Known for her film work, Meryl Streep is going off script to rally for a National Women’s History Museum by the National Mall in Washington, D.C. She’s donated $1 million to the cause, but money isn’t the only requisite. Congressional approval is required for the location.
Explaining her zeal, she told the press that history before the 20th century was written by men and it’s full of holes. “Every child knows the name of our first traitor, Benedict Arnold, but nobody knows the name of the first female soldier to take a bullet for the U.S., who enlisted under her dead brother’s name. Nobody knows Deborah Sampson’s name. That’s a great story. Or Elizabeth Freeman, who was the first slave to sue for her own freedom and won in Great Barrington, Mass.”
Streep has a point. Many women’s stories in history have gone untold – in art history, too.
Male historians of the past have even painted a picture of women as incapable of artistic expression or spiritual insight. In Women and Artearly 20th century historian Karl Scheffler wrote, “In an Amazonian state, there would be neither culture, history nor art.”
Becoming a serious and respected artist in the 17th through the early 20th century was no small task for a woman. As late as 1910, sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington had her first-place prize revoked when the judges’ discovered she was female.
Not that male art historians are the only culprits in this story. Female historians also have kept their gender down on the farm, so to say. In Sister Wendy Beckett’s art history tome In “The Story of Painting,” she failed to note that Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser – who helped found the British Royal Academy – studied life-drawing at the British Royal Academy, along with English greats William Blake, J.M.W. Turner and Joshua Reynolds. Yet Sister Wendy’s exhaustive 721-page history went blank on the subject. She cited a friendship between Kauffmann and Reynolds, but never mentioned that Reynolds was a great admirer of Kauffmann’s work. Sister Wendy barely even noted her work, noting only a small portrait painted on a vase and completely overlooking Kauffmann’s history paintings.
Sister Wendy is certainly not the only female historian to forget to give Kauffmann and Moser their due. Helen Gardner, who wrote Art Through the Agesin 1926, which went on to become a standard college text, didn’t tell the Kauffmann/Moser story, either.
Then there was female film director and screen writer Agnes Merlet’s inexcusable mangling of history in the 1997 film “Artemesia,” about Artemesia Gentileschi, the first and only female painter of the 17th century to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. According to a 1612 transcript of a public criminal trial, a 17-year-old Artemesia testified under voluntary torture of thumbscrews in order to be believed that her art teacher had savagely attacked her. She was believed and the teacher was jailed for eight months.
But as dramatic as Artemesia’s history was, Merlet invented a different one, reducing this determined young painter to a pathetic lovesick girl and depicting the sex between teacher and student as consensual.
Here’s hoping Streep’s call for the National Women’s History Museum gets heard.