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Women Painters in Antiquity

We don’t have much information about the identity of artists in antiquity, and even less for women. Generally, arts and crafts are assumed to have been a mostly male profession. However, there are snippets of evidence that make it clear that women actively participated in the visual arts as well. So, in honor of International Women’s Day, here is a brief rundown on what we know about women painters, starting with two images from the walls of Pompeii:

Roman wall painting of a woman painting a picture from the House of the Surgeon at Pompeii.
From the House of the Surgeon, Pompeii, room 9. Ca. 50 - 79 CE. Height: 120 cm. National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Inv. 9018.

The image above is a central panel from the House of the Surgeon (so named because of the large number of metal surgical implements excavated there), removed from a wall in a large room off the garden. Here, a young woman is painting an image of a herm of Dionysos (a type of statue), which sits before her. Cupid holds up the artwork while she gazes at her subject, simultaneously mixing some paint.

The second image is also a central panel decorating a wall, this time a cubiculum (private room or bedroom) in a house in insula 14, region VI, known as the Casa della Imperatrice di Russia:

Roman wall painting of a woman painting a picture from the Casa della Imperatrice at Pompeii
From Casa della Imperatrice di Russia, cubiculum 3. Ca 50-70 CE. National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Inv. 9017.

The woman holds a palette in her left hand while putting the finishing touches on a painting with her right hand. The painting she is working on depicts a woman with elaborate drapery - perhaps it is a portrait of the woman sitting behind the painter, looking on with keen interest?

Both images, which date roughly to ca. 50 - 79 CE, are idealized. The elegant dress, well-coiffed hair, and fine furniture signal the high status of the women; painting is here shown as an aristocratic or leisure activity, although we know from other sources that being a working artist was not a high-status occupation.

Besides these visual representations, we also hear about successful women painters in some of the literary sources of the time. Pliny the Elder (writing 1st century CE), from whom we know much about ancient art, tells us about multiple female painters: Timaretes, Irene, Aristaretus, and Iaia. (Pliny, Natural History 35.147-8). All were known for their portraits, and Iaia (ca. 100 BCE)) is singled out explicitly by Pliny: "no one's hand was faster, and her artistic skill was such that in prices she obtained, she far outdid the most celebrated painters of the same age, Sopolis and Dionysius". Then, like now, the price art fetches in the marketplace is an indicator of worth.

We hear of another successful painter, Helena of Egypt (ca. 300 BCE), who painted a different type of subject: battles. Photius, a writer in Constantinople in the 9th century CE, tells us in his Bibliotheka (encyclopedia) that Helena painted the Battle of Issos, a famous battle fought between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III in what is now southeast Turkey (Photius, Bibliotheca, 190.149b29-33). Likely the painting was commissioned by Ptolemy I, who was regent/king of Egypt at the time, and was also one of Alexander's closest lieutenant's and participated in the battle.

Unfortunately, none of these paintings survive. However, we may see the influence of Helena's Battle of Issos in a later work: the famous Alexander Mosaic:

Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii
The Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun at Pompeii, ca. 10 BCE. Height: 2.72 meters; width: 5.13 meters. National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Inv. 10020

The mosaic, which adorns the exedra of the House of the Faun, depicts Alexander the Great and Darius standing off at a frustrating moment: Alexander has already thrust his spear into another Persian, while Darius has already used up his arrows; Darius' chariot driver is in the process of whisking him away. The mosaic is believed to depict the Battle of Issus and (based on the style and color scheme) to be a copy of (or at least inspired by) a painting from the late 4th century BCE. Many scholars identify the now-lost prototype as having been done by Philoxenos of Eretria (a male painter whom Pliny says painted one of Alexander's battles for Cassander, one of Alexander's other generals). However, as noted by Olga Palagia (2018, 180), the themes of the other mosaics in the House of the Faun carry Egyptian motifs and Nilotic scenes:

Roman mosaic with nilotic themes from the House of the Faun at Pompeii

Clearly the designer of the decorative program for this house was looking at imagery from Egypt, which then points to Helena and her Battle of Issus.

So do these women represent a larger class of female artists that are missing from the sources, who have remained mostly anonymous? Or are they the exception in a field that was male-dominated? Something that emerges from the limited sources is that most of the female artists mentioned had fathers who were artists. Likely such women grew up in their father's studio and learned the family trade. Did these women continue to work as professional artists? Or did painting remain a hobby that had to take second priority to the more traditional duties of women? It is difficult to know, but the evidence above shows that women did make an impact in the area of painting in the Greco-Roman world.

Further Reading:

Natalie Kampen, "Hellenistic Artists: Female", Archeologia Classica 27(1): 9-17. (1973)

Olga Palagia, "Alexander's Battles Against Persians in the Art of the Successors", in Ancient Historiography on War and Empire, ed. by T. Howe, S. Müller, and R. Stoneman. (2016)

Rainer Vollkommer, "Greek and Roman Artists", in Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Art and Architecture, ed. by Clemente Marconi (2014). ***See pp 124-25 for female artists***


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