CLIO TALKS BACK: Women as “Patrons” of the Arts

Book cover: portrait by Sir John Laverty.
Alma de Bretteville Spreckels ("Big Alma")
Clio has just finished reading a biography of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels (1881-1968), a wealthy San Francisco widow and fervent Francophile who founded the magnificent museum of art and culture known as the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. This museum, which she built to honor American soldiers who had died in France in World War One, perches on a windswept hill high above the Pacific Ocean and is filled with artistic treasures such as sculptures by Rodin.

Alma’s longtime rivals, the de Young sisters, were likewise patrons of the arts. To honor their father, they founded the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, which has recently been rebuilt. Today these two distinguished museums partner in the fine arts museum network of the city of San Francisco.

“Big Alma” and the De Youngs are twentieth-century participants in a long chain of women of means who distinguished themselves as secular “patrons” of the arts. Not all of them founded entire museums, or built mansions or palaces to showcase their art, but most of them supported artists (mostly men), whether by acquiring their paintings, sculptures, and other artistic creations or securing their livelihoods by inviting the artists to live at their expense.

Centuries earlier, in the early Italian Renaissance, secular women patrons commissioned alterpieces, burial chapels, elegant furniture, and even tapestries and illuminated manuscripts. Yet for many centuries historians of art ignored these women patrons, even though many of the works they commissioned became famous. The best-known exception to this oversight was Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), called the “first lady of the Renaissance,” who presided over the court of Mantua with her husband Francesco Gonzaga and was painted by Titian.

In other city-states of Renaissance Italy, other aristocratic women also patronized the arts. Victoria Colonna, for example, commissioned Titian to produce a painting of Mary Magdalen. Queens and princesses in other realms also got into the act of commissioning works of art, while other women of wealth became collectors. They also commissioned architectural works, as had women religious who had long been patrons of architecture as well as the arts, primarily for Christian convents and churches.

In the mid-fifteenth century, one aspiring laywoman in Siena, the widow Caterina Piccolomini, commissioned and directed the construction of a palace, the Palazzo delle Papesse, which was conveniently paid for by her brother, Pope Pius II. According to A. Lawrence Jenkens, who has studied this case (see his article in Reiss & Wilkins), the records attest that Caterina seems to have controlled the whole project: “she bought the property, she employed Federighi and others to build her residence, and it was to her that the monies from the papal purse were disbursed.”

Sometimes these “women’s actions sustained the political and economic interests of their male relatives” (see Prologue to Reiss & Wilkins, p. 7), but in other cases (particularly as widows) they acted on their own interests and occasionally even against the expressed wishes of male kin, including their deceased husbands. Wikipedia
National Museum of Women in the Arts
Historians continue to dig out and publish the stories of these remarkable women, who lavished their resources on the promotion of the arts. Yet only rarely did they patronize or highlight the arts produced by their own sex. Such initiatives had to wait until the late twentieth century with the foundation by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay of the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Would it then be appropriate to refer to Holladay and Sackler as “matrons” of the arts?

Since works of art are created by women as well as by men (and we now know that such has long been the case), and women are now bankrolling women’s art and fostering its display, surely we should no longer use the term “patronage” (derived from the Greek word for father, or pater) to describe women’s participation in promoting and underwriting the arts. What do you think?

Can you think of other examples of women patronizing the arts, especially women’s art, in other parts of the world? What suggestions do you have for women’s promotion of the arts of women today?

Further suggested reading:

Bernice Scharlach. Big Alma: San Francisco’s Alma Spreckels. San Francisco: Scottwall Associates, 1999.

Sheryl E. Reiss & David G. Wilkins. Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy. Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, Vol. LIV. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2001.

Cynthia Lawrence, ed. Women and Art in Early Modern Europe: Patrons, Collectors, and Connoisseurs. University Park: Pennsulvania State University Press, 1997.

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay. A Museum of Their Own: National Museum for Women in the Arts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2008.