In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women and the Visual Arts

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Renaissance and Reformation Women and the Visual Arts
Jacqueline Marie Musacchio
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0135


The relationship between women and art in the Renaissance and Reformation across Europe is still a relatively new area of study, and recent scholarship indicates considerable interest in all aspects of it. Women’s engagement with the arts might be categorized into three broad themes: women as artists, patrons, and subjects. This is perhaps the best way to look at this phenomenon, and a great many art historians, cultural historians, and other scholars have used these themes to structure their inquiries. Within these three themes, however, it is important to note that the women in question were almost always of the middle and upper classes, and they lived in urban settings; these were the women who, via familial wealth or, in some cases, their own resources, could afford encounters with art. Much of the scholarship on this topic has been biased toward cities on the Italian peninsula, where contextual research on economic, political, and social conditions provides a strong foundation across the chronological span. But new work on the Dutch Republic and Tudor and Stuart England, as well as occasional studies in other countries and eras, indicates that this burgeoning field will only become more popular in the near future.

General Overviews

The question of a female Renaissance, and the role of women in this period, both in general and in relation to art, was first posed in a critical manner by Kelly-Gadol 1977. However, as is the case with any broad topic of this sort, it is difficult to find scholarship that encompasses its breadth and depth. But sources that deal with the different aspects of this period can provide access to a wealth of relevant information. The Medici Archive Project Documentary Sources Database, for example, allows scholars to examine original and often otherwise unpublished documentation regarding women and art with a keyword search; the role of the Medici ducal court on the wider European stage expands the information found in this database beyond Florence and Italy. Similarly, sources that deal with women’s history more broadly can be important to this examination. Compilations of translated primary source material provide vital starting points, particularly for students; see Rogers and Tinagli 2006, for example. And the database built by the Brooklyn Museum to accompany Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party installation has useful basic information on many women artists and patrons, as does Robin, et al. 2007. Some of the most important research on this topic has been published in recent thematic anthologies. As in most fields, the freedom to tackle an experimental or entirely new topic, in a relatively short format, yields provocative results that often push the field as a whole in new directions (see Broude and Garrard 1982 and Johnson and Matthews Grieco 1997). And the occasional thematic monograph can change the direction of inquiry completely; although Garrard 2010 focuses on Italy and Italian art, its examination of the interconnections between nature and gender and their reflection in the art of this period should serve as a catalyst for future study of other places and eras.

  • Archivio di Stato di Firenze. Medici Archive Project Documentary Sources Database.

    This constantly growing database of documents from the Florentine grand ducal archives (1537–1743) can be searched via names and keywords to access information about women artists, patrons, and subjects, as well as a wide array of art and objects related to women’s lives at court.

  • Broude, Norma, and Mary D. Garrard, eds. Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.

    This pioneering volume and its related publications in 1992 and 2005 present a total of sixty-nine essays that represent feminist scholarship across the history of art, with a significant number examining all aspects of the early modern period. Although many of the essays have been published elsewhere, they are brought together in these volumes to provide an excellent overview of the field.

  • Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the Brooklyn Museum. Dinner Party.

    Judy Chicago’s iconic Dinner Party (1974–1979) represents 1,038 women, 999 named on the tiled floor and 39 more by ceramic and textile place settings around a triangular table. This database enables searches by name, profession, era, or location, and provides biographical information for each woman; a significant number date from the period of this bibliography.

  • Garrard, Mary D. Brunelleschi’s Egg: Nature, Art, and Gender in Renaissance Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

    This engaging and meticulously detailed examination focuses on case studies of Brunelleschi, Alberti, Masaccio, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgione, Titian, Raphael, and several Mannerist artists via the increasingly scientific and gendered understanding of nature in this period.

  • Johnson, Geraldine A., and Sara F. Matthews Grieco, eds. Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    This illustrated collection of nine interdisciplinary essays looks at women as the makers, patrons, subjects, and viewers of art, taking into account a wide variety of objects and images in the process.

  • Kelly-Gadol, Joan. “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” In Becoming Visible: Women in European History. Edited by Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, 137–164. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

    A groundbreaking essay that posits the Renaissance as a male culture, marked by decreasing power and prestige for women; the authority women had held in earlier settings, particularly French feudal settings, evaporated with the development of urban centers on the Italian peninsula. These underlying assumptions in this essay are essential for understanding the more recent publications that work to provide a place for women as patrons and owners of the products of culture.

  • Robin, Diana, Anne R. Larsen, and Carole Levin, eds. Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007.

    This useful reference volume includes 180 topical and biographical entries covering the years 1350–1700, written by leading scholars in the field, with a basic bibliography and reproductions.

  • Rogers, Mary, and Paola Tinagli, eds. Women in Italy, 1350–1650: Ideals and Realities; A Sourcebook. Manchester, UK, and New York: Manchester University Press, 2006.

    This useful and wide-ranging sourcebook provides translated excerpts of relevant materials—some well-known, others more obscure, but all enlightening—regarding contemporary views on women’s nature, ethical and aesthetic ideals of the time, and life-cycle events, many of which are directly relevant for this topic.

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