It’s a bizarre painting: a naked, prepubescent girl lounges against a sumptuous green velvet pillow, her hair tousled and tied by a silky pink bow. Despite the children’s playthings nearby, the girl’s complacent smile and provocative pose put her on par with the most scandalous odalisques of her day. Suggestively titled “Crisálida (Chrysalis),” the piece was painted by Pedro Sáenz Sáenz in 1897. It won second prize at that year’s National Fine Arts Exhibition — Spain’s most prestigious art event — and was purchased by the state. The piece embodies the disturbing ways that Spanish women were viewed by male artists and society for much of the 19th- and 20th-centuries: passive, infantile, and readily sexualized. In other words, in need of men’s guidance, influence, and control.
This painting is on display in Uninvited Guests: Episodes on Women, Ideology, and the Visual Arts in Spain, 1833–1931. After a six-month programming hiatus, the Museo Nacional del Prado takes a long, hard look at sexism in Spain during this period, and at the museum’s own essential role in perpetuating it. The Prado has held only two major exhibitions dedicated to female artists in its 101-year history — in 2016, of the 17th-century Dutch painter Clara Peeters, and in 2019, of the Italian Renaissance painters Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana — an oversight that the museum is now working to change.
Composed of 130 works, Uninvited Guests presents rarely seen works from this era’s female artists. These include works in Prado’s own collection, as well as pieces rescued from other institutions’ archives and restored for this occasion. Interestingly, the exhibition also looks critically at male artists’ portrayals of women.
In the 19th- and early 20th-centuries, Spanish women had an image problem. The nation’s art was dominated by temas del día, large-scale figurative paintings that claimed to present realistic views of daily life, but frequently portrayed women as salacious, insane, and conceited, and often cast them as slaves, witches, and rejects. For example, Carlos Verger Fioretti’s “Phalaena” (1920) shows a heavily made-up sex worker with a haunting gaze, her cigarette and revealing garb signs of her fall from grace. In other works, prodigal daughters kneel weeping before their fathers or are seen on their deathbeds as a result of some unnamed sin. Works like these policed female conduct while reinforcing patriarchal values. Most were made by men, who won the lion’s share of awards at the National Exhibitions and gained lucrative acquisitions from the state. Female artists never made up more than 10% of the exhibitors, and only 4% of those were officially recognized for their work. What did they have to say?
“No one took female artists seriously in Spain until well into the 20th century,” writes exhibition curator Carlos G. Navarro. And how could they? Women were barred from quality education and professional training for most of the country’s history, and Spain’s pricey art academies were no exception. The few that did admit females required permission from the woman’s husband or father, and restricted her to limited class hours on ‘feminine’ subjects like still life, portraiture, and miniature. As a result, women never made up more than 5% of the student body at art academies during this period. Above all, a woman’s first responsibility was to her household duties and her family.
Women who presented themselves as serious artists were treated ruthlessly by the press. Critics referred to these artists by their first names or with patronizing terms like muchachas (girls) and señoritas (little ladies). In a 1920 review, one critic said that the artist Teresa Romero, whom he called “La Teresita,” painted “with the naivety of a ten-year-old girl.” Other critics insisted that a woman’s most important creation was her physical appearance, and viciously attacked and caricatured female artists for their looks. Meanwhile, artistas who gained recognition for their work were derided as manly wannabes. Perhaps for these reasons, the majority of women who signed the registry books of the Prado in the 19th century referred to themselves as mere “copyists” rather than “artists” or “painters,” and the majority of female artists’ self-portraits from this period show no sign of their profession.
Because Spanish women were seen as unfit for activity outside of the home, female artists were pushed towards modest, small scale genres like miniature, which could be created without significantly disrupting domestic life. Ambitious and advanced artistas ventured farther afield and copied from masterworks in museums, though they were usually chaperoned by a family member or guardian. Copying masterworks was considered a jumping-off point for male artists, from which they could then invent their own grand compositions, but for women it was considered the pinnacle of what they were capable of. Consequently, theorists took the popularity of copying masterworks among female artists as a sign of women’s inferior intelligence and lack of originality, and critics dismissed the small number of women who sold their copies on the art market as desperate husband hunters who painted only in search of a mate who could be roaming the halls of the museum.
Despite the odds, there were brilliant female Spanish artists. Some, like María Luisa de la Riva, established themselves in Paris, where they could study and exhibit more freely. Elena Brockmann was the first woman to present a history painting at a National Exhibition in 1895, a genre previously off limits to her gender. And Julia Alcayde y Montoya won a second medal for her painting “Fruits” (1911) at the 1912 National Exhibition, though it wasn’t purchased by the State, nor were any of her subsequent works (a too-familiar fate for the exhibition’s female artists). It would take 85 years for the first woman to win the top prize at a National Exhibition. In the meantime, María Roesset Mosquera offers an alternative to Sáenz Sáenz’s vision of young womanhood. In her “Full Body Self-portrait”(1912), she stands poised and fully dressed, looking determinedly out at the viewer, challenging us to actually understand her.
Uninvited Guests: Episodes on Women, Ideology, and the Visual Arts in Spain, 1833–1931 continues at the Museo Nacional del Prado (Calle de Ruiz de Alarcón, 23, Madrid, Spain) through March 14, 2021.