Feminist Art in U. S. began at csu, Fresno!

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Feminist Art in U.S. began at CSU, Fresno!

  • “The nation’s first feminist art education program took place at California State University, Fresno in California in 1970 when fifteen female students and instructor Judy Chicago helped pioneer key strategies of the early feminist art movement, including collaboration, the use of “female technologies” like costume, performance, and video, and early forms of media critique. Judy Chicago, with painter Miriam Schapiro, went on to found the feminist art program at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles, whose students created, in 1972, a month-long installation in an empty house, entitled Womanhouse.” Wikipedia “Feminist Art Movement”

  • Miriam Schapiro. Gates of Paradise, 1980.

Peg Brand “Feminism in Context” 1993, Brand is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Indiana University

Brand’s books

  • Beauty Revisited (forthcoming Indiana University Press)

  • articles in 100,000 Years of Beauty (Editions-Babylon, Paris 2009),

  • article in The Blackwell Guide to Feminist Philosophy (2007),

  • Editor Beauty Matters (Indiana University Press 2000),

  • Editor with Carolyn Korsmeyer Feminism and Tradition in Aesthetics (Penn State Press 1995),

Peg Brand work for Oct. 2010 show “Scientific Inquiry, Artistic Expression: IU School of Medicine Juried Art Exhibition
Values and Virtues

Stolnitz and Interpretive Criticism

  • Jerome Stolnitz in the 1950s argued that criticism (talk about art) can be used to give reasons for supporting value-judgments, to describe, to explain, or to clarify a work of art.

  • He commented on the need for interpretive criticism during the time of Abstract Expressionism, Abstract Formalism, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and the Minimalists.

  • Robert Rauschenberg

John Cage, “Williams Mix”, [composition for tape recorder] 1952

  • During that time interpretive criticism took on a life of its own.

  • However he could not have predicted, nor would he have approved of, contemporary critics’ emphasis on theory.

The Aesthetic Attitude

  • Stolnitz believed one perceives a work aesthetically while maintaining an aesthetic attitude, submissively enjoying the work of art for its own sake, without criticism.

  • The aesthetic experience then gives rise to evaluative statements like “This is a good work of art.”

  • For Stolnitz, only after giving up the aesthetic attitude can the viewer adopt a critical attitude towards the work, to probe and analyze it.

  • What is interesting [for Brand] is the interaction of aesthetic valuing and the activity of providing reasons for these values.

Critique of Stolnitz

  • Stolnitz however seems inconsistent when he says both that criticism can enhance the appreciation of a work of art and that criticism is irrelevant to appreciation.

  • He thought that criticism must illuminate our understanding of the work of art and provide criteria of evaluation.

  • Some forms of criticism might emphasize the origins of the work (contextual criticism), others the effects, and others the structure.

Stolnitz on Contextual Criticism

  • Stolnitz thought that contextual criticism, such as Marxist and Freudian criticism, which focus on social, historical and psychological context, can sometimes be useful in interpretation.

  • But it is highly suspect because it can swamp and distort aesthetic evaluation since it fails to attend to purely artistic elements.

  • [Stolnitz is in the tradition of Clive Bell’s formalism here]

Stolnitz: Contextual interpretation not good for evaluation

  • He thought that contextual criticism fails to provide criteria of evaluation, and improperly moves into evaluation.

  • These judgments are moral, not aesthetic.

  • They wrongly transform concepts used to describe a work into ones used to judge it.

  • So Stolnitz was really only claiming that some forms of criticism enhance aesthetic appreciation.

Stolnitz: moral and aesthetic judgment are separate!

  • He believed that only non-contextual criticism is acceptable as evaluative criticism.

  • He thought that only internal data [things you could observe just by looking at the work of art] may be used for aesthetic judgments.

  • From his argument [which Brand analyzes in more detail] he concludes that only aesthetic judgments determine aesthetic value.

