Ladies on the Canvas

The Birth of Venus

The entire month of March is Women's History Month and during this month, we spotlight women’s contributions in history and their stories. Instead of featuring female artists, I figured that maybe women featured in paintings need some form of recognition as well. Therefore, here are some of my personal picks of famous paintings of women.

1. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

Girl with a Pearl Earring, also known as the Mona Lisa of the North, is a painting created by a Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. This painting was created in 1665 as a form of tronie. Tronie is a painting that depicts an exaggerated facial expression and is common during the Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque paintings. However, what makes this painting so famous is the mysterious life of the woman. The yellow/gold dress that she’s wearing is an ordinary Dutch style. However, her blue headscarf gives off an exotic look. Who is she and what is her relationship with Vermeer? Some speculate that the woman is someone who has access to Vermeer’s studio, perhaps his servant? Or perhaps one of Vermeer’s daughters out of eleven children. Was she walking away or was she turning her direction toward the viewers to say something? Overall, the painting is more intimate compared to Vermeer’s other still-life paintings. When looking at this piece, we are automatically drawn toward her gaze, as if she is trying to communicate with you using only her eyes.

At the same time, the infamous pearl earring that she’s wearing also has its own controversy. The pearl is suspected to be fake due to its size. Pearls are a symbol of wealth and it was not the first time Vermeer painted it. However, Vermeer exaggerated the size of the pearl, making it look heavy instead of dainty. It is speculated that the earring she’s wearing is actually made of tin or glass with varnish. Vermeer is not only a great Dutch painter, he is a master of light. From afar, the earring looks heavy and round, but if viewed closer, it is simply a floating smudge of paint that creates an illusion, as if the pearl is being reflected on by the light.

This famous painting is in its permanent residency at the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. Image courtesy of Mauritshuis Museum.
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. Image courtesy of Mauritshuis Museum.

2. Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Everyone knows what the Mona Lisa looks like. It is known as the world’s most famous painting. But did you know that it wasn’t until the 1900s that the art piece gained so much fame?

Leonardo started this painting in 1503 as a commission by a Florentine businessman who wanted a painting of his wife, Lisa Gherardini. Even though Leonardo painted this masterpiece for 10 years, it was still unfinished by the time of his death in 1519. The beauty of this painting is da Vinci’s masterful use of techniques such as the incorporation of atmospheric pressure that made the background in the distance appear hazy; and his use of sfumato, which is a subtle gradation between colors that softens the edges.

But despite the skillful technique that da Vinci incorporated in this piece, it is the history behind the painting that made this artwork popular. After the death of da Vinci, King François, the First of France, purchased the Mona Lisa and had it on display. And in 1550, Giorgio Vasari, an Italian scholar, published a biography of Italian Renaissance artists, including da Vinci. In his biography, Vasari described Mona Lisa as “a hypnotic imitation of life,” which gained even more fame to other artists and the elite, but not with the general public.

European scholars have described the beauty of Mona Lisa as a “treacherous attraction,” or that her gaze promises “unknown pleasures,” or that the image of Mona Lisa embodies a “timeless feminine beauty.” Despite the critiques about the painting, Mona Lisa is not as famous as she is today. It wasn’t until Peruggia’s 1911 heist that heightened the painting’s fame and recognition.

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Image courtesy of The Louvre website.
The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Image courtesy of The Louvre website.

3. Olympia by Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet painted Olympia in 1863, but it wasn’t exhibited until the 1865 Paris Salon. This is probably because of the rage of his previous work, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863). Olympia was modeled by Victorine Meurent and that her pose is in resemblance with Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Despite the similarity with Titian’s artwork, critics were harsh on Manet’s Olympia and called it “perfect ugliness.” However, Manet “made no attempt to idealize her or to present her as… a figure of Venus.” He painted Meurent as how he sees her—as a prostitute at work while receiving a bouquet of flowers from one of her clients while awaiting her next customer.

Unlike Titian’s work, Manet depicted the woman with the look of someone familiar with her work. She is not uninviting but rather has an expression on “insistent and direct gaze implies that the viewer is a prospective visitor.” At the same time, Olympia looked stiff in bed, unlike Titian’s Venus of Urbino, who is relaxed in bed and looks quite comfortable.

The painting is currently in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, France, and despite its initial outrage by the audience, it is now considered as a priceless artwork of 19th-century France.

Olympia by Edouard Manet. Image courtesy of Fine Art America.
Olympia by Edouard Manet. Image courtesy of Fine Art America.

4. Woman with a Parasol by Claude Monet

As someone who is a romantic myself, Woman with a Parasol is one of my personal favorites. But did you know that the woman in the painting is Monet’s wife, Camille, and the kid is Monet’s first-born son, Jean? This is not the first time Monet painted his wife. As a matter of fact, he painted her more than anyone else.

Claude and Camille met in 1865 when she was 18 years old and Claude was 25 years old. Two years after their initial meeting, they welcomed their first son and then in 1870, the two officially tied the knot.

Monet created this artwork in 1875. What draws people in is the way Monet captured the moment. The woman and child were depicted as if they were interrupted during their daily strolls. The woman’s face is quite unrecognizable due to her face being covered with a veil. At the same time, the angle Monet painted his family shows how much he holds them in high regard, but what makes this art piece a Monet painting is the way he mastered light—the way the shadow is applied on the ground and how the colors reflect the woman’s dress.

In 1879, Camille Monet died at the age of 32, devastating Claude Monet. After the death of his wife, Monet re-imagined the painting in 1886 titled Woman with a Parasol, Facing Left.

Woman with a Parasol by Claude Monet. Image courtesy of Google Arts.
Woman with a Parasol by Claude Monet. Image courtesy of Google Arts.

5. The Cup of Tea by Mary Cassatt

The Cup of Tea (1880) was created by Mary Cassatt, an American artist, who painted her sister, Lydia Cassatt. Cassatt painted her sister participating in an ordinary, upper-class Parisian afternoon tea.

What attracts people with this painting is the fact that a woman artist is painting other women during ordinary activities. This specific painting kicked off Cassatt’s series that depicts similar images partaking in the same social activities with different women. Cassatt focused her artworks within the female spheres like knitting or afternoon tea. The reasoning behind Cassatt only painting women within their circles is because women at that time were unable to leave their homes without a guardian to accompany them.

Despite Cassatt’s limited space, her paintings are commended for its soft impressionist style that helped capture her subjects at ease and candidly “to immortalize a moment in time.”

The Cup of Tea by Mary Cassatt. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.
The Cup of Tea by Mary Cassatt. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

6. The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse

The Crystal Ball was completed in 1902 and was immediately on display at the Royal Academy, along with his other artwork, The Missal. The painting is influenced by the Italian Renaissance, which is seen in the architecture at the back of the painting. However, what stands up the most is the color red found in the book lining, the bookmark, the cushion on the chair, and most definitely the woman’s dress.

Not only does the woman stand out due to the bold, bright red dress she’s wearing, but there is also a cloud of mystery about her. Who is she? And why is she looking into the ball? What is she seeing or thinking? The painting seems to be depicting the woman as a sorceress which adds a “darker supernatural theme.”

When looking at the painting, it seems like the woman in the painting is stuck in an enclosed space and that the outside view seems to be the “only contact with the outside world.”

These paintings are just a few examples of women on canvases. Women are not only a symbol of life and beauty, but also a symbol of strength and freedom. These paintings captured the lives of women throughout history, whether through nudity or portraits, illustrating women in different classes and statuses, from all facets of life.

The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse. Image from Google Arts.
The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse. Image from Google Arts.

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