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Detroit exhibit features medals of 17th century female artists

Two bronze medals play a significant role in the current exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts titled By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500–1800.

It focuses on the role of women artists in Italy through 17 artists represented by 60 works. “Confident self-portraits, realistic still lifes, scenes of women’s bravery, and meditative religious scenes reveal their technical skill and ingenuity,” the exhibit’s introduction states. The show was created with the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut and is the most significant American show of women of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque eras since 2007, when the National Museum of Women in the Arts hosted Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque.

Gentileschi is the show’s most famous name and is the core of the show. Her works often include representations of herself — the exhibit includes three self-portraits in various guises — that were in ways methods of self-promotion. But such paintings are by their nature large and could be affordable to a relatively small number of patrons. Medals served as “small-scale symbols of high-profile artists” as the Detroit instillation points out in a display of two portrait medals, of artists Lavinia Fontana and Gentileschi.

The medals were made during the artists’ lifetimes and identify the women as painters, continuing a tradition of medalists recognizing and celebrating then-contemporary artists.

While the displayed Gentileschi medal is uniface, the 1611 Fontana medal is two-sided, showing the artist in the dress of a noblewoman with the reverse showing a woman at an easel, personifying the art of painting. The curator interprets the symbolism of flowing hair as suggesting unrestrained creativity with the band across her mouth suggesting that painting is a silent art (in contrast to poetry and music). The inscription, “meant to be read in Fontana’s voice, can be interpreted as, ‘Because of you [painting], I am in a constant state of joy.’ ”

The medal comes from the Samuel H. Kress Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The catalog for the Kress Collection notes that her mouth is gagged on the reverse, with the ground around her and the margins showing varied tools of painting — a triple rule, set-square, dividers and a palette. The Kress catalog’s author suggests that the flying hair of the figure represents a fury of creative activity and the gag symbolizes the unsocial life of a painter.

Fontana enjoyed a long and productive career. Today she is perhaps best-known for her portraits, although she painted a range of both secular and religious subjects including mythological nudes, then a rarity for women artists.

A medallic calling card?

The Gentileschi medal is on loan from the Frick Collection in New York City where it is part of the recent gift from the Scher Collection. The catalog to that collection gives it to an unknown, possibly Roman artist, from around 1627, with a portrait that was possibly adopted from an engraving after a now-lost self-portrait by the artist. Three self-portraits by the artist are part of the exhibition, including two recent acquisitions by the Wadsworth Atheneum and the National Gallery in London, along with one in the Uffizi in Florence, Italy.

The catalog for the Detroit exhibit notes that while there is no allegorical reference on the reverse of the uniface medal, “one may be imbedded in the portrait, as Gentileschi’s hair is far from being perfectly kempt, especially at the peak of her forehead, where several locks spring errantly forward.” Indeed, contemporary viewers remarked that one of the artist’s most distinctive features was her wiry hair, “almost a tamped-down version of the electrified hair seen on the reverse of Fontana’s medal.”

Gentileschi received her early training in the Roman studio of her father, Orazio Gentileschi, and she was especially celebrated for her paintings of powerful women. A painting on loan from the Toledo Museum of Art depicting the biblical story of Lot and his daughters showcases her skills as an artist and storyteller. Unlike many artists who worked on a small scale, Artemisia Gentileschi had a ready market for her large history paintings.

The medal was likely created while the painter was in Rome, more than a decade after the Fontana medal. The catalog observes that due to the rarity of the medals today, the audience for these medals must have been limited, asking, “Who commissioned them and why?” That author suggests that they may have functioned as calling cards, while keeping open the possibility that “admiring patrons took the initiative and had the medals made to share with friends.”

Another intriguing point is that no medals celebrating famous male artists were produced in Rome during these decades, suggesting that they were acts of self-promotion, “recognition on the part of these women artists that in order for them to be as famous as their male colleagues, they had to be more proactive in shaping their professional image.”

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