“Context” defined

  • Stolnitz “The ‘context’ of the work of art includes the circumstances in which the work originated, its effects upon society, and, in general, all the relations and interactions of the work with other things, apart from its aesthetic life.”

  • Contextual criticism excludes the intrinsic, internal, purely aesthetic considerations.

  • The aesthetic experience under the aesthetic attitude causes us to appreciate the object in isolation.

Monroe Beardsley on isolationists vs. contextualists

  • Monroe Beardsley [an aesthetician important in the 1960s-80s], like Stolnitz, [and Bell] distinguished the isolationist, who believes that to appreciate art we need only experience it, from the contextualist, who stresses how historical context makes the art experience richer.

  • For Beardsley, moral judgments are only side effects and are irrelevant to aesthetic experience.

Aestheticism vs. Moralism

  • He thought contextual data is irrelevant to aesthetic value.

  • Brand uses Feminist theory (a contextualist theory) to argue against the claim that “only aesthetic judgments determine aesthetic value.”

  • Beardsley himself rejected Aestheticism as a fanatical reaction of those who forget that human products must find their value in the “whole context of human life.”


  • Moralism is the view in which aesthetic objects are judged solely or chiefly with respect to moral standards.

  • Argument from Reduction: all critical evaluation is reduced to moral evaluation.

  • Argument from Correlation: grants there is a separate form of aesthetic value, but makes it dependent upon or correlated with moral value: a work of low moral value is a work of low aesthetic value, e.g. pornography.

  • If the argument from correlation is plausible then possibly contextual factors that determine so-called moral value are relevant in assessing the aesthetic value of a work of art.

First phase of feminist theory.

  • In the first phase of feminist theorizing about the arts feminists sought to recapture the past by exposing denigrating stereotypes of women in works by males, and

  • “gynocritics” focused on discovering female authors and artists previously excluded from the canon, and finding commonalities in female culture in artistic modes.

course blog for GWSS 3307: Feminist Film/Media Studies, in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, Fall 2007. [author unknown…accessed May 12, 2010]

  • “It can be assumed that the woman is unbothered by the presence of the domineering man. This shows how it’s supposed to be ok for a woman to be the subordinate to the man. The man is holding a bottle of Skyy in one hand and two glasses in the other. It looks as though he is clenching the objects in his hand and it can be inferred that the woman below him has no choice but to have drinks with him. This shows dominance as being sexy, and that women have no authority over the men. In terms of the woman she is thin with full breasts, and presents the idea that women should live up to this standard to be attractive to men.”

Susanna and the Elders;
Jacopo TINTORETTO; 1555 oil on canvas; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Re-discovered female artists…

  • Judith Leyster’s Self-portrait (c. 1630, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, 29 3/8 x 25 5/8 in.).

Questioning Universal Criteria

  • Questioning the dominating ideology of “Great Masters” led feminists to question how universal and objective criteria of aesthetic value could yield such a biased set of paradigms.

Present phase of feminism.

  • The present phase of feminism shows interest in metacriticism (theory about criticism) and metatheory (theory about theory).

  • It seeks to construct an alternative to dominating male criteria for interpreting and evaluating art.

  • When this involves rejecting the greatest masterpieces of all time the notion of aesthetic value itself is at stake.

What is feminist theory?

  • Many say that feminism is untheorizable: that there can be no definition of it.

  • The very idea of defining something is thought to be phallocentric [Focused on or concerned with the phallus or penis as a symbol of male dominance. Centered on men or on a male viewpoint, especially one held to entail the domination of women by men.]

  • But feminists do try to characterize the feminist framework for interpreting and judging works of art. [So they do theorize!]

Guiding Principles of Feminism

  • Janet Richards, 1980, writes that a feminist is committed to participation in consciousness-raising groups, non-hierarchical organization, the inherent equality of the sexes, and the idea that the enslavement of women is the root of all oppression.

