Women in European Art

Published 23 Jun 2017

Attitude to women and understanding of their role in the European art have changed dramatically since medieval times. This paper is to trace those changes, using three famous paintings from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and late XIX century.

The Portrait of Giovanni, Arnolfini and His Wife Giovanna Cenami, also known as The Portrait of Spouses Arnolfini, represents us the figures of a man and a woman, namely an Italian trader Giovanni Arnolfini with his wife. The entire picture, painted by an outstanding Flemish artist Jan van Eyck in 1434 is deeply symbolic, and can be completely understood only after learning the whole epoch, when this masterpiece came to being, however, our point of interest is a woman. Wearing a long green dress, covering her figure, she seems to be very modest. Here respective and gentle look is pointed to her husband. The woman is pregnant, or simulates pregnancy, which was quite a usual thing at the time. In total, she seems to be just an obedient satellite of her spouse, never trying any independent role. The hands of the couple are united in the semantic centre of the composition. A man rises his right hand in a blessing gesture, showing his protection.

The manner, in which the woman is depicted, shows a, so to say, ideal medieval wife: passive, dependent on husband’s will, and always ready to follow man’s instructions. Her behavior is absolutely “anti-feminist”, it seems, that she simply does not think of her rights and interests, totally identifying them with the interests of her spouse.

The Alba Madonna by Raphael, painted in 1510 is justifiably considered to be the greatest of Raphael’s Madonnas in North America. The round format of the picture is usual for Florentine style of depicting Madonnas, but is still different from the traditional icon scheme. Madonna sits on the ground, rather than on a magnificent throne. In contrast to most of Madonnas of the time, and even many pictures by Raphael himself, she expressly dominates over Christ and John the Baptist., who are depicted as simple children. The focus of their gestures and glances is centered on a slender reed cross that actually defines the work’s meaning. Church doctrine holds that from birth Christ had an “understanding” of his fate. Here he accepts the cross of his future sacrifice, an action understood as well by his mother and cousin. However, this understanding by Christ and John is vague and unclear, and the Godmother appears to have clear understanding of future. She still has no decisive power to influence the course of events by her own will, nevertheless, she is much stronger and more active, than a woman of van Eyck.

Young Mother, Daughter, and Son by Mary Cassatt is the latest of the examined pictures, painted in 1913. Just as two previous paintings, it’s topic concerns motherhood. However, at this picture, a woman plays a central role in the composition, binding it together. She is already not an object, serving other’s interests, deprived of own will and independence, she is an active subject, a wise, rather than aggressive one. Her domination is not based on force or violence, but on calm evenness. The picture can hardly be called “feminist”, but anyway it reflects some feminist’s views about women hidden power and influence. The only male figure on the picture is a baby, laying on mother’s hands and sleeping. He is rather an object, than a subject. The picture seems to be explaining, that despite of all men’s efforts to prevail, they all are still born by women, and they are nothing without women.


  • Praeger F. A.(1958) Praeger Picture Encyclopedia of Art: A Comprehensive Survey of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and Crafts, Their Methods, Styles and Technical Terms, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, New York: F.A. Praeger
  • Beck J, 1994, “Masters of Art: Raphael”, Harry N Abrams, London
  • I. S. Monro (1956) Index to Reproductions of European Paintings: A Guide to Pictures in More Than Three Hundred Books. New York: H. W. Wilson
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