Printing Women: Selections from the Exhibition
Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers, 1570–1900
This unusually forward-thinking collection was assembled by Henrietta Louisa Koenen (1830–1881), wife of the first director of the Rijksmuseum Print Room in Amsterdam. From 1848 until 1861, she pursued her own keen interest in prints by acquiring an astonishing array of sheets by women artists of the 16th to the 19th century. The prints on view were executed by experts and amateurs alike, who pursued their craft as a means of achieving both self-realization and economic freedom.
Further situating the prints in an historical and artistic context are supplementary works from the New York Public Library’s collections, among them examples by Esther Inglis, Elisabetta Parasole, and Maria Sibylla Merian. Like Koenen’s collection, acquired by the Library in a 1900 bequest, and unless otherwise noted, all materials are either from the Spencer Collection or from the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.
"Koenen’s collection, put together well before twentieth-century revisionist accounts of the history of art were written, shows us that printmaking in particular was never just a male endeavor."
Curator of Prints
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division
of Art, Prints and Photographs
Recognizing Women Artists and Printmakers
In a clear reflection of both the lack of and the skepticism toward women artists in the 16th century, the Renaissance artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari included only a handful of women in his 1568 edition of the Lives of the Artists, his watershed chronicle of the most prominent artists of his day. Indeed, of the few known female practitioners of the era, fewer still rose to any particular prominence. One exception was Sofonisba Anguissola, whose fame led to the reproduction and circulation of at least one of her paintings as an engraving. Sofonisba served as both court painter to King Philip II of Spain and art instructor to Queen Isabella of Valois, blazing the trail for a number of subsequent women artists whose own careers were shaped by their appointment to such roles.
While male printmakers feature prominently in portrait series such as Anthony van Dyck’s all-male Iconographia (ca. 1632–45), their female counterparts were rarely represented before the late 17th century—and often because they excelled in areas other than the production of prints. Shown here are the portraits of a number of the women whose works are included in the present exhibition, among them the scholar Anna Maria van Schurman, the painter Angelica Kauffman, the poet Anna Maria de Koker, the academician Élisabeth Sophie Chéron, and the amateur artist Marguerite Le Comte. Together they paint a picture of the varied paths that led to the celebration of women as artistic creators in the early modern period.
All in the Family
As the daughter of aristocratic parents, Sofonisba Anguissola had the privilege of a liberal education that allowed her to pursue her artistic vocation. For much of the 16th and 17th centuries, however, most women did not elect to work professionally as printmakers but, rather, acquired proficiency in the medium—usually under the tutelage of their husbands, fathers, and other male relations—to contribute to a family-run workshop. Because professional print shops were most often engaged with reproducing well-known paintings of historical, religious, and mythological scenes, these women had an unprecedented opportunity to work with the exalted subject matter that was traditionally seen as the purview of men.
When etching was introduced in the early 16th century—relatively easy compared to other printmaking techniques—both professional and amateur artists began to try their hand at creating prints. Women, however, did not make a significant impact on the medium until the 17th century. Most were painters for whom etching was an extension of their artistic activities; others, like the women of the Prestel family, owned their own publishing enterprises and were already masters of a range of printmaking practices.
Academicians and Court Artists
Appearing first in Italy before spreading throughout Europe, art academies were institutions of learning and discussion that aimed to elevate art by establishing rules for its proper execution. The practice of drawing, or disegno, was deemed particularly important, for it was through their drawings that artists conceptualized and perfected their ideas. Most of the women whose work is shown here were admitted to the academy based on their skills as painters, but it is no accident that they also engaged in printmaking, a craft that, by privileging line over color, was aligned with the concept of disegno. Their proficiency in the graphic and painterly arts led many to be appointed court artists, overseeing the artistic instruction of women at court for whom drawing and painting were considered valued skills.
A Noble Pursuit
The idea of the prince-as-artist first gained traction during the Renaissance and, to a certain degree, extended to aristocratic women as well. Though their output was relatively small, a large number of noblewomen dabbled in the art of making prints. Whereas noblemen generally pursued heroic subject matter, their female counterparts tended toward themes of romance, courtship, family, and the home. The modest size and scope of these works suggest that they were intended for a small circle of friends and acquaintances, not for mass circulation.