  • Brand says a feminist seeks to undo wrongs of previous oppression [esp. of women, I assume] and prevent similar occurrences from happening in the future.

Is feminist theory or feminist art propaganda?

  • Works of art can be an expressive and effective means of actively communicating [feminist] principles.

  • Feminism not only advances a world view but prescribes a way of life: it is an ideology [“body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture”]

  • Although some art created by feminists has been labeled “propaganda” this need not be negative, for “propaganda” simply means propagation of ideas.

Propaganda as defined by dictionary.com [accessed 5/12/10]

  • 1. information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.

  • 2. the deliberate spreading of such information, rumors, etc.

  • 3. the particular doctrines or principles propagated by an organization or movement.

  • [It was not originally pejorative.]

Nancy Spero, We are Pro-Choice, silkscreen, 1992

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979

  • Yolanda López

  • “Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe”

  • 1978

  • Yolanda López

  • “The Virgin of Guadalupe” or “A Woman’s Work is Never Done”

  • 1978?

  • Yolanda López

  • Who’s the Illegal Alien Pilgrim?

  • Poster

  • published by Galeria de la Raza, 1994,

Guerilla Girls

Wikipedia article on Guerilla Girls accessed May 12, 2009

  • “The Guerrilla Girls began in 1985, after a few women attended an exhibition titled “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture” held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and discovered that only 13 of the 169 featured artists were women. The ratio of artists of color were even smaller, none of whom were women artists either.

One of their most famous posters was plastered across New York City buses in 1989

  • Its headline read, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?" The Guerrilla Girls conducted a "weenie count" at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, counting naked males and naked females in the artworks as well as numbers of female artists in the collection. Less than 5% of the artists in the Met's modern art sections were women, but 85% of the nudes were female. Their design was rejected by The Public Art Fund as a billboard so the Guerrilla Girls ran it as an ad in the public buses in New York City.”

1985 guerrillagirls.com

Guerilla Girls 1985


  • Guerilla Girls
    by Virginia Butler
    Published Sep 24, 2004  

guerrillagirls.com 2007

  • 2008


  • Mary Kelly
    “Post-Partum Document: Documentation I
    Analysed faecal stains and feeding charts (prototype),”

  • 1974 (detail)
    Perspex unit, white card,

  • diaper linings, plastic
    sheeting, paper, ink
    1 of the 7 units, 28 x 35,5 cm
    Collection Generali Foundation, Vienna

  • Mary Kelly
    Post-Partum Document: Documentation IV
    Transitional Objects, Diary and Diagram, 1976
    Perspex unit, white card, body/hand imprint in clay,
    Plaster of Paris, cotton fabric, string

Feminist theory as prescriptive.

  • Feminist theory, as descriptive, is like any other theory. [It is either right or wrong.]

  • But as prescriptive, it is not confirmable. It is either practiced or not.

  • “The personal is the political” means that there is no nonpolitical, unbiased perspective [in art]. This is the Principle of Nonneutrality.

  • [Beardsley defines this principle as “judges all behavior with respect to a single goal…aesthetic objects cannot be politically neutral”]

Feminist Goal

  • The single goal for feminists might be a nonsexist, egalitarian, nonhierarchical society.

Rejection of Isolationism.

  • Giselda Ecker says that all investigations into art have to be thoroughly genderised : the sex of artist and critic has to be taken into account.

  • Brand argues that an isolationist approach to art not only ludicrous but pernicious: the work of art can never be “objectively” created, interpreted or evaluated.


Contra Stolnitz and Beardsley, knowledge of external, contextual data is relevant to aesthetic value of a work of art, and gender is one aspect of contextual theories that needs to be investigated, and so feminist theory is an essential part of aesthetic inquiry.

Linda Nochlin, “Why are There No Great Women Artists?” ArtNews 1971

  • Dr. Linda Nochlin is currently the Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at the Institute of Fine Arts/New York University.

