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Countering Male Art History, Madrid’s Prado Devotes Show to Female Renaissance Trailblazers

The exhibition of Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana fits into museums’s interest in revisiting overlooked female artists

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, 1556. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, 1556. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, 1556. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The Prado Museum in Madrid will celebrate its bicentenary next year by devoting an exhibition to the female Renaissance artists Sofonisba Anguissola, a painter in the court of King Phillip II of Spain, and Lavinia Fontana, generally recognized as the first professional female artist, in an effort to counter centuries of male-dominated art history.

Opening in October 2019, the exhibition will be a landmark moment in the museum’s history, which only dedicated a show to a female artist two years ago (an exhibition of the Flemish still life artist Clara Peeters), Artnet News reports. Museums in Europe have been behind the curve in collecting artworks by Anguissola and Fontana, so the Prado will be relying on extensive loans from US institutions. The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, has confirmed the loan of Fontana’s Portrait of a Noblewoman (c.1580) and Portrait of Costanza Alidosi (c.1594).

Susan Fisher Sterling, director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, told Artnet: ‘The women artists who excelled during the early modern period generally did so against great odds […] Changing the entrenched narrative is an arduous task but one that will gain momentum as more institutions collect and exhibit art by women.’

The Prado exhibition comes at a time when some of the world's best known museums are revisiting overlooked female artists and challenging the display of a male-centred canon. Earlier this year, London’s National Gallery made headlines with its record USD$4.6 million purchase of Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine (c.1615–17) by the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi – a work which some critics have read as an allusion to the painter’s own experience of sexual violence, and ensuing trial in which she was tortured.

Next year will also see London’s Royal Academy launch an exhibition, ‘The Renaissance Nude’, which aims at gender parity in its display of naked men and women. Exploring the ‘idea and ideal’ of the nude from 1400 to 1530, the show will open in March 2019. It will be the first time that the institution has imposed a gender quota on its exhibition-making.

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