In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender and Art in the 17th Century

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Periodicals, Websites, and Conferences
  • Patronage by Women
  • Portraits. Identity. Gender
  • The Body: The Male and Female Nude
  • Men and Masculinity
  • Domesticity. Home. Family. Old Age
  • Gender in Chinese and Japanese Art
  • Gender and Genre in Dutch Art
  • Gender and Art Theory

Art History Gender and Art in the 17th Century
Frima Fox Hofrichter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0153


Gender and Art in the 17th Century is a large and growing theme in art historical research, as aspects of the lives of men and women in that Golden Age are routinely revealing more information and prompting additional questions of gender’s relationship to art—production, patronage, purchase, viewing, placement, and subject matter. And each of these spheres is also multifaceted. The subject of gender is not the same as the topic of women and art, but in the 17th century, a number of women artists altered the arena and women indeed are the focal point of a study of gender and art in the 17th century. A major consideration, and the one frequently dealt with in this bibliography, is that of the lives of women and specifically women artists, as this was still an unusual profession for women (who weren’t expected to have any) in the 17th century. Although there were known women artists in the Renaissance and before, these numbers swell considerably throughout the 17th century. This distinguishes it from the centuries before. We don’t know if any of these women actually knew of each other or had any contact with each other, yet in city after city, many became members of their respective guilds or academies and achieved professional status—to sign their works, sell them, and have students. Seventeenth-century women artists regularly confronted gender issues and bias: that of workshop and/or family training and the limitations placed on a female. Patronage, subject matter, and reputation of these perseverant women often pivoted on questions of gender. At a time when the status of an artist was still a value in flux, self-portraiture, which emphasized the class and wealth of an artist, was important—for men. For women artists, the image and goals were quite different; showing themselves as painters, confidently working at an easel would have raised curiosity and also their status. With the introduction of each woman artist we catch a glimpse of a new perspective into their lives and impediments to their careers from their emergence to their possible marriage, later life, and the question of the continuation of their careers. Their relationship to male artists, who were teachers, fathers, husbands, fellow members of a guild or academy, and competitors, provides another facet of their complex lives. The subject of men and women in paintings and prints exposes some of the actual relationships, the ideal ones, and those reflected for comic spirit. The patronage of wealthy women, especially by those in Italy from important families as well as by nuns (who themselves were sometimes also from wealthy families), in art and architecture is a form of agency and impact, which is considered here in terms of gender.

Reference Works

References on gender and art in the 17th century are almost exclusively works introducing, presenting, and cataloguing women artists and their work. The most notable was the 1976 Los Angeles exhibition (Harris and Nochlin 1976), which displayed over a hundred paintings by women artists from the Renaissance to the mid-20th century. Many of them and most from the 17th century were largely unknown before the exhibition. The catalogue also notes the names of some of the other women artists who were not included, and today we know the names of many more. Some of these women were known, even well-known and written about in the 17th century, but not always in the most flattering terms (Dabbs 2009). These women artists were identified and their biographies expanded through the use of inventories, letters, and contracts (Rogers and Tinagli 2012). There was a profusion of women artists from Italy (Rogers and Tinagli 2012) and several reference works concentrate on them; other compilations in lengthy, hefty volumes (Gaze 1997, Fortune and Falcone 2014) include hundreds of women artists, with many of the 17th century. These volumes on women artists each respond to the issue of gender in terms of the artists’ training, admission to the guild or academy, students, subject matter, and contemporary reputation. All of these factors and more are investigated and expanded upon in an Ashgate Companion (Couchman, et al. 2013) with essays that enlarge our understanding of the situation for women, including women artists, in the 17th century. This exposition allows one to better appreciate the tenacity and work of women artists, and better clarify paintings in which women are included—or excluded.

  • Couchman, Jane, Katherine McIver, and Allyson Poska, eds. Ashgate Research Companion to Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2013.

    Essential for anyone working on gender, women patrons, women artists, and the theme of women as subjects. It includes much information on the practical lives of women in marriage, issues of the dowry, children, old age, cultural engagement, and women and work. It is in this latter section that the work of women artists is explored in terms of the subjects they chose and their media—exploring those who painted or did needlework, printmaking, or miniatures.

  • Dabbs, Julia K. Life Stories of Women Artists, 1550–1800. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2009.

    A collection of contemporary biographical texts, it includes much material in English for the first time. Seventeenth-century artists include Artemisia Gentileschi and Rachel Ruysch as well as those who are obscure. Dabbs’ introduction signals the gender dynamics inherent in each text, wherein a woman artist is written about by a male biographer. It includes brief biographies of artists and biographers, an extensive appendix, bibliography, and index.

  • Fortune, Jane, and Linda Falcone. Invisible Women. Florence: Florentine Press, 2014.

    An exhaustive biographical study of many 17th-century women artists, as well as those of the 16th and 18th centuries, including some little-known ones: Arcangela Paladini (b. 1599–d. 1622), Margarita Caffi (b. 1650–d. 1710), Maria van Oosterwyck, as well as Clara Peeters and Artemisia Gentileschi.

  • Gaze, Delia, ed. Dictionary of Women Artists. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997.

    With biographical entries on 600 women artists from c. 975 to c. 1945, this two-volume dictionary provides a concise introduction to each artist included as well as a thorough bibliography. Themes such as convents, court artists, and academies of art comprise the introduction.

  • Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists 1550–1950. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976.

    This groundbreaking Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition (and catalogue) on women artists begins with Renaissance painters. It was a direct response to Linda Nochlin’s essay, with the provocative title: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971). The catalogue includes biographies and catalogue entries of seventeen 17th-century artists, and it challenges the reader with questions that then needed (and still need) to be answered. Research on women artists by other scholars grew out of the work of these organizers.

  • Rogers, Mary, and Paola Tinagli. Women and the Visual Arts in Italy c. 1400–1650: Luxury and Leisure, Duty and Devotion—A Source Book. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2012.

    This is a volume of translated primary sources, from Italian and Latin, on the relationship of women and the arts in Italy. Most relate to Renaissance artists; the authors also published on Renaissance women of Italy 1350–1650. This book includes 17th-century sources such as inventories, letters, and contracts.

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