Tate Britain’s ‘Now You See Us’ Celebrates 400 Years of Underappreciated Talent | nooshamid.com

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Tate Britain’s ‘Now You See Us’ Celebrates 400 Years of Underappreciated Talent

What a feeling it must be to prove one’s detractors wrong, and to do so graciously and to public acclaim. When relatively unknown artist Sarah Thompson submitted her painting The Roll Call to the Royal Academy’s (all-male) Hanging Committee in 1874, she did so with apprehension: after all, one of England’s leading art critics, John Ruskin, had always been unwavering in his belief that “no woman could paint.” Sarah Thompson (later Sarah Butler, on marrying) was amazed to hear that not only had The Roll Call been accepted, but that its exhibition at the Royal Academy had caused a sensation: her depiction of exhausted, battle-worn grenadier guards struggling to line up for the roll call after a brutal engagement in the Crimean War had so impressed Queen Victoria that the regent insisted on buying the painting from its commissioner, Manchester industrialist Charles Galloway. The painting was hugely popular with critics and the public alike, though according to Tabitha Barber, Curator of British Art 1550-1750 at Tate Britain, the praise that the artist valued most highly was “from Crimean War veterans, who appreciated the painting’s realism and accuracy.” The following year, Ruskin changed his tune entirely. “I have not seen the like since Turner’s death,” he wrote of Thompson’s gradations of color and shade.

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It is revelations like this that make Tate Britain’s exhibition “Now You See Us: Women Artists In Britain 1520-1920” a compelling triumph: a group show spanning over 400 years of art history, presented alongside thorough research, it includes works both by overlooked artists and by artists who are now household names, such as Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653), Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) and Gwen John (1876-1939), and explains the circumstances in which they were working and the restrictions rigidly placed upon them by both the British art world and the milieux in which they lived. At the press view, Barber spoke of how the show’s 238 works were brought together. The Tate owns only sixteen of them; the rest were sourced from private collections and regional museums, necessitating great effort into trying to locate them as well as piecing together information about the careers of the artists, often from sparse extant biographical details.

A painting of people working in a machine shot where large artillery is being produced
Anna Airy, Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow, 1918. IWM, courtesy Tate

How were the particular works—and the particular artists—chosen? “We selected works that were critically reviewed [in their time],” Barber explained, noting that the language used to review the works was heavily gendered: the work of women artists was always deemed to be “charming, sentimental, gentle.” Women artists were, for centuries, routinely dismissed as amateurs painting as a genteel accomplishment rather than being heralded as individuals pursuing professional careers, and as such were expected to acquiesce to societal norms of the time. “Masculine” pictorial subjects (such as war, and the nude) and necessary methods of learning were out of bounds. Up until as recently as 1893, women artists were not admitted to life drawing classes, despite life drawing being a central component of artistic practice.

A painting of a dark-haired woman wholly absorbed in her painting
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), c.1638-1639. Todd-White Art Photography

The exhibition is organized chronologically: within minutes of entering, you are face-to-face with Gentileschi’s Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura). Try as we might, the subject declines to meet our gaze. The figure, clad in a brown apron, her black hair tied back in a disheveled fashion, is totally absorbed in her creative endeavor: painting on canvas, the progress of which is not visible to the viewer. In one hand she holds her paintbrush aloft, in the other she balances her oil palette between her thumb and her index finger. Our presence has not caused a lapse in her intense concentration: interrupt her at your peril, for the artist is at work on a royal commission. Gentileschi would boast that “all the princes” displayed her self-portraits in their collections. This particular work was owned by King Charles I, who had invited Gentileschi to England in 1638.

SEE ALSO: See the Best of Black Figuration Widely Surveyed at Kunstmuseum Basel

By the mid-seventeenth century, there was already a documented history of women artists receiving royal commissions: over a hundred years previously, in the 1520s, King Henry VIII had employed female miniaturists in his court, although, as the exhibition notes, they were not employed as artists per se, but instead were invited to serve as Gentlewomen of the Privy Chamber. Works attributed to Levina Teerlinc (c.1510s-1576) and Esther Inglis (1571-1624) are included in the exhibition: the former was a manuscript illustrator; the latter, a scribe and calligrapher. The Tudor works are altogether magnificent. I recommend taking a magnifying glass with you to see the details to best advantage.

A painting of a lush springtime field full of greenery, flowers and a dragonfly
Martha Darley Mutrie, Wild Flowers at the Corner of a Cornfield, 1855-60. Photo: Tate (Seraphina Neville)

While royals commissioned portraits and works showing allegorical figures, they also took a keen interest in works documenting the natural world. The once-splendid biodiversity of Britain is highlighted in the exhibition by an entire room on flower paintings, the subject matter being a traditionally ‘female’ area. “I couldn’t care less about the prejudice, they did it brilliantly,” quipped curator Tabitha Barber of women artists drawing flowers, in an interview for BBC Sounds. Among the flower paintings, the most touching work is by Martha Darley Mutrie (1824-1885), a leading practitioner of the genre. Over her long career, Mutrie exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Society of Female Artists and other venues: her paintings received regular praise from critics. Despite her success at exhibitions, research has shown that her works remained as dealer stock for far longer than the work of male artists, yet Mutrie’s work is of crucial importance as it creates a botanical record of British biodiversity for posterity. Her painting Wild Flowers at the Corner of a Cornfield (1855-60), is particularly meaningful in this respect, as well as being beautiful to look at.

I left the exhibition feeling galvanized: the curation of “Now You See Us” shows how women have navigated the male-dominated art world, using their talents not only to create monumental works but also to pave the way for the next generations of professional artists. The exhibition catalog is excellent and well worth reading, for its comprehensive look at the lives and times of the featured artists.


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