Women, until about a hundred years ago, have been mostly “objects of representation” (Chadwick, 1990) in art, and the choices of female “objects” made by the “producers” of art – white and male in the Western canon – almost invariably tended to be young and sexually attractive.
This position of women in art is hardly surprising: in a male dominated world the value of a female was a reflection of her social standing. And while there is no lack of portraits of old men – kings, popes, generals, rich merchants, etc., older women are largely absent from the canon. An older woman, or even a middle aged one, appears in the artwork only in a select few cases: if she is a ruling monarch, a mother of the artist (Rembrandt, Mother Reading), a caricature to represent some sin or vice (Bernardo Strozzi, Vanitas) or a nameless character in a [fashionable] sketch from peasant life (Velasquez, An Old Woman Cooking Eggs). An old woman – a witch, a nightmare – could easily become an object of aggression and violence, both physical and literary:
Malignant Old Woman
Burchiello (15th century)
‘Malignant Old Woman’
Rotten, perfidious and malignant old woman
Enemy of all good, envious,
A spell-weaving, crafty old witch,
Nasty and contorted, you are nothing but trouble.
But as the position of women in society changed – albeit very slowly – the objects became subjects and even acknowledged producers of art, and as a consequence, a different older woman appeared in the portraits – an artist, a scientist, a writer: a woman whose worth was not her connection with the artist, her sexuality or a curio value, but rather her personality and her achievements as a human being.
This exhibition presents a selection of work that illustrates the changing views of artists and societies towards older women.