Why Have There Been So Many Women Pioneers in Still-Life?

Patricia Simons 
19 Oct 2022

Why Have There Been So Many Women Pioneers in Still-Life?

Still-life painting might seem to epitomize a connection between women artists and naturalism. Certainly, Western European women were pioneers in the genre of what later came to be known as still-life. Outstanding early examples include Fede Galizia in Milan (c. 1578-c. 1630), Clara Peeters in Antwerp (active 1607-21) and Louise Moillon of Paris (1610-96). But early modern women never formed the majority of those artists specializing in still-life. Nor is there an essentialist, universal or innate connection between Nature and Woman. Rather, this paper argues, female innovators worked around and through cultural and social restrictions, seizing the space opened by the fledging subject of “fruits and flowers” and turning gendered restrictions into opportunities.

The reasons for women’s early participation in this innovative naturalism are rarely examined. I point to a confluence of cultural circumstances, social expectations, artistic practices, patriarchal assumptions, and aesthetic theories of the time. Investigation of those factors will be interwoven with observations about Galizia’s trailblazing role in Lombardy, clarified in a recent exhibition (2021), and highlighted by her signed and dated still-lifes of 1602 and 1607.

In the past, only brief and scattered remarks explained women’s inventive participation in still-life production. Women “quickly discovered the suitability of this genre to their social situation” according to Ann Sutherland Harris, writing for a ground-breaking exhibition of 1977. To Germain Greer, women responded to the “obvious appeal of still-life painting” (1979), with no further explanation. Recently, after noting that women often worked as botanical illustrators, Mary Garrard claimed that “they were considered to be suited for such painstaking work because they were thought to lack the capacity for artistic invention” (2020), which ignores the presence of male artists in the field, and its contemporary esteem as a scientific enterprise. Some commentators on women artists of still-lifes mistakenly assert that the genre was for a considerable time regarded as having little artistic value.

This paper updates or overturns many assumptions that underlie discussions about female pioneers in still-life painting. It first overviews the historiography of opinions about the reasons for women artists specializing in still-lifes, and argues for a more nuanced interpretation of social, religious, literary and artistic factors. For instance, the hierarchy of genres was not fixed in place when artists like Galizia ventured into still-life; Caravaggio (1571-1610) asserted that just as much artistry went into the painting of flowers as of figures.

Taking advantage of the recent exhibition in Trent of Galizia’s work (2021), the paper then turns to her still-lifes as a case study. Her earliest signed and dated still-life of 1602 (fig. 1), probably not her first foray into the genre, is less than a decade after Ambrogio Figino’s unicum of Peaches (c. 1594; fig. 2) and more or less coterminous with Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit (c. 1601). I investigate the shared Lombard context of these three artists, and focus on Galizia’s Milanese circumstances, such as training by her miniaturist father, patronage by a Jesuit, her place within literary circles, and connections with the milieux of Cardinals Carlo and Federico Borromeo. Producing altarpieces and portraits as well as still-lifes, Galizia developed an independent career as an artist. Although only one contemporary explicitly mentioned her still-lifes, critical language of the time embraced her skill. The work attracted praise and patronage, as well as both imitation and copying by other artists.