Women in Frames

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?


23 responses

  1. Hello everyone! I hope you enjoyed the article. I’m really looking forward to discussing this one on Thursday. Here are some of the questions I’ve been mulling over…

    1. Simons states that historian Jacob Burckhardt believes that “women stood on a footing of perfect equality with men” in the Italian Renaissance, since “the educated woman, no less than the man, strove naturally after a characteristic of complete individuality (5).” I think we can all agree that this is completely and utterly ludicrous, however on the topic of individuality, do we think that it is possible for women to be individualistic in profile portraits especially when their defining symbols are references to their husbands?

    2. Giovanni Boccaccio’s quote “To appear in public is to be looked upon” started me thinking about performance, masquerade, and daily presentation. Simons makes it clear that these sitters would be harshly punished for appearing in public in this extravagantly dressed manner. So what do we think about this in relation to the notion that portraits should be an accurate representation of self? This is a fairly straightforward question, but I think it may be revealing of the ultimate purpose of these portraits of women during the Quattrocento.

    3. If you all would like to, I think it might be interesting to go back to the Berger article and discuss the differences between Patricia Simons and his approach to exploring “the gaze.”

    4. “Lacking both phallus and any genitalia of her own in these truncated images, the woman is seen as an absence of an absence (22).” To me this statement is so profound. I’d like to talk about the simultaneous de-sexualization and sexualization (and literal objectification!) of these female sitters.

    5. The Panopticon. I find this a terrifying and chilling structure. Let’s go over the physical architecture of the panopticon and then explore whether we see this coming into play with our viewing of these portraits. That is to say, when we look at a woman in a profile portrait are we implementing our “gaze as an instrument of control and supervision” (23) upon her?

    • For clarification, is the Panopticon a literal viewing machine, like a surveillance camera system, or is it conceptual, as in the spectator’s gaze? If a physical entity, then the Panopticon is very Big Brother to me!
      Are we intentionally attempting to control and supervise a female sitter? I think that we have a tendency to judge other women by their appearance (outfit, carriage: confidence v. humility v. self-importance, activity) similarly to the Florentine women…I recall our mothers, aunts, grandmothers telling us to avoid certain behavior in public, amongst other things, not to sit with your legs open, for example; then, going out into the world, repeating and mimicking what was taught… You know when you see a woman being unladylike…

      From that I suppose we generate our own ideas of how a dignified, “highly respectable” woman would look or dress. But then, if we are indeed dealing with a display culture, then these profile portraits are very much performance, with us as audience and not directors. According to Simon, the female sitter of these portraits averted her gaze so that it did not meet that of male spectators/ the painter–If we insert ourselves in their position, then we take on that authoritative role as substitutes…

  2. I have, fortunately, had the opportunity to read this article before and I found it even more interesting upon reexamination. There are several sections that I found to be of particular interest, including, “Like nuns and donors, the women portrayed in profile are displayed and visible objects, and yet they are removed from ‘worldly distractions’. They are inactive objects gazing elsewhere, decorously averting their eyes. In this sense they are chaste, if not virginal, framed if not (quite) cloistered. However, unlike nuns, these idealized women are very much not ‘beyond the gaze of men’” (12). This reinforces the permeating statement of our class, which is that the portrait, through being a portrait, makes the sitting into a literal object.

    In one of my other classes we looked at photoshopped classical art that made the women more “ideal.” I found this concept particularly interesting in the context of this article. http://flavorwire.com/257063/startling-photoshop-makeovers-of-classic-nudes-in-art

    As with the last time I read this, the last line really stuck out to me, “The male gaze continued in its triumphant potency while the female gaze remained repressed: one reason, we may speculate, why the female artist has, until very recently, been a rare creature.” (24) I found myself feeling much as I did when I last read this, galvanized! The relationship to modern perceptions of femininity is so notable and relevant to today’s ideals.

    • Wow, talk about the emaciation of a body…those pictures were AWFUL…I have a sweet spot for the female nude which does not include photoshopping! UGH… anyways, those images seem to be constructed for some sort of socopophelic intent where the viewer would be a male who has inserted his own idealization of a woman’s body.
      This really hones in on the aspect of the male gaze and the “construction rather than reflection, of an invisible reality” part of Simon’s article.

    • Yeah, the whole thing about the article strictly inhibiting individuality of the woman portrayed in portraiture and the justification of it all is really discouraging. To be diminished to just simply an object. It’s really annoying but, do you believe the perceptions of the relationship between men and women when it comes to portraiture is strictly limited due to the audience that regularly analyzes them?

  3. So, I have to say that I really enjoyed this article and found it to be relevant across a wide spectrum. I couldn’t help but think of film studies when Simmons stated that “to be a woman in the word was to be the object of male gaze’….. the gaze was then a metaphor for worldliness, and virility, made of Renaissance woman an object of public discourse, exposed to scrutiny and framed by the parameters of propriety, display and ‘impression management’ put simply, why else paint a woman except as an object of display within the male discourse?” (8).

    This article reminded me so much of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the presentation we had for it last November. Professor Ruby made a statement about how Hitchcock frequently focuses on women as a subject of the male gaze. She also noted how at certain points in the film we see the protagonist gazing at the woman in literally a frame or doorway. I’m attaching a clip of a scene where this happens, because I find it rather striking.

    Sorry for going off on a tangent, I’m just really intrigued by this article, and I hope we’ll have time to discuss how this scholarship about the male gaze can branch out from portraiture into other artistic mediums!

  4. I really enjoyed this article. I think the idea that the woman is like a still life is really interesting. Also the part in the article where Simon is talking about some aspect of the woman’s uprightness being silently communicated by the profile panel really get to me. Is there really something being communicated? I mean, what can we really read off of these other than the constructed identity created of the male patron and artist?
    This just gets me thinking about Martin’s article and his description of a mask and how this could apply to women portraits…

  5. I am excited about discussing this article tomorrow! Simons makes her argument more believable by addressing these Quattrocentro portraits of women and the gaze from an interdisciplinary stance and various perspectives. This article ties in ongoing negotiations and relationships between sitter, artist and viewers, in social context.

    On page 10, Simons says, “The girl was an object of depersonalized exchange by which means a mutual parentado was established, a dowry of capital was brought by the girl and a husband’s honour became hers. She also supplied an unsullied heritage and ‘beauty of mind’.” How would one assess that her heritage was pure in a patrilineal and patriarchal society—especially when she did not possess her dowry items? What constitutes an “unsullied heritage”?
    “A woman, who was supposedly vain and narcissistic, was nevertheless made an object in a framed ‘mirror’ when a man’s worldly wealth and her ideal dowry, rather than her ‘true’ or ‘real’ nature, was on display.” (11) How fitting that a woman’s “inheritance” was composed of intangible virtues, like chastity and piety. This also echoes Buchloh’s notions about portraiture, absence/presence, and commemoration.

    In answer to Sadler’s question, I think that portraits in and of themselves are not anatomizing, particularly those that are abstracted or composed of other objects, such as Fire. We as viewers isolate features, especially when we read facial features for character.
    Page 21 is fun! For each personage involved in the portrait-making process, Simons casts the gaze in psychoanalytical terms…(The male ego is so fragile and insecure!) The whole paragraph about the buried eye as relates to fear of castration was fascinating; men seem to have this obsession with constructing an “Other” to isolate and control…scopophilia and that whole bit about parents not having eye contact with a child of the opposite sex reeked of Oedipal and Electra complexes. I LOVE that Simon accounts for social context and female agency in this display culture—Does the matrons’ attitude, accepting and embracing these public conventions and this “civic responsibility” to appear respectable at all times explicitly for their men’s honor, make them condemned or pitiful?

  6. Oh no! I wrote a whole answer and then it disappeared! 😦 Bummer! Oh well, I will try again…

    This article is, seriously, a bundle of joy. I would love this article no matter what (because I just naturally gravitate to this subject matter), but it aligns so nicely with my senior seminar that it makes me so happy! (In case you want to know– my paper discusses (among many other things) Baudelaire’s male gaze as seen in his poetry (see, Jess!? The male gaze happens everywhere!!! Even in old poetry). Off topic slightly; if you are interested, the part of this essay where the author discusses windows and scrutiny and the “eye’s intrusion”, I was, oddly, immediately reminded of a prose poem by Baudelaire called <> (“Windows”)– but in it, he says that closed windows are more “fertile” (i.e., more interesting) than open ones since he can create his own version of what is happening inside the window– in the poem he imagines a woman in the window and creates/imagines a whole life story for her.. So again it is all up to the active man to do the creating and constructing….(sorry for that tangent! but anytime I can put in a word for Baudelaire, I try to haha)

    Going off the “man as creator” idea — a quote I found quite interesting: “When advising her son about being a husband she wrote ‘a man, when he is really a man’ **makes** a woman a woman” (17) (emphasis on ‘makes’ is mine). Discuss!!! So it is the man who creates the woman? How original.

    My favorite part of this article: the panopticon!!! I must be really sheltered because I had never heard of this before. “The gaze as an instrument of control and supervision” is disturbingly applicable to art that deals with the woman as subject- So to answer you, Katherine, yes I do think in certain cases that implementing the gaze is an instrument of control. But I do think we must take into account whose gaze it is. In the case of the article, it would be a male gaze because it is the man who painted the image and it is the man who was in charge of the woman’s image.

  7. The discussion of the profile portrait compared to a still life was something that struck me as well. Women are treated like exchangeable objects and therefore painted in the manner of a still life, inanimate. The profile portrait was used to provide an image of women for potential suitors to admire. Once chosen “The girl was an object of depersonalized exchange…and a husband’s honour became hers to display”(12). So, the role that the profile portrait played at this time was really important for the male viewer/ gaze more so than the females? In many ways the profile portrait feels impersonal because you cannot see the sitter’s whole face and therefore can’t read one’s character. The profile portrait rarely feels more than a mask to me.

    Many times during this article I kept thinking about Laura Mulvey’s article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema and found it interesting that we can relate a modern theory to much older works of art created by and for men. I also was thinking about how we refer to film frames and the article’s title!

    • Despite the date of this article, I still feel that it has a great deal to offer the contemporary reader. I feel that the author’s use of theory is complimented by solid art history to forge a really solid case to dismantle the patriarchal view of Renaissance art history. Did you agree with the Medusa effect of these portraits? With her application of Foucault’s panopticon lens to this material? In other words, do you feel that she goes too far? Or not far enough?

  8. 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!
    -I totally agree, especially when they discussed how the portraits were used to capture a woman’s attributes that make her a great wife, such as her sexual honor, her dowry, and her ability to carry children. Even attributes connected to a woman’s actions and personhood are made into an image, and given forms to be put on display to honor her husband and her family. Nothing can be hers, it must all be part of the depiction made of her.
    On page 12, this particular line stuck with me with this idea.: ‘Beauty in a woman’, wrote Leon Battista Alberti, “must be judged not only by the charm and refinement of her face, but still more by the grace of her person and her aptitude for bearing and giving birth to many fine children . . . In a bride . . . a man must first seek beauty of mind (le bellezze dell’animo), that is, good conduct and virtue.” And a huge goal for these portraits was to embody this beauty of the soul to convince a man to marry her. Another passage comes soon after that on page 13, “a dowry of virtue is infinitely more valuable than one of money, which may be lost, but virtue is a secure possession which may be retained to the end of their lives.” A woman’s two lots in live, to be a wife or a nun, are wrapped up in her sexual honor and the rest of her conduct, and how it is displayed to the world.

    10. Do you see any danger in discussing these portraits in light of scopophilia, castration anxieties, fetishization, or the proto-panopticon?
    It appears that in many ways that there is a stronger focus on the gender dynamics in regards to scopophilia and fetishization, as there are feminist and film theory arguments being brought up in this article that would not have even been thought about when the paintings were being created. There is a big paradigm shift here from the Quattrocento, and that will inevitably make a different discussion, but still an important one.

