Historic Context

Historic women artist visibility

As Katy Hessel writes in her book “Art history without men”: “Still life painting was also considered a suitable genre for upper-class women” (45), women were not only restricted access to the workshop (Evans) but if they had access restrictions also applied to the subject (Myers).

She continues; “it didn’t pose a threat to male artists, who no doubt liked to guard ‘great and ‘intellectual’ subjects (mythological, religious, nor did it require a knowledge of human anatomy)” (45); all to not risk the dominant position of men over women. And being denied formal education women were left to the mercy of their male family artists for material and education (17).

Hessel further elaborates; “moreover the objects were easily accessible from the home. Paintings of flowers and edible goods” (45). The stories of “The women of the Rijksmuseum” show that women in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century already impressed by their work done, both artistic and other, but often remained unacknowledged because of the subjects of their art being less public (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, The Women of the Rijksmuseum).  I believe these women artists show great stamina with all these obstacles in creating art. For my design I take the still life flowers as a source of inspiration, making a link to the historically important subject of women in art.

Next to that Hessel mentions the morality sprinkled on top of these precarious homily subjects; “– to remind the viewer of their own mortality; the fragility and temporality of life; the worthlessness of material goods in the eyes of God.” The subject stresses the unimportance of their work, comparable to the fragility of the art material they use. It is in these subjects though that women excel and make a great impression, yet often not acknowledged at it worth and misattributed to men (45).

Despite sparse education and a limited field of subject matters compared to male counterparts, some women found their place in art history and played a crucial role in promoting gender equality (Evans)(Hessel)(Honig). One of which excelled in flower paintings and was acknowledged as great painter, even during her lifetime, is Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750).  Her flower paintings for example, were highly respected and often sold for more in her lifetime than Rembrandt’s (1606 – 1669) did in his (Hessel 45).  And Ruysch was not the only women whose work sold for more than that of Rembrandt, so did papercut artist Koerten (1650-1715) (Soth). A strikingly painful example of structural exclusion is the fact that despite this appreciation for their work during their lifetime, the work of Ruysch was only added to the Gallery of Honour at the Rijksmuseum in 2021 (Rijksmuseum, Rijksmuseum presents),(Breda) in the museum’s challenge to right historic exclusion.  I use the flower to make a recognizable link to art history and support my storytelling, as I learned from my interview with art criticus Catherina Somze.

Rachel Ruysch – Still Life with Flowers on a Marble Tabletop – (Ruysch)

Throughout my research I noticed hardly anyone I talked to knows who Ruysch is and if they recognized her highly marketed paintings, and often even owned some of the merchandise, they could not name the artist. I cannot imagine something similar would happen to Rembrandt, van Gogh or Vermeer’s most iconic work. If this happens to one of the greatest Dutch women artists of the last centuries, I can only dread what that means for contemporary women artists.

At the Rijksmuseum symposium “Women in Art” women curators told they realized only in retrospect that they have unconsciously favored work by men for their collections or assigned them a higher value. Philippien Noordam, art curator from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs mentions during an interview that until now she had never considered looking at the gender of the artist. In her next large refurbishment of the government offices in Brussel she will take it into consideration to have a societal representation in the artists displayed.

Beside the unlearning of bias, the background, and references of the decision makers themselves can support in changing the systematic favoring of men and changing the power balance in the industry, addressing systematic discrimination within art institutions (Tiel).

With art history dominantly talking about male artists a strong bias found its way into their decision-making (Hessel)(Rijksmuseum, Symposium)(Powell). In a conversation with an intern at a smaller gallery, he mentions that looking at his experiences if might be that the history of men leading the art industry has found its way into what is called intuition, because he does not believe that men display more potential in the art making (Labega). Even between art institutions the decision making might be based on different objectives. At the Dutch government for example it revolves around conversation pieces (Noordam), while smaller galleries rely on the sales for income, giving stability in income a higher importance while curating (Labega). Creating increased awareness about the historic impact can unravel these embedded patterns and make it possible to engage in active decision-making to change the situation.

Up until today these beliefs are embedded in society and reflected in the value assigned to the work of contemporary women artists (Heithuis). I want to create work that invites to consider the presence of the historic pattern of structural exclusion on women artists into the contemporary artistic landscape.

Fragile Materials

We established that the current difference in representation between men and women artists is rooted in historic exclusion. An, all-male, panel at the Rijksmuseum symposium recognized that quality of the work was not denied but the amount of work was used as an excuse not to create a worthy exhibition offered to other Dutch male artists.

For a repository of a historic male artists no costs seemed to be spared, like the grand Rijksmuseum Vermeer show currently running, to create a massive blockbuster show to pull in crowd. Why does ter Borch not get a similar exposition, despite her quality not being discussed as the issue? Materiality and volume of work were mentioned as excuses (Kang).