Some of her books

  • Women, Art, and Power: And Other Essays (1988),

  • The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society (1989),

  • Women in the 19th Century: Categories and Contradictions (1997),

  • Representing Women (1999).

  • Courbet (2007)

She has also co-curated art shows

  • 1976 — "Women Artists: 1550-1950" (with Anne Sutherland Harris) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

  • 2007 — "Global Feminisms" (with Maura Reilly) at the Brooklyn Museum.

“Why are there no great women artists?”

  • It has been argued that this is because women are incapable of greatness. [Nochlin does not accept this.]

  • The feminist first reaction was to attempt to answer the question as put: dig up examples of worthy women in history, e.g. Berthe Morisot, Angelica Kauffman, Artemisia Gentileschi.

  • But this did nothing to question the assumptions lying behind the question.

Berthe Morisot. On the Balcony. c. 1871-72.

Angelica Kauffmann “Virgil Writing His Own Epitaph” (1785)

  • Artemisia Gentileschi,

  • Judith and Holofernes, c. 1614-1620

  • Caravaggio Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-99).

Another option: accusing the questioner of using “male” standards as a criteria for greatness

  • This would involve claiming that there is a different kind of greatness for women’s art.

  • This depends on the notion of a distinctive and recognizable feminine or feminist style.

  • Unfortunately there is no such style: no subtle essence of femininity in the historically known women artists, any more than in the known women writers.

  • It might be argued that women are more inward-looking, more delicate, while men are the opposite.

  • But male artists like Redon and Fragonard seem to refute this, as well as such female artists as Rosa Bonheur and Helen Frankenthaler.

  • Odilon Redon

  • “The Birth of Venus”

  • 1912

Next Two Paintings by a male and a female

  • Fragonard, “The Swing,” 1766.

  • Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842) “Self Portrait in a Large Hat” after 1782.

The Horse Fair, 1853–55
Rosa Bonheur (French, 1822–1899)

Frankenthaler, Helen “Mountains and Sea,” 1952

Mary Cassatt, “The Boating Party” 1893-4

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Gabrielle with Renoir's Children. 1892-1894. Pastel on paper

Misconception of what art is.

  • The problem is with a misconception of what art is, with the naïve idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms. [Collingwood’s view.]

  • Great art is never that.

  • The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form, involving temporally defined conventions which have to be learned or worked out, and must be embodied in some material.

Questioning the question

  • It is a fact that there are no great women artists, e.g. equivalent to Michelangelo. 1508-1512. The Creation of Adam.

  • But the question “Why are there no great women artists?” is based on shaky received ideas about the nature of art and the role of the social order in human excellence.

The question makes uncritical assumptions about the making of art and of great art.

  • It links artists under the title “Great Artist” as one who has genius.

  • Genius is here seen as an atemporal and mysterious power embedded in the Great Artist.

  • So the question of the conditions generally productive of great art is rarely investigated.

Art historians avoid sociology.

  • Yet a sociological approach would reveal the entire romantic, elitist, individual- glorifying substructure upon which professional art history is based.

  • Underneath the question is the myth of the unique, godlike subject of a hundred monographs, bearing the mysterious essence, the golden nugget, called genius.

This concept of the magical aura of genius gave birth to myths.

  • For example there is the myth of the boy wonder discovered in pastoral circumstances.

  • Picasso was such an example. [ Yet we learn that “From the age of seven, Picasso received formal artistic training from his father in figure drawing and oil painting.” Wikipedia“Pablo Picasso” accessed 5/9/09]

  • But what if Picasso had been born a girl?

  • Pablo Picasso, First Communion, 1895-6, Museu Picasso, Barcelona.

  • Picasso completed this painting when he was fifteen years old.

Vincent Van Gogh
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

  • Stressed in these stories is the apparently miraculous, non-determined, and asocial nature of artistic achievement.

  • Mad Van Gogh is an example.

