Mirror, Mirror: On the Evolution of Women in Art History

This past week, my students explored the early to High Renaissance in class. We observed leaps and bounds in the role of the artist, the importance of humanism, and the innovations in formal techniques. Certain images kept popping up as signs of the times -- The Mona Lisa and the Arnolfini Wedding were most outstanding in terms of their reactions. Mona Lisa's daring eye contact and the presence of the mirror in the Arnolfini Wedding both pointed to a newfound reliance on the eye as a valued tool for understanding the world around us. During this period, man was the measure of all things, thanks to humanism.

Following are the famous images of mystery and enduring commitment:

Untitled, known in English as The Arnolfini Po...Arnolfini Wedding via Wikipedia

When students looked at these images, they marveled at the convincing illusionist techniques, and the absence of the artist in compositions. No one asked about the circumstances of the women in the paintings. Some found interesting articles about how da Vinci may have conceived his famous portrait from a self-portrait. Well, it's possible. And, it's not the first example of drag in Art History -- we can go back as far as ancient Egypt, when Queen Hatshepsut became pharoah. She took over the throne after the death of her pharoah husband Thutmose II, and donned the traditional masculine garb in accordance.

And what about the mysterious Italian figure who dared to meet the viewer's eye? Why would it be so scandalous? Could it be that it implied meeting desire? Yes. Furthermore, it's challenging because the woman is shown at the forefront of a seemingly endless terrain, due to atmospheric and linear perspective. This is significant for its disavowal of the tendency to limit Florentine and Italian women's public visibility. As noted by Dale Kent's summary of David Allen Brown's book, Virtue and Beauty:
In their portraits women appear framed in the windows of their houses. In 1610 a French traveler commented after a visit to Florence that "...women are more enclosed [here] than in any other part of Italy; they see the world only from the small openings in their windows...."

The Mona Lisa (or La Joconde, La Gioconda).
The Mona Lisa via Wikipedia
With that in mind, The Mona Lisa becomes mistress of her domain, confidently guarding it and/or inviting others in. The abundance of devotional images (such as the Virgin Mary) were also meant to express propriety and serve as models for women during the Renaissance.

Women artists today, such as Cuban artist, Ana Mendieta, and American artist, Francesca Woodman, examine surveillance and gender roles and myths. Blending power and subverting the object role, these are only two examples of artists who examine the fairly traditional means of representing women through visual images. Look at these two images and consider the act of looking.

This first work is one of my favorite images about the mirror as a symbol for female vanity and identity by Francesca Woodman. (You can check out more images here.)

Image courtesy of Research page via Steven Berkowitz Educational Pages.

This second and final example by Ana Mendieta gives new meaning to our sense of the study of anatomy during Renaissance times, in which the Vitruvian Man was the quintessential "map" for humanist ideals. What does it mean in its new conceptualization?

Image courtesy of I <3 Photograph.