The historical portrayal of women in art often prioritised the artist’s role, usually a male, rather than the female subject’s lived experiences and accomplishments. Here, we bring to light the roles of women in art to reveal their unique stories and vital contributions.
Queen Esther 1878
A steely stare jolts you, mid-step. Dark, hooded eyes pierce under an emerald green jewel rooted in resolution. Two women frame her, one ready to veil her form, as history has framed and shrouded many stories. What lies behind those tightly clasped hands is a tale of an adopted Jewish woman, a minority in ancient Persepolis. As the King’s second wife, Esther concealed her identity to survive. Learning of official Hamam’s planned decree to kill all Jews, she pleads for the safety of her people to the King. Esther’s tale is immortalised and celebrated in the Jewish holiday Purim. In 1906, this was voted one of the most popular paintings in the NGV Collection, though not for its depiction of someone who would come to be regarded by some as a feminist icon. Esther’s determination to enact change within the power structures of the time help us to understand the contributions of many women in history who dared to challenge class, religion, race and gender. As there are many layers within a painting, there are also many more to be uncovered when we learn about women in history.
By Jessica Lehmann
The pioneer 1904
Although Frederick McCubbin did not reveal a narrative behind his works, firsthand testimonies of early pioneers have survived, helping us to understand the challenges of life in nineteenth-century Australia. This creative response, based on historical accounts, considers the woman’s experience in McCubbin’s iconic painting.
Is this life as I had expected? The life promised? I was eager for a move. New scenery, a new way of life. Yet while our hardships in the colony continue, our toils persist. As my husband grows tired by manual labour, the necessity for me to provide, to dedicate myself to homemaking, grows stronger. I must ensure our survival. Keep us fed. Keep us clothed. The great distance from my kin, who once provided me comfort, causes me heartache, and my body feels the effects of two years on the land. There is seldom a child born who keeps its health through the blistering summer, and freezing winter. This is my greatest fear. Yet, although we appear victims of misfortune, today we are blessed with health. And we must take each day anew. In imagination I can picture a splendid city, towering over the hills. I am sure it will one day be reality. But will I be here to witness its growth?
By Sophie Gerhard
Mary Lucas 1636
Mary Lucas lived and died in tumultuous political times. She was born into a noble family in 1600, just three years before Elizabeth I, the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty, died, and England and Scotland were united under a Stuart dynasty. Lucas and her family were royalists. They supported King Charles I in his war against Parliamentarians, a group of politicians and soldiers who wanted to abolish absolute monarchy. This portrait was painted before the English Civil War between Royalist and Parliamentarians broke out in 1642. In her memoirs, Lucas’s sister, the poet, philosopher and natural scientist Margaret Cavendish, described the closeness between Lucas and her other siblings, who met daily to lunch together at their mother’s country or London home. In summer the sisters walked through Hyde Park and took supper on barges along the River Thames; in winter they attended plays and took coach rides. Then, war broke out. Two of Lucas’s brothers were killed in the war, while her husband acted as a messenger for the king. Mary died in 1647, before the war ended. According to family legend, her tomb was broken into and desecrated by Parliamentarian rebels.
By Dr. Maria Quirk
Louise-Marie de France 1763
From history books to Sofia Coppola films, the princesses of Versailles have always excited the popular imagination and are often envisioned as pastel-coloured chess pieces in marriage negotiations. The young Princess Louise is described in diaries from relatives as such; a haughty child with a taste for luxury and indulgence. Yet, after leaving the palace in her early teens to spend several years at a convent outside Paris, Louise returned more interested in religion than marriage. This resolve seems to have hardened in the 1760s with the concurrent deaths of her brother, sister-in-law and mother whose wealth and position, it seemed, did little to protect them. In 1770, telling no-one but her father, Louise left court to become a nun. Any influence she lacked as the youngest princess who, gossip insisted, was indigent and impatient she recouped in the church. Louise was often consulted by her father, royal officials, princes and ambassadors for spiritual and political guidance, garnering influence usually denied young women. So great was her contribution that after her death she was only one miracle shy of being formally ‘blessed’, making Louise, black robes, habit and confidence, one of the most influential princesses of Versailles.
By Billie Phillips
Anastasia Trubetskaya was a Russian princess at a time of great cultural change in the Russian aristocracy. She lived through the rule of Tsar Peter the Great, a moderniser who bought cultural and social reforms to Russia. Peter wanted Russians to dress and behave more like Western Europeans. Nobles like Trubetskaya were encouraged to learn French and German and dress in Western fashions, which had been restricted in the previous century. Men shaved their long beards and wore breeches and waistcoats instead of traditional Russian robes. Upper-class women like Trubetskaya switched from sarafans–long, pinafore dresses worn since the 1300s and traditional Kokoshnik head coverings to tight-waisted dresses with wide skirts and petticoats, like the one worn in this portrait. Peter’s reforms extended from fashion to diplomacy and philosophy, and Enlightenment values of secularism and humanism began to take hold among elites.
Trubetskaya was at the vanguard of these changes. As a high-ranking member of the imperial family, she entertained foreign monarchs and was lady-in-waiting to the flamboyant Empress Elizabeth. After her second marriage she lived in Germany, a centre of progressive, Enlightenment thinking. The books, maps and globe surrounding Anastasia in this posthumous portrait represent her love of literature, learning, languages and travel.
By Dr. Maria Quirk
This essay was originally published in the May-Jun 2020 NGV Magazine.