In Renaissance Italy, most women from the upper classes had only two options in life – the marriage or the convent. Therefore, this was not a very promising environment for women artists to emerge or thrive. In fact, it was incredibly difficult for women to become artists. They were unable to even receive formal art training, so they were either self-taught or taught by their fathers. Once they would emerge, they would be widely overlooked, as it was regarded the painter’s brush is “more manly”.
However, despite all challenges, some women managed to become acclaimed artists, even leading ones. Here are ten famous female Rennaissance artists who managed to overcome social and cultural limitations of their time.
Featured images: Rachel Ruysch - Still Life Of Flowers With A Nosegay Of Roses, Marigolds, Larkspur, A Bumblebee And Other Insects; Sofonisba Anguissola - The Chess Game (Portrait of the artist’s sisters playing chess), 1555; Lavinia Fontana - The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon; Artemisia Gentileschi- Jael and Sisera. All images creative commons, used for illustrative purposes.
A Flemish Renaissance miniaturist, Levina Teerlinc served as a painter to the English court of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. A daughter of Simon Bening, the renowned illuminator of the Ghent-Bruges school, she was trained as a manuscript painter by her father and worked in his workshop before her marriage.
After settling in England with her husband, she was hired by King Henry VIII as a court artist, holding a pivotal position in the rise of the portrait miniature. Although she rarely signed her pieces, her documented works include paintings presented as gifts to the sovereign at the New Year, including an oval miniature known as “an Elizabethan Maundy” gifted to Queen Elizabeth in 1563.
Featured image: A portrait miniature of Princess Elizabeth Tudor by Levina Teerlinc, c. 1550-51
A Renaissance portraitist, Caterina van Hemessen is regarded as the earliest female Flemish artist for whom there is verifiable work that remains. She is best known for a series of small-scale portraits created between the late 1540s and early 1550s, as well as a few religious compositions.
In addition, she is often credited as the first artist to create a self-portrait. Due to the challenges women faced in the art world of the Renaissance, she was trained by her father, Jan Sanders van Hemessen. Mainly portraying wealthy men and women, she imbued her subjects with a certain graceful charm.
Featured image: Caterina van Hemessen - Self portrait (detail), 1548
A late Italian Renaissance painter best known for her portraiture, Sofonisba Anguissola was one of the first known women artists to establish an international reputation. A daughter of a nobleman, she was given her training by Bernardino Campi, a prominent local painter, and Bernardino Gatti.
Thanks to her father’s reputation and influence, she has received an encouragement from Michelangelo in the form of a drawing, that she copied and sent back to express her gratitude. She also tutored the Spanish queen Elizabeth of Valois in Madrid, to later become an official court portraitist to the king, Philip II.
Featured image: Sofonisba Anguissola - Self-Portrait (detail), 1556
An Italian painter regarded as the first woman artist, Lavinia Fontana was also the first woman to paint female nudes. A daughter of the prominent artist Prospero Fontana, she made great strides in the field of portraiture, becoming famous within and beyond Italy. She was also commissioned to paint religious and mythological themes, which sometimes included nudes.
After moving to Rome to pursue her career, she became a portraitist at the court of Pope Paul V, receiving numerous honors, such as a bronze portrait medallion cast by sculptor and architect Felice Antonio Casoni. Among her earliest paintings that remained is Christ with the Symbols of the Passion from 1576, now in the El Paso Museum of Art.
Featured image: Lavinia Fontana - Self-Portrait at the Clavichord with a Servant (detail), c. 1577
An Italian Renaissance painter, Fede Galizia was a pioneer of the still life genre. A daughter of a miniaturist and portrait painter, she was inspired by Lombard Naturalism and by Emilia’s Late Mannerism, as well as by Leonardo and Correggio.
Though she was often commissioned to paint portraits, miniatures and altarpieces, she is best known for her still lifes, described by the great art critic Robert Longhi as “precise, yet somewhat afflicted”. Painted in great detail and in vibrant colors, her still lifes were mainly composed of fruits and flowers peaking into the light from the darkness. Unlike her contemporaries, she preferred to use a stricter, more simplistic style.
Featured image: Fede Galizia - Judith with the Head of Holofernes (detail), 1596. The figure of Judith is believed to be a self-portrait
An Italian Baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi is regarded as one of the most accomplished painters in the generation following that of Caravaggio. First women to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, she is best known for paintings depicting strong and suffering women from Myths and the Bible.
During her time, she was both praised as a having genius and dismissed for her gender. She is today celebrated for the excellence of her work and the originality of her treatment of traditional subjects. Her most famous work is Judith slaying Holofernes, a scene of horrific struggle and blood-letting.
Featured image: Artemisia Gentileschi - Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (detail), 1638–9
A Dutch Golden Age painter, Judith Leyster painted genre works, portraits and still lifes. A truly remarkable artist, she painted energetic scenes with one or two figures engaged in merrymaking, such as music, dance and games. She was also very innovative in her domestic genre scenes, often depicting quite scenes of women at home.
Though she’d been praised by the observers and historians of her era, Leyster had essentially been erased from art history since her death in 1660. Her entire oeuvre was attributed to Frans Hals or to her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer, until Hofstede de Groot first attributed seven paintings to her in 1893.
Featured image: Judith Leyster - Self-Portrait (detail), c. 1633
A self-taught nun-artist, Plautilla Nelli was the first-known woman Renaissance painter of Florence. A nun of the Dominican convent of St. Catherine of Siena, she was highly influenced by the teaching of Savonarola and by the artwork of Fra Bartolomeo.
One of the few women artists mentioned in Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, she focused on religious themes, providing her characters’ expressions with the heightened sentiment and vivid emotions. Since her vocation prohibited study of the nude male, it was said her male characters have feminine characteristics.
Some of her best-known works are Lamentation with Saints, Saint Catherine Receives the Stigmata and Saint Dominic Receives the Rosary.
Featured image: Plautilla Nelli - St. Dominic Receives the Rosary
An Italian Baroque painter and printmaker, Elisabetta Sirani was the most famous woman artist in early modern Bologna who established an academy for other women artists. According to written records, she has created 200 paintings, drawing and etching during her brief career.
She was known to paint beautifully and very quickly, attracting many visitors to her studio who enjoyed watching her work. The art historian Carlo Cesare Malvasia praised her for the originality of her compositions, her style of drawing, her fast manner of working, and her professionalism. She died at age of 27 under suspicious circumstances.
Featured image: Elisabetta Sirani - Self-Portrait as Allegory of Painting (detail), 1658
An artist originating from the Northern Netherlands, Rachel Ruysch was famous for her beautiful still-lifes comprised of flowers. The daughter of a botanist and the pupil of Willem van Aelst, she painted richly devised bouquets in delicate colors with meticulous detail.
Developing her own unique style, she was one of the few women to achieve international fame in her lifetime. Working over the course of six decades, she became the best-documented woman artist of the Dutch Golden Age.
Featured image: Rachel Ruisch at the age of 84 (detail)