Day 16 – Giulia Lama, Saturn devouring his Child, c. 1720-23, Private Collection (Sold at Christie’s, 2011).
Originally posted on 3 April 2020
Why do we talk about women artists so rarely? Apparently it wasn’t always the case. According to Grizelda Pollock, one of the first and most consistent feminist art historians, they were regularly included in dictionaries of art and artists until the beginning of the 20th Century, at which point they were all but written out. This year, with Artemisia at the National Gallery, and Angelica at the Royal Academy, let’s hope they are being written back in, and not just as token representatives, but as vital and inventive artists.
The fact is, there always were fewer women who could make a career in the arts – they were not given the training. It helped if Dad was an artist, as in the case of Angelica Kauffman (#POTD 14), especially if his studio was very busy – or he didn’t have any sons to help him. But they wouldn’t get apprenticeships with another artist, as that would mean living with a man who was not a member of your family at the age of 11 or 12. When academies started to be founded in the second half of the 16th Century, women weren’t admitted, because women didn’t get an education anyway. The few women who did succeed usually had unusual fathers – i.e. fathers who were artists, or who believed that their daughters should be educated. Or the girls were amateurs, practicing the usual accomplishments any young lady should have – music, and some ability with a little delicate decoration – until they turned out to be outstandingly good at it and so broke through to the ‘mainstream’.
In any case, it was thought that they lacked the necessary intellect to understand something like perspective and didn’t have the necessary education to know about classical mythology, so they would never be able to paint great narratives. Women weren’t supposed to paint portraits of men, in case the men assaulted them, and landscapes weren’t a great idea because, out in the countryside, they might be attacked by brigands. So they were left with Still Life, because, on the whole, a still life won’t bite back. The most distasteful thought was that they might attend a life class. Drawing and painting the male nude became the foundation of artistic training, because without a thorough understanding of male anatomy an artist would never be able to paint a battle scene, or a martyrdom – those uplifting stories which were the apogee of art. It would be so inappropriate for a woman to draw a naked man. Ladies were supposed to avert their gaze, and not stare at anything.
So, that’s what we’re left with – pretty flowers, ladies having tea (#POTD 15), or the artist herself indecisive between painting and music (#POTD 14). I have yet to cover the pretty flowers. It’s all pretty girly really, lets face it. Just like today’s painting…
Sadly we don’t know a huge amount about this image, and the attribution to Giulia Lama isn’t universally accepted. But I think few people doubt it now, particularly as her painting is getting better known. We also know relatively little about Giulia Lama herself. She was born in the Parish of Santa Maria Formosa in Venice, the daughter of an artist (it helps). One of her great works is in the church there, a Madonna and Child with Saints on an impressively grand scale. Her style is remarkably close to that of one the greatest, but underrated, artists of 18th Century Venice, Giambattista Piazzetta, whose works are the smoky colour of bitter toffee apples, if such a thing exists. His fame was eclipsed by that of Tiepolo, whose candyfloss colours are ideally suited to those of a sweet tooth – I love them both.
Why was Lama’s style so similar to Piazzetta’s? At this point a discussion arises: was Lama a student of Piazzetta’s, or a colleague? Opinion is tending towards the latter: they may well have trained side by side in the school run by artist Antonio Molinari – which would make her the first woman to attend any sort of art school.
Today’s painting could almost be a manifesto overthrowing all the reasons why women couldn’t become artists. It’s a classical story, shows a male nude, and has fantastic foreshortening (basically perspective applied to a single object). And it is anything but ladylike – or, for that matter, for a classical narrative, anything but uplifting. It’s a man eating his own child! It is, of course, a story that proves that we don’t learn from history. Saturn made it to the position of Top God after his mother, Gaia (the Earth), got so upset that his father (Ouranos, the air) kept imprisoning their children that she gave him (Saturn – or Chronos, as he was known back then) a very sharp knife, and encouraged him to castrate his own father, which he did. The severed genitalia fell into the sea, which was therefore made fertile, and the result was Aphrodite – her name means ‘born from the foam’. Of course, the Romans called her Venus, which explains Botticelli’s famous painting (#POTD 8) – and stops it looking quite so charming.
Knowing how easily a god could be overthrown, Saturn didn’t want to take risks, and so eat each of his own offspring as they were born. Eventually his consort, Ops (Rhea, to the Greeks), lost patience with this, and handed him a stone, pretending it was the latest baby, smuggling the newborn to Crete, where it grew up to be Jupiter. As an adult, Jupiter returned, forced to Saturn to regurgitate his siblings, at which point they overthrew Dad. And you thought Eastenders was bad.
Precisely why Lama chose to paint this subject – or who commissioned her to do so, and why – we may never know. A contemporary account says that many churches wanted her to paint them an altarpiece, so highly was she respected, and as well as the one I’ve mentioned in Santa Maria Formosa there is another in San Vidal, just over the Academia Bridge. But that doesn’t explain this painting. Maybe she painted it simply because she could. She certainly seems to have been the first female artist to have studied the male nude – and she did so often: I’ve included two of her drawings, and they are superb. She uses black and white chalk in one and red and white in the other, the light and shade giving the body a sculptural feel, with short, stabbing strokes of the chalk, over broader areas of shading. They show a remarkable ability to articulate the limbs and arrange the body in complex ways, but with the slight exaggeration that creates movement and drama, the essence of all great Baroque art.
The same qualities can be seen in the painting, the limbs of Saturn creating diagonals across the surface, and into the depth of the painting. The legs continue the shallow diagonal of his grasping left forearm, while the body of the child, softer, lighter and therefore more succulent than that of his swarthy father, is parallel to the muscular upper arm. It marks the diagonal from bottom bottom to top left, whilst also creating depth for the composition. All this is set in bright sunlight, so they stand out clearly from the dark rock in the background, and allow for the deep dark shadows that define Saturn’s muscularity. It’s not pretty, and it really isn’t ladylike. In many ways, it isn’t even very nice. But it is brilliant – an astonishing bit of painting and a fantastic work of art.