The Art Gallery of Ontario’s European collection has only a handful of works by women created prior to 1900. Here’s why:
Before the 1870s, women were discouraged from studying art. For many years, Mary Alabaster’s mother prevented her from pursuing her love of art.
Until recently, the Art Gallery of Ontario didn’t acknowledge the role women have played in the making of art over the last 400 years. Fortunately, times have changed. Women are well represented in the Gallery’s contemporary collection.
All sorts of little revelations are coming out of the current Rembrandt/Freud exhibition. For example, I’ve always associated berets with artists, but I’ve only recently found out where the association comes from.
Rembrandt, as it turns out, sported a beret in many of his self-portraits, I think for several reasons. Firstly, he was crazy about fancy dress and the way it could evoke far away times and places. Secondly, he usually wore a specific hat – German in origin, which had gone out of style almost 100 years before. This might have been a way for him to show his connection to the long tradition of northern European painting he felt heir to. Finally, the large floppy hat casts a shadow over the face, creating the mystery and ambiguity that he loved.
His students picked up on the hat idea and soon it had become a key part of an artist’s ‘uniform’.
Could this be an engagement portrait of a Dutch girl aged four? Her ring, the carnations, the fan, and the peacock all refer to love and marriage. Only upper class marriages were arranged at such a tender age and this girl, with her expensive silk clothes and jewelry, was clearly from a well to do family.
In the 1600s, rich Dutch girls attended school to learn reading, writing, religion, music, dance and French. Instead of going to university – which was forbidden – they went to Paris to absorb fashionable French culture first hand. At an early age, poor girls stopped school to work full time.
Hang onto your hats! It’s hard to imagine a windier place than the artist’s vantage point for this landscape – a chalk cliff one hundred metres above the English Channel.
Impressionist Claude Monet painted many views of these popular rocks near the fishing village of Étretat on France’s Normandy Coast. He became especially adept at painting the shimmering effects of light on water.
Why is this landscape such an unusual shape? Monet painted it on an armoire door supplied by his hotel manager as partial payment of the bill. Lucky manager, who sold the painting in the 1920s!
Time to stop playing the field and settle down? Bernini was the most famous sculptor in 17th century Europe. Yet his personal life was a scandal.
At age 42, the bachelor’s tumultous love affairs came to an abrupt end when patron Pope Urban VIII forced him to repent and marry. In his search for forgiveness, Bernini became deeply pious.
He cast this sculpture of the dying Christ three times – for the king of Spain, the king of France, and one for himself. His suffering Christ – naturalistic and emotional, offered the artist hope for eternal salvation.
Dressed for success? Meet a busy networker from 400 years ago – extrovert Dutch businessman Isaak Massa, with his fashionable moustache and goatee.
Like today, black clothes were definitely ‘in’. Black was the most expensive dye available – so were broad collars and felt hats made from Canadian beaver pelts. Dutch businessmen traded around the world and got rich from it. They invented globalization, the stock market, and paying with cheques.
No one knows for sure the meaning of the holly branch the sitter holds. It may symbolize Massa’s faithfulness to his wife when he was away on business.
Rich, married, 38 year old seeks mature, good looking male into art! For some eye witnesses, Luisa Casati was just a spoilt aristocrat who scandalized Europe over a 30 year period and then died destitute. For others, she was an inspired muse and serious patron of the arts.
Born in Milan in 1881, Casati was one of Italy’s great heiresses. From a respectable upper class childhood she emerged sporting wild make-up and hair with a menagerie of monkeys, peacocks and cheetahs in tow.
Painted and photographed hundreds of times, here she gazes seductively at her lover, the handsome, bohemian artist Augustus John.
We’re beginning a new feature called David’s Notes. Once a week, David will post an interesting tidbit or give you the inside scoop on the art and goings-on at the AGO. Be sure to check it out and let us know what you think.
So who is David?
David Wistow is an Interpretive Planner at the AGO. He is the author of several books, including Meet the Group of Seven, Landscapes of the Mind: Images of Ontario, and The McMichael Canadian Art Collection, as well as a contributor to several AGO catalogues. His tenacity and mellifluous baritone voice are famed at the Gallery. No stranger to collecting, his selection of more than 200 vintage ties outshines any hipster. His favourite works from the AGO collection include Franz Hals’ Isaak Abrahamsz Massa and Augustus John’s Portrait of scandalous arts patron The Marchesa Casati.