I attended an Oxford lecture almost exactly two years ago titled “Gendering Art and Its Histories.” As I go about my Fulbright research now—on a topic that is very clearly related to gender in (South Asian) art, I still find myself thinking about that very lecture and how art history as a discipline is male-dominated and male-centric.
Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects is considered the first major art historical work to have been written. Focused on the Renaissance masters—with a special preference given to Florentine artists—Vasari talks in detail about Michelangelo, Donatello, and other greats. In his text, Vasari does mention some women artists—but they certainly are an exception. After Vasari—and until perhaps even the 1980s—most one-volume histories of art excluded women artists. Isn’t it interesting how the phrase “Old Master” has no feminine equivalent? “Old Mistress” has a completely different connotation.
In the West, to achieve artistic greatness one traditionally had to meet these three requirements: go to art school or apprentice under an “Old Master,” come from an artist family, and be male. Many biographies write of great male artists as child prodigies—indeed it is because most Renaissance-era artists grew up in artist families and had exposure to materials and guidance, that they were able to find their niche and continue creating artworks. Art-school curriculum also favored men, though surreptitiously. To become a great artist, one needed to master the nude male form, something considered obscene for a woman’s eyes.
Some women—especially of noble families—learned how to paint and engaged in other creative endeavors—for instance needlepoint. However, their art is generally seen as a hobby, not something serious worth studying. And with threadwork and embroidery, the object’s functional purpose categorizes it as a “low art,” the domain of anthropologists, not art historians.
I am glad that art history has changed in the decades since—we now discuss women artists, women patrons, and acknowledge the male gaze—a theory that suggests that visual art is inherently created for male consumption—objectifies women.
However, this is easier said than done—especially in South Asia, when historically, artists rarely signed paintings as they were court-commissioned, not individually patronized. Furthermore, most pieces were collective works, created by a guild or group of artists. Because of this practice, we associate paintings with the ruler; considering the dearth of women rulers, this leaves art historians with little choice but to focus on men.
Luckily, while studying modern and contemporary art, we have the chance to be more balanced in our approach and consider the works of talented women such as post-impressionist Amrita Shergil, and more recent artists such as Meera Mukherjee and Arpita Singh. I hope too to add to this growing narrative and movement and give women the import they deserve in our histories and collective consciousness.