It is this materiality that I wanted to work with in my design. Some of ter Borch’s work is currently on display at the Rijksmuseum, though I feel her work is pushed to the smaller corners of the museum and used as justification that her work is exhibited and no longer hidden. Perhaps the fragile paper brings along challenges for exhibition but why should everything be preserved for eternity? I can imagine that ter Borch would be ok with displaying here work for the greater cause of increased visibility of women artists and to activate a change in the cultural embedded patterns of thinking in the artistic landscape.

For contemporary art a similar statement is made in a podcast of the Mondriaan Fonds. It is stated that art that does not sell, does not necessarily say something about the art piece itself but may be results of its size or due to its material. Yet, another well-established institute, aside the Rijksmuseum, that mentions that the material of a work might be a reason not to invest. As stated in the podcast; “Perhaps you work with very fragile materials of which people think; well, I don’t want to spend my money on something of which nothing is left in five years’ time.” (De Bruin, minute 10)

After considering different angles of storytelling, the statements on fragile materials reflected upon above provide me with the leading design criteria of fragility, represented in material. Different materials can represent fragility. I tested for example glass, porcelain, and paper on their material qualities of fragility, light and transparency to support the research in the design.

To me paper seems the most promising and relevant to tell the story of visibility of contemporary women artists, originated from historic women’s work not being shown because of their use of fragile and delicate paper.


Historic women artist visibility 

Hessel, Katy. The Story of Art without Men. 1st ed., Penguin Random House UK. 2022.

Honig, Elizabeth. The Art of Being “Artistic”: : Dutch Women’s Creative Practices in the 17th Century. (2002).Woman’s Art Journal22(2), 31–39. https://www-jstor-org.hr.idm.oclc.org/stable/1358900

Evans, A. “The female artists who greatly influenced gender equality.” Masterworks Fine Art Gallery. March 26, 2018.  news.masterworksfineart.com/2018/03/17/the-female-artists-who-greatly-influenced-gender-equality.

Myers, Nicole. “Women Artists in Nineteenth-Century France.” Sept. 2008. Met Museum New York. www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/19wa/hd_19wa.htm.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. “Stories of Women.” Accessed 16 May 2023. www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/stories/themes/women.   

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. “Rijksmuseum presents women artists in the Gallery of Honour for the first time.” 08 March 2021 www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/pers/persberichten/rijksmuseum-presenteert-voor-het-eerst-vrouwelijke-kunstenaars-in-de-eregalerij

Breda, Eva. “Voortaan hangen er drie vrouwen in de Eregallerij van het Rijksmuseum.” De Lage Landen Journal. 08 March 2021. www.de-lage-landen.com/article/voortaan-hangen-er-drie-vrouwen-in-de-eregalerij-van-het- rijksmuseum#:~:text=Wie%20het%20Rijksmuseum%20bezoekt%20na,meesterschilders%20kan%20ik%20zo%20opnoemen.

Somze, Catherina. Interview. Conducted by Francisca Snel. 10 March 2023.

Powell, Catherine. “Where have all the women gone? Challenging structural patriarchy and rethinking feminist art history”. Leiden Arts in Society Blog. 15 October, 2020. www.leidenartsinsocietyblog.nl/articles/where-have-all-the-women-gone

Soth, Amelia. “Joanna Koerten’s Scissor-Cut Works Were Compared to Michelangelo”. JSTOR Daily.27 May, 2021.

Noordam, Philippien. Interview. Conducted by Francisca Snel. 31 March 2023.

Labega, Sjoerd. Interview. Conducted by Francisca Snel. 14 March 2023.

Tiel, Cathelijne. “Beter art world? Diversity and inclusion alone won’t get us there.” Platform Beeldende Kunst. 02 Oct 2020. www.platformbk.nl/en/a-better-art-world-diversity-and-inclusion-alone-wont-get-us-there/

Ruysch, Rachel. “Still life with Flowers on a Marble Tabletop.” Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. 1716. Accessed 01 May 2023 hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.7723

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Symposium International Women’s Day.  08 March 2023. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Heithuis, Sander, et al.. Een nog onverteld verhaal. Stichting Women Inc. 2021. www.womeninc.nl/onverteldverhaal/wp-content/uploads/sites/27/2022/07/Een-nog-onverteld-verhaal.pdf.

Fragile Materials

Kang, Charles. “The elephant in the room, quality.” 08 March 2023. Symposium International Women’s Day. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

De Bruin, Niek. “Kunstenaar Start.” Mondriaan Fonds. June 2022. www.mondriaanfonds.nl/activiteiten/mondriaan-fonds-podcast/   

Klerkx, Manuela. “Van papier naar kunst I/II.” Galleryviewer online platform. Accessed 02 May 2023. galleryviewer.com/nl/collectie/119/from-paper-to-art-i-ii

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