A selection of rare and unpublished still lifes by female old master painters is presented here as part of an exhibition of exceptional international interest, for it is exactly in the still life genre that 17th century women artists contributed to the greatest extent. The show includes masterpieces by the Italian painters Giovanna Garzoni and Fede Galizia, both acclaimed artists of their own time (Garzoni was one of the very few female artists to be recognised as a court painter); Ursula Maddalena Caccia, Badesse of the Piedmontese convent of Moncalvo, who achieved a notable political and social position given the importance of monasteries as power centres in the 17th century; the rare and refined Caterina Angela Pierozzi, protégée of the Grand Duchess of Tuscany Vittoria della Rovere; and finally the less well-known Venetian painter Elisabetta Marchioni, who executed two of the astonishing paintings on view.
To extend the scope of the exhibition, a Book of Hours and a letter of St Jerome to Furia in its first French translation are also showcased. The book contains folios decorated with floral swirls and relates to the theme of female provenance: Guillaume Molé and his wife Simone Boucherat were its first owners; in modern times, the Rosenberg couple, who also in 1935 commissioned Picasso to personalise the first page, owned it and exhibited it only in institutional settings. The letter belonged to Anne de Polignac, who conserved it in her famous library in the castle of Verteuil. It is a heartfelt exhortation by Jerome to the widow Furia (and hence to Anne) not to remarry: a request that we could interpret as an attempt to champion the intellectual and personal autonomy of women - a subject which is more relevant today than ever.
Also on view are works by northern European painters such as Clara Peeters and Rachel Ruysch - the exhibition in fact presents the very last work signed and dated by Ruysch - as representatives of the Flemish-Dutch tradition. Louise Moillon and Iphigenie Decaux Milet-Moreau represent France, while the Hispanic territories are spoken for by Portuguese artist Josefa de Ayala de Óbidos, an extraordinary intellectual, talented painter and skilled entrepreneur who brilliantly distinguished herself at a time when women were excluded from the ownership and management of goods and properties.
At the beginning of modern history, the agency and dignity of women reached historically low levels. Nevertheless, the European debate in favour or against the position of women in society was extremely fervent, as it also concerned matters such as tradition versus innovation, or ancient privileges versus new ferments. Not only famous painters such as Lavinia Fontana, Artemisia Gentileschi, Louise Moillon and Rachel Ruysch but also writers fought for their rights, thus paving the way for their followers in later centuries. In England, Hannah Woolley and Margaret Cavendish carried the baton, in France they had Marie de Gournay, and the Italian Counter-Reformation era saw the rise of Suor Arcangela Tarabotti: a cultured and audacious author of pamphlets both against the male world and forced monastication (for example The monastic hell, written before 1650), which was a common upper-class practice, or to defend female dignity (Deceived simplicity, printed in Leida in 1654).
Colnaghi’s exhibition will highlight the extraordinary results that feminine creativity is always able to achieve, even during difficult times. Further to this, the show will allow interconnected scholarly themes to flourish, from the history of courts and collecting to the diffusion of taste, the symbolism and mysticism of still lifes, and the intertwined dialogue between art and science.
We would like to thank Professor Alberto Cottino for his invaluable assistance. His wealth of knowledge about still life painting in northern Italy during the 17th century has been indispensable for the organization of this exhibition.