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Women printmakers make a good impression in New York

An important and intriguingly varied collection of prints by women is on show at the New York Public Library

7 May 2016

Before the 19th century in Europe, women who made prints fell into three principal categories. Nuns sometimes produced devotional prints in convents; noblewomen or the wealthy could practice as amateurs; and the daughters, wives, and sisters of professional artists might be trained by and operate alongside their male relatives as members of the family workshop. ‘Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers, 1570–1900’, at the New York Public Library, both confirms the broad outlines of these two latter groups and highlights the variety within them. Over 50 printmakers are represented by 84 works, almost all drawn from the collection of Henrietta Louisa Koenen (1830–81), who in mid 19th-century Holland began assembling a corpus of around 800 prints by women, ranging from 16th-century woodcuts to the latest in contemporary lithographs, with a particular strength in 18th-century examples. Selections from her collection, bequeathed to the Library by Samuel P. Avery in 1900, were last shown publicly at the Grolier Club in 1901. The current exhibition, curated by Madeleine Viljoen, is an important opportunity to revisit the work of female printmakers whose names may be familiar only to specialists, as well as to examine prints by women who have remained more obscure.

Self-portrait of Anna-Maria van Schurman Aged 33

Self-portrait of Anna-Maria van Schurman Aged 33 (1640), Anna Maria van Schurman. New York Public Library

Roughly a fifth of these women could be considered exclusively as printmakers. Most worked in a range of media, and the exhibition opens by situating female artists more broadly, focusing on portraits of and prints after those who were exceptional in gaining widespread fame, from the high-born Italian painter Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532–1625), to the entrepreneurial Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807), who harnessed the British print market to promote her own compositions. An etched self-portrait by Kauffman of 1770 appears later on alongside that by the prodigious Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–78), who in 1641 penned a treatise arguing for the advanced education of women, provided it did not interfere with their domestic duties. Here Van Schurman demurely sets herself in an oval frame, eyes cast to her right with hands tucked neatly out of sight. These portraits emphasise the intellectual character of their makers, as women of sensibility or sense, but a neighbouring engraving by Marie-Anne Horthemels (1682–1727) after Rigaud, bears witness to her virtuosic technical skill at the level of the burin. (It remains unclear whether any of these women operated presses themselves; ‘Printing Women’ could mislead, since the pulling of impressions from plates may have been performed by specialised, and most likely male printers.)

Self-portrait

Self-portrait (1770), Angelica Kauffman. New York Public Library

The first female professional known to have signed her prints was Diana Scultori (c. 1535–after 1587), who learned the trade from her father and brother in Mantua. She signed her engraving after Giulio Romano’s Latona Giving Birth to Apollo and Diana on the Island of Delos simply as ‘DIANA’, linking her own name to the print’s mythological subject and asserting her creative presence. Geronima Parasole (d. 1622), gave her bold woodcut rendition of Antonio Tempesta’s Battle Between Men and Centaurs a banner at the centre proudly bearing the words ‘Hieronima Parasola Incisit’, while the painter’s name is partially visible on a crumpled banderole to the side.

The layered authorship of these prints is encapsulated by the c. 1652 engraving by Geertruydt Roghman (1625–57), based on Aegidius Sadeler’s print after Tintoretto’s Massacre of the Innocents. Madeleine Masson (1646–1713) is identified in her engraving after her husband’s portrait of Philippe de France, duc d’Orléans, both as his wife (‘uxor eius’) and by her maiden name, pointing to a mixture of interdependence and autonomy. That so-called reproductive prints (whether by men or women) could be appreciated in their own right as demonstrations of an engraver’s individual style is a point well made by the juxtaposition of works by the French sisters, Claudine (1636–97) and Antoinette Bouzonnet-Stella (1641–76), who mastered contrasting graphic modes to convey the effects of their different painted models.

Ego Mater pulchrae dilectionis (Holy Family with Ten Figures)

Ego Mater pulchrae dilectionis (Holy Family with Ten Figures) (1668), Claudine Bouzonnet-Stella, after Poussin.

A selection of prints by amateurs presents a spectrum of seriousness and skill. The childlike etchings of the 17-year-old Princess Sophie of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and those of her niece, Queen Victoria, contrast with the controlled rococo frontispieces of the Marquise de Pompadour, and the little-known, non-aristocratic Adélaïde Allou, who made etchings after the landscapes of Hubert Robert and Fragonard for the open market. Viljoen remains circumspect about the authorship of a woodcut profile of a lady attributed to Marie de’ Medici; a dramatic aquatint of 1772 by the Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria, depicting men fighting a fire by night, is testament to her interest in the latest technical innovations. Granted honorary membership of the Imperial Academy in Vienna, the Archduchess was among a number of women to gain academic recognition, including Teresa del Po (1646–1713), one of the first women to be elected to the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, and Élisabeth Chéron (1648–1711), who entered the Académie Royale in Paris aged 22. In these and other cases, however, membership was on the basis of work in other media. Of course there are stories of exclusion to be found here, too, and the limits imposed on women artists more generally are well known.

Was there a distinctly ‘female’ printmaking in this period? There are examples here of women instructing other women, like Magdalena van de Passe (1600–38), who probably taught Van Schurman. Kauffman supported Maria Cosway (1759–1838) in her career, and both capitalised on new markets for female consumers. An early example of a woman directing her products explicitly to women is provided by Elisabetta Parasole’s Teatro Delle Nobili et Virtuose Donne (1616), a book of lace designs; it is tempting to attribute the sensitivity of Catherine Bonaparte’s lithographic portrait of her grandmother to the sympathies of their shared sex. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, this stimulating exhibition serves as a reminder of the profoundly relational and collaborative nature of printmaking, suggesting the need for approaches to this material that see it as the result of complex social relations among both women and men.

‘Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers, 1570–1900’ is at the New York Public Library until 27 May.

From the May issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.

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