Art History Assumptions

  • The art history monograph accepts the notion of the Great Artist as primary, and the social and institutional forces as secondary influences.

The Argument Nochlin Opposes

  • If women had the golden nugget of artistic genius, then it would reveal itself,

  • but it never revealed itself,

  • thus women do not have the golden nugget.

Look at the actual situation of production!

  • But look at the actual situations in which important art has been produced.

  • For example, transmission from father to son was a matter of course.

  • Ask “from what social classes etc. artists were most likely to come at different periods of art history?”

Why no great aristocrat artists?

  • Why have there been no great artists from aristocracy, even though they provided most of the patronage and audience for art, and even though, like [middle-class] women, they had leisure and other advantages?

  • It is not because they were missing the golden nugget of genius but because the demands placed on them, as well as on women, made total devotion to art unthinkable.

The Development of the Child Artist

  • We also need to see the development of reason and imagination in young children as a dynamic activity rather than a static essence: it happens in a situation.

  • The characteristics of impressive child artists may only appear to be innate.

  • Scholars will have to abandon the notion of individual genius as innate.


  • Art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker, and the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occurs in a social situation, and mediated by social institutions, including mythologies of the divine creator.

Georgia O’Keefe, “Red, White and Blue” 1931

Sophie Taeuber-Arp. (Swiss, 1889-1943). Dada Head. 1920.

Martha Rosler, Gladiators, 2004


  • 2006 — "'Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?' Thirty Years After" in Women Artists at the Millennium, edited by Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Interview “Linda Nochlin on the many faces of contemporary feminist art”
Art News by Barbara A. MacAdam Feb. 2007

  • BAM: Your 1971 article is a comprehensive, very eloquent assessment of the state of women’s art at the time. Where do you believe feminism stands today?

  • LN: I think we’ve made a lot of progress. I know it’s not fashionable to admit it, but I’m just stating a fact. I think women artists occupy a better position today than they did 30 or 35 years ago. Some of the best artists in every medium are women. The problem is to make collectors, museums, and curators who aren’t really up on things see that there are many great women artists. There are collectors and curators who—out of habit, laziness, or even misogyny—simply don’t bother with women.

  • But that’s happening less and less frequently as women begin to occupy the most prominent places in the art world as creative artists. I mean, who wouldn’t think of collecting Louise Bourgeois? You’d be crazy if you didn’t. Or if you were interested in video artists, you’d be foolish not to consider the videos of Sam Taylor-Wood or Pipilotti Rist, not to speak of women working in various media from other parts of the world— Shahzia Sikander, for example, or Ghada Amer, or some of the Latin American women, or the Japanese. They are major figures. They’re the ones who are doing the most interesting and challenging work. It isn’t that people have to be charitable toward women in general or to people of other ethnicities, as they often were in the past.

Louise Bourgeois 1911- Maman, 1999, London

Louise Bourgeois “Blooming Janus”

  • Louise Bourgeois, Spiral Woman , 2003, fabric, hanging piece, 175.2 x 35.5 x 34.2 cm., Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

Louise Bourgeois, Arched Figure , 1999, pink fabric, mirror, wood and glass, 190.5 x 152.4 x 99cm, Photo: Peter Bellamy

Bram Stoker's Chair VI, 2005
C-print. Image size: 48 x 38 in. (121.9 x 96.5 cm).
by: Sam Taylor-Wood

  • Shahzia Sikander

  • "Fleshy Weapons“

  • 1997Acrylic, dry pigment watercolor, tea wash on linen, 96 x 70 inches

  • Next page: “Pleasure Pillars,” 2001.

Eva Hesse
Untitled (Rope Piece)

Eva Hesse. Metronomic Irregularity I, 1966.

Anne Eaton “Painting and Ethics” originally published in 2004

The value of a painting.

  • There are several ways in which paintings can be valuable: economically, historically, and simply as works of art.

  • What is this last value and how is it related to other kinds of value?

