Oil painting of a young woman drawing.
Young Woman Drawing, 1600s, Artist/maker unknown, Dutch.

Where are Women’s Histories in Art Museums?

Nicole Cook, PhD

Reflecting on the artists we have in our collections, what we know about them, and why.

In 2018 I stumbled (figuratively, not literally!) across Young Woman Drawing (1600s) while looking for examples of people drawing in the collection. The small painting hadn’t been on view since it hung in Philadelphia lawyer and collector John G. Johnson’s house in the early 1900s. The woman pictured, absorbed in her act of making art, reached out through the hushed atmosphere of the image and grabbed me. I needed to know more. I started digging and hit the first snag: “Artist/maker unknown.” The picture has no signature, no date, and no provenance records prior to entering Johnson’s collection. The lack of information only made me more curious.

This was a year after I started working at the museum, soon after I completed my PhD. I was questioning a lot about myself and the field of art history. The #MeToo movement was accelerating, and major cultural and political players were being outed as habitual harassers of women. I wanted my scholarship to connect more directly to my feminist politics. My dissertation focused on an obscure but privileged Dutch white male artist from the late 1600s. I’m still committed to components of that research, but I started looking more seriously for stories of Dutch art history that have been buried or lost to time, including those of women during the early modern period—very roughly from the late 1400s through the late 1700s.

When I found Young Woman Drawing it felt like a sign. I collaborated with my generous colleagues in the Department of European Painting and Sculpture to investigate the curatorial files. I also worked with brilliant paintings conservator and then-museum fellow Sarah Mastrangelo to study the painting from a technical perspective. I was even able to surface-clean the outermost layer of grime from the painting under Sarah’s careful supervision.

A woman applying a Q-tip to the painting entitled Young Woman Drawing
Surface cleaning Young Woman Drawing, April 17, 2019. Photo by Sarah Mastrangelo

Looking closely is always the first step. The woman’s outfit indicates that the painting was made in the late 1660s or 1670s in the Netherlands. She is drawing nude human figures using a variety of different papers and chalks common in the 1600s. Study of anatomy and human bodies was considered crucial to artistic training during this time, but it was something to which women rarely had access. Reading through the files, I found out that when Johnson bought the painting, it was attributed to a woman, Dutch “amateur” (a.k.a. non-professional) artist Gesina ter Borch (1631–1690). Ter Borch, best known for her delicate watercolor paintings, was a member of a large creative family that included several other artists. But the painting was deattributed in the middle of the 1900s, meaning that curators decided to remove the connection to Gesina ter Borch. No other attribution was put forward.

The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier), around 1629, by Judith Leyster (Dutch, 1609–1660), cat. 440

Finding Women Artists in Museums

Even if you work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you might not know that our museum has many artworks related to female-identifying artists, designers, and other makers of the early modern era. There are popular, widely known highlights like Judith Leyster’s The Last Drop (around 1629). However, there is a breadth of other objects as well, less known but waiting to be attended to. Some works by women artists have been hidden under misattributions to men. For decades, Maria La Fargue’s painting from the 1700s entitled A Lady and a Servant (1777) was attributed to male artists because her signature and date were obscured under aged paint and varnish.

A Lady and a Servant, 1777, by Maria La Fargue (Dutch 1743–1813), cat. 709

Separated from us by hundreds of years, these histories of female makers are difficult to find and may seem distant from today’s critical issues. Yet when I research early modern women artists, I can’t help but see parallels to the experiences of female-identifying people now. Barriers that prevented women from becoming artists or limited their careers in centuries past—lack of time and resources, being underestimated and discriminated against, dealing with old boys’ clubs, trying to balance career and personal goals, not receiving credit due—all still feel familiar.

One of the urgent questions for me and other people who work in museums today is: how do we find and highlight women artists who are represented in our collections, while also talking about what, and whose, art we don’t have and why? This ties into the bigger picture of how we talk about institutional histories of white supremacy and the exclusion and neglect of artworks not made by cisgender white men. And until very recently, museums have deprioritized the work of historically disenfranchised artists, including women, compounding the discrimination they faced in their own time.

This is also a story of how important it is to make relevant information (sometimes called metadata) about artworks with murky attributions more accessible for researchers and public audiences. Once the old attribution of Young Woman Drawing to Gesina ter Borch was removed, it became “anonymous” and much harder to locate by people inside or outside the museum.

An image of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ
Virgin and Child, around 1660, by Elisabetta Sirani (Italian, 1638–1665), 1984-56-733. This chalk and ink study is an example of an early modern woman artist drawing as part of their artistic practice.

“Doubtful Who Did Such a Picture”

Spoiler alert: After three years of research, I have not linked the painting back to Gesina ter Borch directly, although I do think that it could have been made by someone familiar with her and her family’s artworks. While I have ideas, I don’t have another attribution to propose yet. And my research on this painting has been illuminating in other ways. In the 1950s and 60s, several experts in Dutch art history offered their opinions of the painting:

“Nice picture. But why is it called Gezina. She is only known in drawings.”

—Jan Gerrit van Gelder, 1954; then director of the Netherlands Institute of Art History (The Hague)

“Not Gezina Terborch. Doubtful who did such a picture.”

—Sturla Gudlaugsson, 1956; then director of the Netherlands Institute of Art History (The Hague)

“Said it was certainly not Gezina Terborch, started to give an attribution and decided he didn’t know who painted it.”

—David Cornelis Röell, 1960; former director of the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam)

I think these quotes speak loudly for themselves. From my perspective, these male experts displayed a lack of imagination when it came to grappling with the potential diversity of Gesina ter Borch’s artistic life. More than that, they seem to have been flummoxed by the very depiction of a young female artist from an era better known for male artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer.

Persisting, Nevertheless

As I and others at the museum continue to research possible attributions, I strongly believe that Young Woman Drawing serves an important function in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, aside from whoever originally painted it. It shows a woman making art in her own way, on her own time, and was potentially even based on an actual individual. The painting also reveals that while attribution work continues to be an important part of art history, when museums deprioritize artworks without clear attributions we miss out on other kinds of stories of early modern art, including women’s stories. Most meaningful for me personally, this painting found me when I needed to charge up my art historian reserves and find a project that I was passionate about. For that I will always have a bond with Young Woman Drawing.

Nicole Cook, PhD is the museum’s Program Manager for Graduate Academic Partnerships, and she works with graduate students, fellows, and other emerging museum professionals. Nicole has held curatorial and research roles at museums, private collections, and arts non-profits, and she is interested in new and experimental methods for exhibiting European art. She recently curated What Can Paintings Tell Us?, with Sarah Mastrangelo, and is co-curating By Night with Laurel Garber (opening April 2022).