March is Women’s History Month. To be honest, I didn’t really know what Women’s History Month was until recently, when I learned that it “recognizes the great contributions that women have made to our nation.” Upon further research, I realized that it was also celebrated in the UK, Australia, and Canada.
In honor of Women’s History Month, and as a student tour guide of the Princeton University Art Museum, I would like to highlight three prominent women that I speak about on my tour of the museum. Although they are not all from America, they are still women featured in art, an important distinction from the wealthy and elderly white male so prominently painted throughout art history.
Giulio Cesare Procaccini’s early 1600 oil-on-canvas Martyrdom of Saint Justina is intriguing as scholars originally did not know who the woman in the painting was. Originally believed to be Saint Agnes, Saint Justina was only identified in 1976. Saint Justina of Padua was a virgin of royal birth who was killed in 303 AD by Maximian under the rule of Diocletian for her Christian faith. Just a decade later, in 313 AD with the Edict of Milan, Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire made Christianity legal. The chiaroscuro and tenebrism present in the painting emphasizes the importance and drama in her sacrifice.
Just a few steps over from the Procaccini is the only painting by a woman featured on some of the student tour guides’ highlights tours of the art museum. Portrait of Sarah Harrop (Mrs. Bates) as a Muse, a 1780-81 oil-on-canvas by Angelica Kauffmann, is especially important to the museum as it is a painting of a famous woman by a famous woman artist. At the time, women artists were not allowed to train, especially in portraiture as it was deemed improper. However, under the training of her father, who was also a famous painter, Kauffmann was given the resources to succeed. The subject of the painting, Sarah Harrop, was equally successful as a well-renowned singer in Britain. In this painting, she is depicted as a muse, one of nine goddesses of the arts and sciences. To depict her at the level of a goddess reflects her fame and talents.
Moving through the American Gallery and into the Modern and Contemporary Galleries, in a nook in the far back of the museum is Andy Warhol’s Blue Marilyn screen print from 1962. Marilyn Monroe, a famous actress from the 1950s, remains prominent in pop culture today. Her timelessness is enhanced by the fact that visitors to the museum frequently take selfies with this screen print of her. The silk screen print seems to flatten Marilyn and make her devoid of personality, as Marilyn is reduced to her film still from the 1953 movie Niagara.
Images courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum.