Questions to Ponder about Women in Frames! I love this article, even though it has been around a while. It touches on so much about the Italian Renaissance and its culture of display and where women fit into that culture. So here are my discussion questions for Thursday:

1. This article reinforces many of the themes that we have discussed so far in this course, particularly the lack of neutrality of the gaze. Through what methodological lenses does Simons view the issue of gender in profile portraits created in the Renaissance?
2. The portraits in this article are seen in the context of the display culture of Quattrocento Florence. Discuss.
3. In the discussion of woman as an object of exchange, her appearance was carefully calculated to foster her transfer at the time of marriage; I found the comparison of the profile portrait to a still life positively chilling because it was so apt!
4. Wives and nuns, the only two Quattrocento options for women, both defined women in relationship to a male. How do these portraits perpetuate this system or contradict it?
5. What led to the eventual demise of the profile portrait?
6. On p. 15 Simons states: “Visual art…both shared and shaped social language and need not be seen as a passive reflection of pre-determining reality. For the representation of women, the profile form, and its particulars were well suited to the construction, rather than reflection, of an invisible ‘reality’.” In what other art historical cases has this been demonstrated?
7. It strikes me as ironic that the origins of the profile portrait are traced to dead men and male rulers. What has the female appropriation done to the prototype.
8. Are all portraits “anatomizing” in the end?
9. There is so much in this article to discuss!!! The optic fear of the woman’s gaze, the Medusa syndrome, the forced passivity of these portraits, and then calling Dr. Freud!
10. Do you see any danger in discussing these portraits in light of scopophilia, castration anxieties, fetishisation, or the proto-panopticon?


3 responses

  1. 1) Simons considers the “admiration” and “gaze” applied to the “flatter, more decorative” depictions of women, as opposed to viewing the depictions in terms of individualism and fame. With this regard, she is making a gender distinction in Renaissance profile portraiture that had been previously unexplored because the interest in the “gaze” arose in the late 20th century. Simons directly states that she will approach profile portraits of Quattrocento women as “constructions of gender conventions, not as natural, neutral images.” (p. 5)

    3) Agreed. I’m also surprised by/interested in the role of adornment in ritual–particularly that it was so significant that a priest was not legally required, woman as proper spectacle sufficed

  2. 2. My understanding of the Quattrocento culture of Florence is that the public image of the family as well as the greater lineage mattered a lot. Since the family was a microcosm of society as a whole, things that occurred in the family were not private matters. It was important to display a quality private life in the public sphere. So a portrait of a fiancee or a wife, alive or deceased was a way to demonstrate what one’s family had. In these portraits it is clear that the subjects had little agency, staring at nothing off to the side, not engaging with the viewer. The women were objects in the painting for their beauty but were also like clothes racks or shelves to display what their husbands or families could afford. Since the family was a microcosm of society in Florence, it was important for the men to have control over their wives, and for the wives to obey their husbands, so the servants and children would obey them; while also on a larger scale, people would learn to obey in the public sphere, either the Church or the government. Thus, the women in the women showing almost no agency in the painting reflects this Quattrocento value of obedience.

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