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Artful Encounters with Women’s History at the National Gallery of Art

by Lorena Bradford, Head of Accessible Programs, National Gallery of Art on

Judith Leyster

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, c. 1630. National Gallery of Art.

Women Artists at the National Gallery

The National Gallery of Art’s collection focuses largely on European and American art made from the early Renaissance through today. The collection is housed in two buildings: John Russell Pope’s neoclassical West Building opened in 1941 to showcase paintings and sculptures dating from the fourteenth through the early twentieth centuries. In 1978, I.M. Pei’s modernist East Building opened to house the Gallery’s collections of modern and contemporary art. Given the nature of the collection, the vast majority of artists represented in the West Building are men, while a higher percentage of women artists are represented in the East Building.

When I stopped to consider how I engage with women’s history in my work as a museum educator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., two works of art jumped to the front of my mind: Judith Leyster’s Self-Portrait of c. 1630 and Eva Hesse’s Test Piece for “Contingent”  from 1969.

A Comparison of the Lives and Works of Judith Leyster and Eva Hesse

On the surface, it appears that Leyster and Hesse and these works could not be more different. Leyster was active in the 1630s as a master of the Dutch Golden Age specializing in genre scenes and merry companies showing men drinking, making music, and generally having a splendid time. Her self-portrait usually hangs in a wood-paneled room alongside nine other paintings, mostly half-length portraits of men and women. Caught in the act of painting, she smiles out at the viewer. She wears her finest dress and an exquisite (though likely uncomfortable and cumbersome) neck ruff. Wide, delicate cuffs edged with frothy lace extend from her wrists back along her forearms. In one hand she clutches two dozen long, narrow paint brushes, a rag, and a palette dotted with dollops of paint that still look wet. She sits with her other elbow propped casually on the back of her chair, which is set in front of the canvas on which she paints one of her most famous figures.

Eva Hesse

Eva Hesse, Test Piece for “Contingent,” 1969. National Gallery of Art.

Hesse, on the other hand, was born in Germany but worked mostly in America, and is claimed by some as a minimalist artist, others as an abstract expressionist, and by others still as a textile artist. Ultimately her work defies categorization. For her Test Piece for “Contingent,” she draped a long piece of cheesecloth, shaped like an oversized scarf, over a wooden dowel, which is suspended from the ceiling by nearly invisible monofilament. The cloth is coated with creamy, butter-yellow latex except at the narrow ends. The latex makes much of the banner stiff, but the entire piece gently undulates in drafts caused by bodies moving through the gallery. Sometimes the two ends sway in sync while other times they come together and separate, like lungs, or a breath.

Despite the dramatic variances in media and material, subject, and style, these works marked decisive moments in these artists’ lives. For some time, it was suggested that Leyster’s painting was the masterpiece she provided to gain entry into the Saint Luke’s Guild in Haarlem—a prestigious organization that conferred the right to work as a professional artist, and one to which she belonged after 1633. The style of her costume does not quite support that theory, so another, perhaps even more interesting hypothesis emerges: she created this when she was about twenty-one years old, perhaps as a more personal expression of her mastery of her craft in both hand and mind.

The curious title given to Hesse’s sculpture tells us a lot about the piece: it was indeed a trial piece for a final work now hanging in the National Gallery of Australia. Contingent comprises eight banners suspended in a row, like so many garments hung neatly on hangers in a closet. Hesse created Contingent while recovering from the last of the surgeries that attempted to save her from a brain tumor. Some viewers wonder if the cheesecloth echoed hospital gauze. It was her final work before her death.

Moreover, despite living and working centuries apart and on different continents, Leyster and Hesse’s personal lives have some parallels. Both married artists. Not unexpectedly (though disappointingly), Leyster stopped creating independent works after she married fellow artist Jan Miense Molenaer, while he continued to have a prolific career. However, though her husband was a successful artist, Leyster was not forgotten even after she moved to Amsterdam from her native Haarlem following her marriage in 1636. In the following decade, a historian praised her accomplishments, noting that she was among the women artists “who could compete with men” (Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Judith Leyster/Self-Portrait/c. 1630,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions).

Hesse married a sculptor, Tom Doyle, in 1962 and they divorced four years later. In an interview conducted shortly before her death, Hesse mused, “I think there was a time when I met the man that I married, I shouldn’t say I went backwards but I did because he was a more mature artist…and I would unconsciously be somewhat influenced and he would push me in his direction.” She had already acknowledged an underlying rivalry with her husband. In 1964, in her personal diary, she admitted to herself, “In competing with Tom I must unconsciously be competing with my alter ego. In his achievements, I see my failures.” On the other hand, Hesse found resolution and inspiration in the pages of her diaries, as when she promised herself, “I refuse to fear any longer…Face all that I fear, and fear it no longer….Risk nothing—nothing gained.” (Ellen H. Johnson, “Order and Chaos: From the Diaries of Eva Hesse,” Art in America, June 1, 1983.)

The Legacy of Both Artists for Visitors

While the fact remains that Molenaer and Doyle’s work and their relationships shaped their wives’ practices, Leyster and Hesse emerge as resolutely independent, accomplished artists who were not defined by their relationship to male artists in the way that Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning’s lives and works sometimes are. When I introduce Leyster to visitors at the Gallery, we delight in the nearly tangible connection we feel with this lively artist. “Leyster” means “leading star,” and she was celebrated as such in her own lifetime and in ours. On the other hand, knowing what we know of her life and death, Hesse’s work stands and survives like a monument, a monolithic gravestone, a celebratory banner.

Like this blog and want to learn more about women’s history? Visit Remember the Ladies, the official blog for the Women’s History Affinity Group at AASLH.

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