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‘The Female Triumphant’ showcases pioneering women artists at new Sotheby’s exhibit

"Portrait of Three Children," by Angelika Kauffmann, is among highlights of "The Female Triumphant" at Sotheby's.  
"Portrait of Three Children," by Angelika Kauffmann, is among highlights of "The Female Triumphant" at Sotheby’s.   Photo Credit: Getty Images/Mireya Acierto

The future is female — and so is the past. An art exhibit at Sotheby’s this week highlights the women who chipped away at the glass ceiling of the European art world over the course of hundreds of years.

While Caravaggio was making waves at the turn of the 17th century, fellow Italian artist Fede Galizia was also causing a stir. Today she’s recognized as a pioneer in the art world — at least, to those who know her name. Galizia is among 14 female artists whose work is on display  in “The Female Triumphant” showcase, on view through Friday.

Featuring 21 Old Master artworks spanning the 16th to 19th centuries, the collection highlights the underrecognized achievements of female artists during a period in which just being a female artist was an achievement in itself. The works will go to auction on Wednesday as part of Sotheby’s Masters Week.

“[Galizia] was a pioneer of the still life in Italy, and was painting them within a decade of Caravaggio’s ‘Basket of Fruit’ [c. 1598], which is considered to be the very first pure still life,” Sotheby’s Old Master paintings specialist Calvine Harvey told amNewYork. “So she wasn’t just an important leader in this movement as a female artist, she was a leader in this movement, period.”

Galizia’s still life “A glass compote with peaches, jasmine flowers, quinces and a grasshopper,” is expected to fetch $2 million to $3 million when it goes to auction Wednesday evening.

Harvey says there’s been an uptick in interest recently in female Old Masters, despite the sales statistics: In 2018, Sotheby’s sold more than 1,100 paintings by male Old Masters, but just 14 by women.

“While this comparison sounds drastic, it is a reality that there were far fewer female artists in the pre-modern era, due to the very real barriers that were set up to prevent them not just from becoming artists,” Harvey explained. “They were not only discouraged from working outside the home, but they were forbidden from joining important artist guilds and academies, barred from life drawing classes, and unable to obtain apprenticeships or work with male artists who weren’t relatives, as it was deemed dangerous or inappropriate.”

The increase in enthusiasm for these artists is partly a sign of the times, too, according to Harvey. “Certainly, our society’s awareness of gender imbalance in general has grown in recent years and I think the art world is responding to that,” Harvey said, adding that private collectors and institutions alike have been looking to diversify their collections with work by female artists. Additionally, “the academic community has actively been presenting more exhibitions on female artists and supporting much-needed research on their work.”

Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene,” a Baroque work considered by some scholars to be a uniquely “proto-feminist” biblical portrayal, is among other highlights of the collection, along with a family portrait of three children by Swiss painter Angelika Kauffmann, which is believed to depict a young Georgiana Spencer, who would later become the Duchess of Devonshire.

Two paintings by celebrated 18th century artist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun are also on show. Best known as the portrait artist of Marie Antoinette, Vigée Le Brun has a striking portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, said to be one of the most important paintings to come to auction by the French artist and estimated to collect $4 million to $6 million. 

“I’m hopeful that by putting this sale on we will bring more attention to these important artists, in turn encouraging more interest in their work from the broader public and giving them the recognition they deserve as important figures in art history,” Harvey says.

‘The Female Triumphant’ is on display through Feb. 1 at Sotheby’s, 1334 York Ave., sothebys.com

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