporary times, I think of Hanna Wilke's works showing women who've dealt with breast cancer, and of Kiki Smith's golden, dismembered nude in the Chipperfield new wing of our art museum, and the museum's current exhibition of Kara Walker's silhouettes with graphic, often difficult imagery of female sexuality on loan from the Alison and John Ferring collection.

And with all of these examples, I feel that Sheldon Art Galleries Director Olivia Lahs-Gonzales’ comment on women's depiction in photography can't be omitted. She talked of the act of looking (the male gaze) as an act of "possession" turning the female into an object of desire. She said that the term "gaze" was addressed by theoretician Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema "arguing that the "male gaze" is a feature of "gender power unevenness". Though applied to film, her work also speaks to the theme of the nude in photography.

And speaking of film, think of some of the very popular films depicting the role of women in art such as "The Girl With the Pearl Earring" making reference to Vermeer's very famous portrait.

This all also reminds me of a program at the Saint Louis Art Museum entitled "Beauty and Bias,” a collaboration between the museum and the Anti-Defamation League’s "A World of Difference Program" which questions what really is beautiful and who should decide what is or isn't.

So when walking through a museum or gallery, take a look at all the women portrayed in the visual arts  and you'll see them in all shapes and sizes and from every social, psychological and economic aspect.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for some thirty years on numerous arts related boards.