The late 17th century witnessed an uptick in the number of prints created by women, especially among the moneyed, intellectual, and leisure classes. A large portion of these works was created by non-professional artists, or amateurs. Though it today connotes a lack of expertise or experience, the word “amateur”—which translates literally as “lover of art”—was formerly used to describe a person who was deeply engaged with the arts as both a patron and a student. Etchings by amateurs reflected their creators’ personal passion for art and, for this reason, frequently reproduced the subjects and styles of other well-known printmakers, especially the Dutch masters.
Among the small but significant number of books written and illustrated by women in the early modern period are those by Esther Inglis and Elisabetta Parasole, each of whom proudly identified her work as that of a female creator by including a self-portrait on the title page (not shown). Maria Sibylla Merian’s Raupenbuch (book of caterpillars), meanwhile, stands out for its scientific focus on these insects and the types of flora they ate. Merian had previously explored flower designs in her Blumenbuch (flower book) of 1680. Though created as a compendium of embroidery patterns, the flower book prompted her pivot toward the study of natural history, an arena most often reserved for men during this period.
Held in far lower regard than history painting—that is, the heroic celebration of the figure in religious, historical, and mythological scenes—were the so-called lesser genres of ornament, still-life, portraiture, and landscape. However, as female academy students were, for reasons of propriety, not permitted to study the nude body in life-drawing classes, they often excelled in these genres, as demonstrated in the following prints.
À la poupée: A plate is selectively inked in color using pieces of cotton fabric resembling little dolls, or poupées.
Aquatint: Used in combination with intaglio printmaking methods, aquatint involves covering the metal printing plate with an acid-resistant material, or ground, called resin. The material is applied either by dusting the plate with the material and then heating it until the powder melts, or by dissolving the resin particles in alcohol and pouring the substance onto the plate. Once the ground is dry, acid is applied to the plate, which “bites” around the resin droplets. The resulting microscopic reticulation prints more or less dark, depending on the length of time the acid is allowed to penetrate the plate.
Engraving: Using a cutting tool called a burin, the printmaker incises lines in a copper plate to produce a design. Ink is then rubbed into the incisions or grooves and the surface is wiped clean. The plate is then printed on a printing press.
Etching: Using an etching needle, the printmaker draws lines on a prepared plate, which is dipped into acid to “bite,” or abrade, the lines of the design. The depth of line is determined by the length of time the plate remains in the bath and the strength of the acid solution.
Lithography: Based on the principle that oil and water do not mix, artists draw on a stone treated with a mixture of acid and gum Arabic. Afterward the stone is moistened with water, which adheres only to the unmarked areas, since it is repelled by the greasy drawing medium. The surface is then rolled over with greasy printing ink, which attaches only to the drawn marks, the water repelling it from the rest of the surface. The ink is transferred to paper by running the inked lithographic stone through a printing press.
Printmaker: A person who makes pictures or designs by printing them from specially prepared plates or blocks.
Woodcut: A relief-printing technique by which the desired image is carved into the surface of a woodblock. The negative space around the image is cut away, leaving the part to be printed raised from the surface of the block. The block is then brushed with ink, which covers only the raised portion of the image. An impression is created by pressing the carved woodblock against a sheet of paper.
Alexander, David. “Printmakers,” in Dictionary of Women Artists, vol. 2, J–Z, ed. Delia Gaze (London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997).
Brodsky, Judith K. "Some Notes on Women Printmakers," Art Journal, 35, no. 4 (1976), pp. 374–77.
Catalogue of a Collection of Engravings, Etchings and Lithographs by Women (New York: The Grolier Club, 1901).
Guichard, Charlotte. "Amateurs and the Culture of Etching," in Artists and Amateurs: Etching in 18th-Century France, ed. Perrin Stein (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013), pp. 136–56.
Markey, Lia. "The Female Printmaker and the Culture of the Reproductive Print Workshop," in Paper Museums: The Reproductive Print in Europe, 1500–1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 51–75.
Stein, Perrin. "Echoes of Rembrandt and Castiglione: Etching as Appropriation," in Artists and Amateurs in 18th-Century France (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013, pp. 156-83.
This exhibition has been made possible by the continuing generosity of Miriam and Ira D. Wallach. Support for The New York Public Library’s Exhibitions Program has been provided by Celeste Bartos, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos and Adam Bartos Exhibitions Fund, and Jonathan Altman.