How the Baroque Movement Revolutionized My Ideal Form of Feminism and Female Sexuality
By Micaela Freeman
The first time I realized I didn’t like being “feminine” was in middle school. I confusingly walked the halls of my middle school, questioning why I didn’t want to wear the latest Limited Too shirt or why I didn’t want to bring a boy to the dance at the end of the year. As an escape in middle school, I began to see relief in art. I learned an instrument, and fell so fiercely for history, there was (and still is) no going back. I found painting to be something that stopped me in my tracks.
Though I never had an urge to pick up a paintbrush, my fascination grew into something that I now call my career. It was simultaneously stagnant and dynamic. It became a consistent that I didn’t realize I desperately needed. I see this phenomena now in Jodi Picoult’s book, Sing You Home. The need for art to aid in healing, or mental health in general, is an outlet for so many poeple. I never took an art class, but I found myself going down rabbit holes of history and how women specifically, though underground, helped develop the version of history everyone sees today. My launch into art history began with women, and it only strengthened my self affirmation that I, a woman, want to be like these women. Art history helped me realize that women can be successful, too. Women in art history proved that female artists, though underrepresented, often speak louder than their male counterparts. They had to work harder to be heard. Their strengths can be seen because of the evocation they offer despite their gender never being revealed. They touch the parts of your brain that you don’t ask to be touched, but that need to be touched. They see the colors you see, and point out compartmentalized emotions and bring about love in the art itself. We see their history on a canvas differently than we see a man’s. My fascination with female artists—Kahlo, Morisot, Frankenthaler, Krasner—helped define my sexuality and self worthiness. It led to research and relearning. As a woman in academia, my goal is to stand next to my male counterparts, and seem just as sturdy. I don’t wear dresses because in a suit, I’m questioned less. From my experience, that route is simpler. I see Emily Brontë and understand her pseudonym. Female artists proved their capabilities through their capabilities and only that. Morisot sat alongside Renoir and Manet and proved her art belonged on the wall just as much as theirs.
Female artists throughout art history, had to do a lot of proving just to get through the door, let alone into the room. Through my dedication to overcoming doubt, my self reflection grew into something that I never thought I’d be good at: self care and acceptance. My affinity for women began with success, and I will not have shame in wanting that same success-no matter how many times my femininity is discounted by the eyes of my male counterparts. I initially sought out a sense of comfort I found in art history because for the first time, I related to not just one woman, but to many.
As my undergrad career bounced through the chronological timeline of art movements, I landed on one that underpinned everything I was searching for. Between the revolution of female painting (in an era in which female painters were not easily accepted), and the themes of femininity, sexuality, and darkness, the Baroque movement was the culmination of my beliefs in female power, for it showed me a group of artists that were nothing like their predecessors or successors. These paintings depicted darkness, personal space, and a new female nude. They were rejects, and rejected what had become before them.
Primarily known in Western art, the nude in the Baroque movement looked to classical antiquity and favorability when it came to depicting the female body. It took on a fresh rendition with Peter Paul Rubens, when the Baroque artist decided to stray away from the lanky slim nude and paint more natural and “radiant” women (Venus and Adonis, mid 1630s, seen at The Met). Before the 19th century, the nude was ambitious, and scrutinized academically by museums and academies. It was a rendition of classical antiquity and most artists gave it go. Rubens did something that is a struggle even today: he depicted realistic bodies. In turn, he produced The Three Graces (1630-35) which came to represent the essence of the Baroque period. The “dramatization” of the art during this movement aided in my realization that; one, drama can be good and two, men and women can be real, emotionally and physically. The sense that Baroque art gives you is the sense of reaffirmation, that you somehow relate to the drama presented in mythological allusions. That the light and the dark can intertwine so perfectly, and that consistency might not be your strong suit and that is okay.
