The Power in a Paintbrush

“Here’s the first painting. Watch out there’s a boob.” I said it partially to make sure they were awake (and maybe for a cheap laugh), but the observation wasn’t entirely empty.  Even approaching Aristocratic Baroque art with a scholarly eye, there’s no denying that the boob count is high, and our slideshow on Peter Paul Rubens was no exception. In an integrated humanities class that is largely driven by art history, this week was not the first nudity they’ve encountered, and it certainly won’t be the last. The Baroque isn’t only the high drama and ripped bodices of the Aristocratic Baroque, however, and we have since moved into the Bourgeois, or Dutch Baroque, which is the land of the simple home life, the rustic landscape, and the photo-realistic still life. The Bourgeois Baroque also means that female painters entered our slide show and among them, a work that has possibly become my favorite painting: Judith Leyster’s self portrait.

Image result for judith leyster self portrait
(source: NGA.gov)

My students need a little prompting when I asked them what was unusual about this portrait, so I asked more bluntly: “Who has painted every depiction of a woman we’ve seen so far this year?” Answer: Men. This painting is the first time, at least in our textbook and curriculum, that we have seen a woman through the eyes of a woman, and my goodness is it refreshing.

Every other artist explored the female form for her beauty, her body, her clothing, or even the man she stood next to. In this painting however, what has the artist chosen to showcase? Her talent, her confidence in both the draping of the arm across her chair, and a carefree smile. She laughs at the days to come. (Proverbs)

This painting illustrates the power of a woman who has control of the narrative lens. Her physical appearance is secondary, and it is her inner confidence, her skills, and her ideas that take center stage. In a society of Instagram filters, we have much to learn from the fabulous Ms. Leyster.

This portrait also highlights why the presence of the female voice is so important in art, in writing, in music, in film, and storytelling in general. Not that there’s anything wrong with the beautiful grace of the “Birth of Venus” or a even busty broad like Rubens’s Delilah in “Samson and Delilah”, but we miss so much when the women’s voice is left out of the narrative.

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the main character, Anne, is discussing books with Captain Harville and he observes:

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

To which she replies:

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Gals, if you find yourself with a pen in your hands, or a paint brush, or a camera or even a musical instrument, it’s time to tell your story.  And let’s be fully committed to supporting one another along the way. We have everything to gain from building one another up.

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