    • Alberti was so heavy handed—-not only did he have his say on architecture and painting, but he also had to write a treatise on the family! What in the final analysis is a dowry of virtue? What struck me as I read this article again was that classical busts were meant to inspire awe and admiration because they reflected the virtus and nobility of the sitters. The portrait bust was derived from the profile image of the ruler found on coins and medals that commemorated that ruler’s reign, etc. These Quattrocento profile portraits of women (inadvertently?) invoke this trope—and pay homage, patriarchal, but homage to the sitters represented in these paintings. I hope that other students will join in this dialogue—-and not at the eleventh hour!

  9. I’m not sure how we can cover this in one class. How juicy!! What a fantastic (and slightly enraging) article. Repression, power, property, patriarchal, potency … oh my! What amazes me is the way this relates to contemporary art today – power and money influence art and determine the style of art made and what is purchased. Period. Man as artist, man as patron, man as viewer. No wonder “the female artist has, until very recently, been a rare creature.” Wow. It’s refreshing to look at the Artsy Top Living Artists of 2015 and see a much more balanced roster of female to male artists.

    This leads me to a question posed on page 7, “Did Women have a Renaissance,” and if so … when was it?? When did the paradigm shift and women begin to have more influence in power, money and control over the art?

    I was a little disturbed to read on page 12, “Girls who entered a convent sometimes made their own choice, but often they were ugly, infirm or deformed, or else they might be surplus girls in a family overburdened by the potential costs of expensive dowries.” Wow ….

    • I agree—today should be a very interesting discussion. The Renaissance, I’m afraid, is a useful fiction that is patriarchal in both origin and nature. As a medievalist I have always doubted its existence…..but this article confirms my belief that it was rather one-sided in character!

  10. 3) It is interesting to read about dowries because I was just talking about this is in my anthropology class. Women are objects that are chosen due to their beauty and therefore are described as being like still lives. These portraits were made to show attributes of a “great wife”. It is interesting because many of the terms that are used are determined via the relationship that they have toward men. They try to capture there sexual, dowry, and ability to bear children. The attributes that these wives have are no longer their own. They are an image and the image represents the family and the husband. It is not her, it is an image that looks like her. This creates an image that all “good” wives are supposed to have.It can be exclusionary. There is a relationship between this and nuns. There is a clear distinction put between nuns and wives. The article mentions how women can choose to become a nun but many choose to enter it due to other physical attributes such as deformities. It could discuss the importance of important attributes but it is still striking to think that way.

  11. 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.
    Assuming the gaze, like the article suggests, is “an instrument of control and supervision, particularly over women,” it is odd that rulers were depicted in profile. This seems contradictory to the point of distributing a ruler’s image. I think the female appropriation of this prototype highlights this lack of engagement with the viewer; the sitter has no control. In the same way that a profile of a ruler reduces (attempting, yet failing to signify authority) the sitter by preventing the gaze to be met, female profile portrait reduces the female sitter to an object. This partial view of the face serves as a symbol and is striped of the sitter’s complexity.

  12. 2. When it comes to the discussion of display culture in fifteenth century Florence, I feel these portraits have an interesting side in both arguments (for and against). As Simons talks about, the display culture revolved around a woman’s worth in relation of a man, from her own dowery to that of her future husband’s (which she would have as there really wasn’t another option other than the nunnery). It stuck me that even a woman’s brothers could control her marital status after her father had died, that a woman always had to be in the care of some man. And I think it’s interesting, regarding these portraits, since they were mostly painted for a male gaze and male possession. However, I think there is something subversive about the profile pose. It looks less to me as a woman caught unaware and more like she is pointedly ignoring the viewer, thereby taking some modicum of control over the situation, which I enjoy greatly.

    • What an interesting take on these portraits! I fear you may be giving the material objects more agency than they have earned—-but I have always been a huge fan of magical thinking so I love the idea!

      • So I wrote thoughtful replies to Beth, Laura, and Kathryn and the website said: these look like duplicate responses and wouldn’t post them….I am very cranky….and thus am reserving further comments for class!!!!

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