What originally attracted me to female artists at and around this time period, and during the Renaissance period, was the struggle to be the same. The strife for equality was loud and harsh, and women had to go through the ringer to be accepted as successful artists. At the time, women were to be silent, perfect beings that balanced out the “agony of men,” and be “perfectly uncontaminated,” and well, “pure” (Ruskin, 76). But, despite the circumstances, they did it (not without hardship). Women outgrew the troubles they faced, and though history is darkened with oppression, the women throughout art history is what caught my attention and helped me want to be better. The depiction of women pre 1900 from male artists all generally represented the same woman, the idealized male perception of what they hoped their woman would be. This depiction represented the male desire to pin women down, and to contain them to the “purest form,” always avoiding temptation.
Take Eve in any version of the book of Genesis, whether it be the actual story, or Paradise Lost, or After Paradise, or in a Benjamin West painting. In Eve’s Diary (1906), she loves Adam because he is “masculine.” As for the Baroque movement, we see a lot of oppositional opportunities that point to the juxtaposition of men being well, men and women being women.We see the struggle to be the same become lopsided as it offers a lens people don’t normally look through.
One of my favorite artists to come out of the Baroque period, Artemisia Gentileschi, highlights this perfectly. Gentileschi, a Big Shot name of the movement, had her own share of #MeToo movements and masculine challenges. She was one of the first women to stand up and speak up for women's rights and unbeknownst to her, she paved paths for modern feminists. At a time where academia was nearly inaccessible to women, she became the first female member of Accademia di Arte del Disegno. As women strove to be equal, Artemisia proved that the feat is possible with her distinguished and often praised style, influenced by the Caravaggio style. Striving to stray away from the “ideal woman,” the “perfect flower,” of a woman, and the nun of female domesticity, she sprung into action with her paintings and what they representef (Dijkstra). She shared her life and its tsuris through the lens of shocking paintings, and had plenty of her own Eve-like temptations. Her paintings are considered autobiographical by many, and her subject matter was intense and shocking to the viewer. Her Susanna and the Elders (1610) depicts a semi-nude woman shielding herself from two older men, and is telling of her own experiences. Often overshadowed by her own assault and the trial that ensued during her lifetime, Artemisia relied on her skills to launch her into the art scene. She became a female trailblazer, offering a sense of empowerment in her paintings. Though violent or dark scenes are depicted in her work, the women were never painted as “delicate flowers” or dainty; she painted strong, fierce, women. Her paintings were an oeuvre of revenge and female empowerment. She, the most influential Baroque painter, is known for her handling of color as well as her progressiveness and expression in her paintings. Artemisia looked the Male Gaze in the eye, and with subtle strokes and heightened chiaroscuro, said “f*** you” to whatever normative idealization men and society adhered to at that time.
Coupled with the ideal of masculinity equaling emotional success and women being the bane of non-evocative success in a business meeting, the Baroque movement, really, was a rejection of the perception of women versus men. To be the bravest and boldest does not mean you have to be a man. To be the most caring and evocative does not mean you have to be a woman. We see this today: the fluidity of gender and love. What really caught my eye when first studying the Baroque movement was yes, the women, but also the men. The dramatic aesthetic in which the Baroque offers can be seen through what the Art History Babes call a “Bad Boi of the Baroque,” named Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Caravaggio to this day is the most emotional person I’ve ever read up on, and he dealt with his share of brushes with the law. Rather than being the “man of the house,” and “proving that he can control situations with business motivations,” he used evocative momentum to sling shot himself into a whirl of chaos that was his own personal history. He lived on the run, caught himself in an anger-filled affair, and painted some of the darkest paintings from the movement. He also influenced an entirely new type of artist; a bolder artist, artists like Rubens and Vermeer, staples of the art world. What influences me, however, is that he let his emotions drive him--something women are condemned for. Caravaggio taught me to be bold, and then be bolder.
So, be emotional. Or driven. Or both. Gender and emotion do not need to be analogous. Artemisia taught me that, and the Baroque movement helped me culminate my ideal version of myself: I am a little bit of everything.
Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity. 1986. Hard copy. (Read this this past year and it changed my life).