  • Can a painting be worse artistically because it is ethically flawed, or better for its ethical merits?

  • Can a painting be the object of ethical judgment at all? After all, paintings are inanimate objects, like toasters.

  • We might think of Hitler’s watercolors: but the ethical judgment here regards the painter, not the painting.

Hitler watercolor 1910

Adolf Hitler watercolors 1914-17?

Karl's Church in Winter - Watercolor painting by Adolf Hitler

Hitler, watercolor of ruins 1919

Another way we might see a painting as unethical.

  • Paintings could be produced in unjust conditions: painting with the blood of a murder victim for example.

  • But such a painting is not itself unethical. The nature of the act does not tell us anything about the ethical value of the product.

  • The painting and the act that produced it are ontologically distinct [i.e. they are different types of things].

Representational Paintings [and photographs]

  • Unlike other inanimate objects representational paintings can depict actions which may be ethically judged.

  • Senator Helms indicted Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs.

  • But such judgments are aimed at the things represented, not the representation.

  • Picasso’s Guernica depicts an immoral act, but that does not make the painting itself unethical.

Robert Mapplethorpe self-portrait, 1980

Picasso Guernica, 1937

  • One view is that a painting is ethically good if it produces good actions and bad if it promotes bad ones.

  • Titian’s Rape of Europa shows Jupiter as a bull dragging Europa off for sex.

  • Imagine it encouraged its audience to having erotic feelings towards rape and even incited some rapes.

Titian, Rape of Europa 1559-62


  • If so, a consequentialist [an ethical theorist who says that one must determine whether an act is ethical based on the consequences] would say that it was an unethical painting.

  • But it is unlikely the painting would turn a virtuous person into a rapist.

What the Painting Invites

  • Even if a consequentialist could handle this problem the question remains whether the rape is the result of correct interpretation of the painting.

  • Many paintings have complex and sometime contradictory meanings.

  • Only when the audience’s unethical response is appropriate is the painting to be judged unethical.

  • Perhaps it is the response the painting invites [encourages] that makes it immoral.

Both the Picasso and the Titian depict an act of cruelty.

  • One must consider how the events are depicted: what attitude does the painting take to the event depicted.

  • Picasso’s painting condemns the bombing it depicts, whereas Titian’s painting celebrates and eroticizes Jupiter’s sexual act.

  • These are the responses required by proper engagement with the paintings. [?]

How does the Titian painting celebrate the event?

  • Learning to look at paintings involves coming to see how the subject matter is presented.

  • One learns to see the formal elements and how they gain an emotional character: one learns how to respond to the elements in the right way.

Titian’s painting

  • Europa’s firm grip on the bull’s phallic horn

  • folds of wet drapery evoking genitalia

  • these erogenous elements are along the strongest diagonal

  • the two cherubs stare at her crotch

  • glowing colors of sunrise lend to celebratory air

  • thus the painting aims to kindle the viewer’s carnal appetites

Picasso’s painting

  • flat, austere landscape the is colorless and stark

  • joyless world with jagged edges

  • mood of disorder, confusion, turmoil

  • figures suggest extreme suffering

  • painting aims to disturb and unsettle

  • In each the solicitation of responses derives from formal and content features of the paintings themselves.

Do these ethical features bear on the paintings’ artistic value?

  • separatism: ethical and artistic values are distinct

  • But such a rigid separation does not always work.

  • moralism: an artwork is artistically excellent insofar as it is ethically good [Brand?]

  • But this ignores artistic value altogether.

Eaton’s Own View

  • ethicism: a painting can be artistically improved or diminished by its ethical properties [this is Eaton’s view]

Both paintings we have discussed call for a certain response.

  • In the Titian case the artistically relevant response is one we ought not have and in the Picasso case it is one we ought to have.

  • Ultimately, assessment must rest on scrupulous attention to visual details.

Ovid Metamorphosis 8 A.D.

