CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Curator's Project

The Making of Making Her Mark: Expanding Beyond Traditional Curatorial Priorities

June, 2024

In October 2023, the exhibition Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400-1800 opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). Co-organized with the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, where it is currently installed until 1 July, this exhibition was intended as an ambitious corrective to widely held—if not always openly acknowledged—assumptions that women artists of this period were rare, or that their works were not of the same significance as those by their male counterparts. The result of nearly five years of research and consultation across an international team of scholars and curators, the exhibition brings together over 230 works produced by women makers active in Europe over four centuries. Within this selection, approximately 20% of the checklist represented women makers from Northern Europe, including women who made art for the open market, courtly commissions, devotional works, scientific illustrations, objects for domestic use, manufactured luxury goods, and personal mementos and gifts. The exhibition’s purposefully broad chronological, geographical, and material scope seeks to make visible historical women who produced across media, within lauded “high-art” categories as well as those typically categorized as material culture. By presenting objects from 70 lenders in over a dozen media (fig. 1)—including painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, ceramics, weaving and embroidering, wax, paper rolling and cutting, manuscript illumination, lace making, silversmithing, and furniture design, among others—the exhibition offers an alternative history of European art, one that prioritizes examples of women’s artistic production outside of the traditional metrics that compare their work to male-centered standards. Rather than spotlight works by exceptional artists, the focus is instead on exceptional objects that collectively reveal broader narratives about the women who made them. The curatorial team, led by BMA Senior Curator Andaleeb Badiee Banta, AGO Curator Alexa Greist, and BMA Research Assistant Theresa Kutasz Christensen, crafted the exhibition in order to prompt questions about which artists and art works are featured in museums, why others historically have not received this prominence, and how materiality and gender remain linked in museum practice.

Fig. 1. Making Her Mark exhibition gallery

Despite a robust body of feminist scholarship spanning the last 50 years, spurred on by Linda Nochlin’s landmark call in 1971 to consider why there had been no “great” women artists, organizing this exhibition has made clear how our collective perspective of the past continues to be shaped by biases toward the enduring romanticized narrative of exceptional male genius. This approach first took shape in the biographic model popularized by Giorgio Vasari in sixteenth-century Florence and has been perpetuated by subsequent critics and biographers across Europe. In short, the Vasarian model promoted male artists making large-scale paintings and sculpture about “important” subjects, and categorically excluded those who worked in collaborative, non-professional, or personal creative sites of production, such as convents, manufactories, and the home. These locations also happened to be where the majority of women makers worked, having been restricted from participating in guilds, academies, and salons seeking to promote the intellectual authority of art.  As such, the presentation of such a wide range of objects made by women in this exhibition irrefutably demonstrates that women had long been active—if in unsung capacities—in nearly every setting imaginable across Europe.

The few women makers who could compete within the accepted parameters of “greatness” were deemed anomalous, illustrating the myth of exceptionalism promoted by historical biographers. Many of the better-known women artists included in Making Her Mark, such as Clara Peeters, Rachel Ruysch, and Maria Sibylla Merian, but also Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Luisa Roldàn, Angelica Kauffmann, and Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun, lived exceptional lives, earning favor at royal courts, developing international reputations, supporting their families, and navigating male-dominated paths of artistic education and professionalism. These exceptional women found a way to play by the rules that were established by men for men.

Fig. 2. Sophia Jane Maria Bonnell (1748-1841) and Mary Anne Harvey Bonnell (1763-1853), Paper filigree cabinet on stand, ca. 1789
Baltimore Museum of Art: Decorative Arts Acquisitions Endowment established by the Friends of the American Wing, 2022.78

Their exceptional stories, however, are not reflective of the majority of women involved in the production of visual art during this period, whose largely anonymous or less-documented lives were decidedly unexceptional by contemporary critical standards. Researching this exhibition, the curators encountered objects and resources that told a different story. Despite their historic lack of access to the same kinds of training and promotion that male artists enjoyed, women were far more involved in the artistic process of pre-modern Europe than is often acknowledged. Expanding inquiries beyond the traditional, quasi-hagiographic focus on individual biography or the limited binary of professional versus amateur broadened the field to include frequently overlooked aspects of female creativity and labor, including women’s involvement in the management and entrepreneurial aspects of artmaking, as well as their largely unacknowledged roles in procuring material goods used in artistic production. Many of the objects in the exhibition—such as lace or embroidered and paper-quilled objects—have no individual maker names associated with them, and many manufactured luxury objects were likely the result of forced or unpaid labor at some or all stages of their production. While we remain in the dark about these unidentified makers, documentary or pictorial evidence indicates that women worked in these kinds of settings; the inclusion of their finished products in the exhibition is a way to reclaim their essential if anonymized contributions.

