Now You See Us: Women Artists in Britain 1520-1920 

Tate Britain (London), May-Oct/24

  • Artemisia Gentileschi (Rome, 1593 – Naples, 1653) was a great caravaggist painter, daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a caravaggist himself. In 1611 she was raped by Agostino Tassi, painter and her father’s friend. As a result, she underwent an infamous trial during which she was publicly humiliated and tortured, despite being the victim, in order to ascertain that the rape had actually happened. Although the rapist was convicted, Artemisia was forced into a shotgun marriage and left Rome. Throughout  her successful career she worked in many European courts (including Stuart’s court during Charles I’s reign), juggling between male patrons and artists taken aback by her talent and freedom. 
Artemisia Gentileshi Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) c.1638-1639. Royal Collection Trust
  • During the Victorian Age, when women were relegated to the domestic environment, Emily Mary Osborn (London, 1828 – 1925) certainly had an extraordinary life. Her family encouraged her to be a painter and she was lucky enough to be supported by wealthy patrons, including Queen Victoria. However, she used her art to report the unfair situation other women were experiencing since “Nameless and Friendless”, as stated in the title of one of Osborn’s most famous works (1857). She also actively campaigned in the suffragette movement and in 1859 signed a petition to the Royal Academy of Arts to open its schools to female students, which he did a year later in 1860.
Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless. “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, etc.” - Proverbs, x, 15 1857

These two artists lived in distant times and in different contexts and yet, clearly, an element unites them: the struggle. In Artemisia’s case, struggling for her own life and struggling against the prejudices of contemporary men who considered women unfit to paint. In Emily’s case, who lived as a privileged instead, the coordinated struggle within the largest feminist emancipation movement in modern history.

This exhibition title, impactful and choral, is indeed a provocative reminder of the solidarity’s feeling that unites women from all ages, forced to fight in order to redeem themselves first as women, and then, in this case, as artists. Without losing the British focus, which is Tate’s identity, this journey rediscovers hundreds of international female professional artists, depicts the historical contexts in which Artemisia, Emily and many others lived and explains how each of them helped to create the conditions for the freedom of today’s female artists.

May Delany Rubus Odoratus, 1772-1782, The British Museum

Last year Tate Britain already presented the exhibition “Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in UK 1970-1990”, while one of the most significant contributions to the rediscovery of female artists, typically absent in textbooks, comes from a young British art historian, Katy Hessel, who in 2022 published “The story of art without men”.

Elizabeth Butler, The Roll Call, 1874, Royal Collection Trust

Since, paraphrasing Virginia Woolf, for most of history anonymous was a woman, the invitation is to consider the visit to this exhibition not only as a leisure, but as a conscious political act to remove extraordinary women and artists from obscurity.

And now, do you see us?

Camilla Ceppini for London Art Walk
July 2024