  • And gradually she lost her fear, and he

  • Offered his breast for her virgin caresses,

  • His horns for her to wind with chains of flowers

  • Until the princess dared to mount his back

  • Her pet bull's back, unwitting whom she rode.

  • Then — slowly, slowly down the broad, dry beach —

  • First in the shallow waves the great god set

  • His spurious hooves, then sauntered further out

  • 'til in the open sea he bore his prize

  • Fear filled her heart as, gazing back, she saw

  • The fast receding sands. Her right hand grasped

  • A horn, the other lent upon his back

  • Her fluttering tunic floated in the breeze.

  • Europa and the Bull

  • Red-Figure Stamnos,

  • Tarquinia Museum, 480 BC

Mosaic, Roman period? Beirut National Museum

Pompeii, Europa and the Bull, fresco, 1st century CE

The Abduction of Europa by Rembrandt, 1632

  • The Rape of Europa, Noël-Nicolas Coypel, 1726-27.

The Abduction of Europa by Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre, 1750.

Titian: Diana and Actaeon, 1556–1559

Titian, "Diana and Callisto"

Andrew Butterfield “Titian and the Rebirth of Tragedy” New York Review of Books, Dec. 23, 2010.

  • Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto are two from a suite of six mythological paintings that Titian executed for Philip II between about 1551 and 1562. The other canvases in the series, which Titian called poesie (Italian for poems or poetry), are Danaë (the version now in the Prado), Venus and Adonis (Prado), Perseus and Andromeda, (Wallace Collection, London), and The Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

  • All the poesie paintings are approximately six by seven feet, with the exception of the first work in the series, Danaë, which is somewhat smaller than the others. It is clear from the letters between Titian and Philip II that the painter imagined the poesie hanging together in one room, although at the time he was making the pictures a specific setting had not been selected for them. Philip II traveled regularly between his residences, as was the custom with Hapsburg royalty, and the paintings did not have a permanent home before 1623, when they were installed in the Alácazar palace in Madrid.

  • At the left in the painting, the nymphs surround Callisto and rip her clothes from her body. The complexity of Titian’s depiction of the women is notable. The nymphs are beautiful and yet terrifying in the avidity with which they pounce on their victim, who moments before had been their companion. In his translation Dolce contrasts the fearful solitude of Callisto with the happiness of the “beautiful elect band” formed by Diana’s nymphs; this contrast does not appear in Ovid’s original text.

  • Titian, too, wants us to feel Callisto’s abandonment and isolation; he shows her isolated and alone in her suffering. In contrast to the elegant coiffures of the other nymphs, her hair is disheveled and unbound, a common sign of rape in classical literature. Callisto’s sweaty face is in shadow, and yet her gravid abdomen is in light, intensifying the sense of exposure. She looks up to heaven, and her eyes glisten with tears. In both Ovid’s poem and Dolce’s translation, she pleads with the gods for mercy, and when this is denied, she curses Jove for his evil. In Ovid, no longer able to speak, Callisto woefully raises her arms to express her anger; but Dolce adds that she also glances up to heaven with pitiful and terror-stricken eyes. Likewise, Titian wants the viewer to empathize with Callisto in her sorrow and desperation.

  • See also A. W. Eaton “Where Ethics and Aesthetics Meet: Titian's Rape of Europa.” Hypatia, Vol. 18, No. 4, Women, Art, and Aesthetics (Autumn - Winter, 2003), pp. 159 -188.

  • For much more detail on this painting see Titian’s Rape of Europa (1559-1562), The Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, Boston, by Dr. Frances Van Keuren, University of Georgia http://wps.prenhall.com/hss_wilkins_artpstpres_5/22/5833/1493345.cw/content/index.html#textual accessed May 12, 2011

  • Here’s another feminist take on the painting: Diane Wolfthal, Images of Rape: The "Heroic" Tradition and its Alternatives http://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/ARTH200/Heroic_Rape.html accessed May 12, 2011

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