Andrea Del Sarto Study of the Head of a Young Woman (detail) about 1523 red chalk on paper
My husband and I were lucky enough to go see the Getty Center's new show Andrea Del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action. It is a beautiful show, full of wonders of the hand and spirit. His drawings are small, confidant yet delicate, and astonishingly full of feeling. What struck me most, walking through the show twice trying to absorb all the beauty, was his tenderness and respect for his subjects, something I usually associate most with Rembrandt. Yet his paintings were more DaVinci like, with soft sfumato edges and gentle chiaroscuro, but far more vibrantly colored. Unusually, there is an unfinished painting on display, a heavily worked, half-done, very large painting of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. The angel is a cherub, a symbol of innocence in a moment that takes away Isaac's innocence forever. Isaac's face is ambiguous, maybe even ambivalent, as he kneels below his father's outstretched hand. The image is agitated, violence barely averted. My husband remarked that Catholic painters had to be interpreters of the scriptures, theologians as well as painters.
While it was interesting to see Del Sarto's working drawings and how they were used, sometimes repeatedly, in his paintings, I enjoyed his portraits most of all. The drawings of a woman which the writer of the wall-texts speculated was likely his wife Lucrezia had such tenderness, respect, and thoughtfulness that they almost glowed. You had the sense looking at them that here was a woman respected and loved. The oil portrait of a young man with lavender-grey sleeves was similarly remarkable for the directness of his gaze, the beauty of his expression and the mutual regard the viewer gets to share with the painting, looking and being looked at, a glimpse forever shared. There was also an exquisite and moody drawing of a young boy with ruffled hair in the same room, a study for a painting of a youthful Saint John the baptist, also on display. Del Sarto's use of chalk is really wonderful, how he could vary between softly blended shadows, hatchwork, and all kinds of varied lines to describe the contours of the face, the tendrils of hair. His range of emotion is wonderful, too, from astonishment to wariness to introspection to warmth and liveliness. He often didn't draw pupils in the eyes of his subjects, which gave them a dreamy other-worldliness, a look of reflection.
Speaking now of a different kind of reflection, on the state of art today, this morning I read Ben Davis' 'Why are There Still so Few Successful Female Artists?' and Mira Schor's response 'Just a Short Message From Venus.' It made me think of the recent headlines about Meryl Streep sending a letter and a book about equality to each member of Congress encouraging them to revive the Equal Rights Amendment. It shocked me a year ago to read a book on feminism and realize that there is no language in our constitution ensuring the equality of women in this nation. This despite Abigail Adams' passionate letter in March of 1776 to her husband to "remember the ladies" as he helped write the constitution. She warned him "all men would be tyrants if they could." After the initial shock began to pass into wonder, I found myself thinking how could half of America not count enough to have a few words added on their behalf? But somehow women are still overlooked, living a half-invisible life. How sad that it is not in our history books that while the Equal Rights Amendment was first written in the 1920s and passed in 1972, progress was halted in 1982 because it was three states short of the minimum needed to add it to the constitution. And here we are in 2015, still missing those crucial few words that recognize a self evident fact that all humans are created equal, all men, all women, all children, no matter what gender, age, race, sexual orientation, or belief, everyone is equal before God and should be equal before the law. Perhaps we need to re-read Abigail Adams' letter, and again warn the world that if "particular care and attention are not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion."
Perhaps we also need to look at more humanist art, to learn to look at others with respect and tenderness, alive to the nuances of individuality that Andrea Del Sarto so beautifully recorded in his drawings and paintings. I sincerely believe that art teaches us how to look, and that to look at the world (and other people) with more attention leads to greater appreciation and care for what we regard.
Pomegranates colored pencil on bristol 2015
Bougainvillea colored pencil on bristol 2015
Winter into Spring (Orange Tree) colored pencil on bristol 2015
I finished a trio of drawings that will eventually hang in an office that is above the 60th floor in Los Angeles' tallest tower. Leaves and flowers and fruits to hang up among the clouds. A piece of the ground far up in the air.
Yesterday I read Maura Reilly's Art News article on gender disparity in the art world. It wasn't surprising after recently seeing the Guerrilla Girls show and hearing two members of the group lecture at Pomona College Museum of Art, but it was disheartening. Half of the world are women, and yet only 30% of art shown in public institutions is made by women. It makes for a culture that is incomplete and out of balance, missing the different perspectives that come with different experience: whether that is the experience that comes from being a woman, of a non-white or mixed ethnic background, of non-heterosexual orientation, having a physical or mental disability or disease, or anything else that makes one's experience unique, distinct, unusual, an important addition to the full story of what it is to be human.
Here is a small selection of my favorite (representational) painters who are also women.
Gwen John The Convalescent oil on canvas 1923-1924
Christiane Pflug Kitchen Door with Ursula oil on canvas 1960
Louise Moillon Still Life with Cherries, Strawberries and Gooseberries oil on panel 1630
Rachel Ruysch Nosegay on a Marble Plinth oil on canvas 1695
Fede Galizia Still Life with Apples and Peaches oil on canvas 1607
Sofonisba Anguissola The Chess Game oil on canvas 1555
Clara Peeters Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke and Cherries oil on panel 1625
Frida Kahlo Tunas: Still Life with Prickly Pear Fruit oil on panel 1938
Georgia O'Keefe Oriental Poppies oil on canvas 1928
Joan Brown Self-Portrait oil on canvas 1970
Suzanne Valadon the Blue Room oil on canvas 1923
Alice Neel Hartley oil on canvas 1965
Mary Cassat Young Woman Sewing in the Garden oil on canvas 1880-1882
Berthe Morisot Summer oil on canvas 1880
Paula Modersohn-Becker Self Portrait oil on panel 1907
Jane Frielicher In Broad Daylight oil on canvas 1979
Meria Sibylla Merian two botanical watercolor paintings about 1665