The exhibition is organized into conceptual themes that examine women makers operating within different strata of early modern European society. By presenting tapestries alongside ceramics, lace with large-scale paintings, and embroidered objects next to silverwork, the exhibition reflects the historical reality that every work of art—with or without an identified name assigned to it—resulted from collaborative labor that involved women. This organizational structure also disrupts the established practice of categorizing individual artists into regional or stylistic “schools,” or adhering to a linear chronology that perpetuates assumptions about artists’ desire to pursue innovation exclusively.

In addition to painting and sculpture by well-known figures, certain types of objects encourage exploration of women makers working in an array of circumstances. Lace, tapestry, silver, paper rolling or filigree (fig. 2), manuscript illumination, and straw weaving offer research pathways into women working in artistic production at several different social levels, from the privileged to the impoverished, from the independent to the cloistered. Included are objects that women made for themselves, each other, their families and friends. Embroidery (fig. 3), in particular, was a fascinating way to track the generally overlooked connection of women and girls through the circulation of pattern books across the European continent and beyond. Several works demonstrate that many women, such as the numismatist Gabrielle Charlotte Patin (fig. 4), had rich intellectual lives, sustained through the study of music, literature, and languages, and other fields. For example, many women artists participated in scientific communities that informed their aesthetic interpretations of botanical imagery, such as the flower still lifes of Clara Peeters, Maria van Oosterwijck (fig. 5), Barbara Regina Dietzsch, and Rachel Ruysch as well as botanical illustration by Giovanna Garzoni, Maria Sibylla Merian, Alida Withoos, and Maria Moninckx. Ceramic production often involved collective workshops populated by numbers of unnamed women and girls who painted blanks or formed botanically accurate porcelain flowers (fig. 6). Widows running workshops, especially in the areas of silver, ceramics, and furniture production, is a topic ripe for further investigation. Book publishing, printmaking, and textile production relied on known and unknown women’s involvement, though some women had professional reputations that spanned the European continent as well as the trans-Atlantic world. The exhibition includes a dress made from fabric designed by the London Spitalfields textile designer Anna Maria Garthwaite (fig. 7). The popularity of her designs extended across the British empire, resulting in the use and re-use of her textiles by subsequent generations of North American colonist families.

Identifying and locating works for this exhibition often meant expanding beyond ingrained research methods, which largely did not allow for consideration of unexceptional women makers because their biographical information or an identified body of work—the data on which historians typically depend—are often absent. Further, the organizers had to examine their own internalized biases, which meant prioritizing works outside of the hallowed trifecta of large-scale painting, sculpture, and works on paper, and frequently operating without documented confirmation of a maker’s identity. Crafting a checklist for this exhibition meant not only questioning the team’s own preconceptions, but also sometimes convincing colleagues that objects in their collections could be the result of women’s work. Because many objects were not on view, in part due to their inherent fragility, the curatorial team spent significant time in storerooms and warehouses across the United States, in Canada, and in seven European countries. Despite their lack of recognition, very few of the works included in the exhibition were utterly new discoveries. Most had been published or were catalogued within the institutions that housed them, but they had not been on view for many years, or they had never been considered within the context of women’s creativity. The reason for this siloing effect has everything to do with their diverse materiality and the media hierarchy that has defined the display of objects in art museums according to the entrenched narrative of singular artistic genius.

The curators also learned that collaboration was the key to the project’s success. Embracing a diversity of media required seeking out colleagues and scholars who had expertise about specific cultures, materials, or subject matter beyond the curators’ existing areas of knowledge. The broader consulting team comprised 15 international women scholars and curators who generously provided recommendations for collections to mine, collectors to contact, and literature to consult; their collective expertise is reflected in the diversity of the checklist and the 26 essays in the exhibition catalogue. It was particularly satisfying to realize that this collaborative approach reflected the largely collective working methods of women artists of the past.

Fig. 7. Making Her Mark exhibition gallery with Gown, designed by Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763), 1726-28
Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Museum Purchase Accession #1951-150.1

Abandoning presumptions about what it meant to be a great artist and which kinds of objects qualify as worthy of display in a museum opened up a world of possibilities. Expanding beyond traditional curatorial priorities, this exhibition aims to meet these women makers on their own terms, discovering their contributions through works produced in settings adjacent to or entirely outside the male-dominated academy and studio. Rather than cling to highly gendered and exclusionary notions of quality or genius, this exhibition reflects a philosophy of inclusiveness and generosity. Instead of limiting our understanding of the past through the binary lens of who and what are worthy of being in or out the canon, this exhibition has shown the rich potential of approaching curatorial research with a “yes, and” attitude. In doing so, the curators presented a range of objects so that they may resonate with audiences through differing modes of emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic pleasure—reflecting the human spirit on multiple levels, as memorable and affecting art always has. In its pursuit to bring forward the stories of unexceptional women makers alongside that of recognized heroines, Making Her Mark has offered one way to reframe the history of Western art.

Andaleeb Badiee Banta is Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the Baltimore Museum of Art in Baltimore. She has been a member of CODART since 2013.