Boom time for female Old Masters
“I still get goosebumps thinking back to that day,” says Palmyre Manivet, associate director at art restorer Simon Gillespie Studio, recalling the moment in 2018 when a colleague saw the signature of 17th-century artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Discovered on a painting of David and Goliath in the 19th century. The excitement Manivet felt echoed in the art world: a new Gentileschi had been attributed. Dealers, galleries and auction houses should also have been happy, because the market for female Old Masters is booming like never before. Gentileschi set a record price of $5.3 million in 2019.
For centuries, women celebrated by their contemporaries were dismissed by art historians after their deaths, victims of pervasive institutional and societal misogyny. Academic interest in women artists began to rise in the 1970s, but auction houses date the market’s rise to around 2017, in part due to more women being in positions of power in the art world, as well as the #MeToo movement, which has taken serious attitudes shocked.
There has been a concerted effort to expand the art collection, says Calvine Harvey, vice president of Sotheby’s in New York. “I think everyone, museums and private collectors alike, took a step back and thought about their collections and realized the importance of making sure they had a diverse collection.”
This has been confirmed in the prices. Olivia Ghosh, Junior Old Masters Specialist at Christie’s in London, quotes Judith Leyster’s Merry Company, which set a record in 2018 when it sold for 1.8m in such a short time.
Another example is the Flemish artist Michaelina Wautier (1604-89), Gentileschi’s rugged contemporary. Over the years, most of her work has been attributed to her brother or another painter, Jacob van Oost. But a 2018 retrospective at MAS Antwerp became a box office hit after initially struggling to find a venue, and prices for Wautier’s paintings have since skyrocketed. Christie’s sold a portrait for $759,000 in 2019 (it was estimated at $300,000-$500,000) and a smaller work in 2021 for £400,000 (which was estimated at just £60,000-80,000).
“It was quite amazing to see an artist completely re-discovered and brought to the fore in this way,” says Chloe Stead, Senior Global Director, Colnaghi Gallery. “Evidence of people’s interest in the story of their rediscovery is evident both in the market demand for their work and in the success of this exhibition.”
Greater interest – scholarly and commercial – means that more attention is being paid to identifying images of female Old Masters. In 2021, English auction house Reeman Dansie sold a small portrait of an angelic-looking boy dubbed the ’18th Century Italian School’, valued at just £400-600. But observant dealers and collectors recognized similarities to the 17th-century English painter Mary Beale – who often painted her children – in her warm and luminous colors, in her brushstrokes reminiscent of Van Dyck, several of whose works hung in her home . Bids rose and rose until the hammer fell at £100,000, setting a new record for Beale (£93,750 at Sotheby’s in 2019).
Similarly, Charles Mackay, director of the Weiss Gallery, last year acquired a portrait of a man that had been wrongly attributed to van Oost: “As soon as I saw it I knew it was a Beale.” This painting will be one of the year’s highlights from Weiss at Tefaf Maastricht (24-30 June).
Celebrity attention also seems to have helped the market. Designer Victoria Beckham partnered with Sotheby’s to exhibit portraits of female Old Masters at their London flagship store in 2018, and supported Sotheby’s show in New York the following year The female triumph, which presented 21 works by 14 different old masters. Harvey says it “feels very normal today to think about focusing on selling female artists, but we didn’t all get good press when we first did it.”
Critics dismissed it as a gimmick, though records were broken for seven of the featured artists; Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun sold for $7.2 million, making it the most expensive female Old Master painting of all time. Selling women artists in major auction houses has been successful — The female triumph Earned $14.6M in fees, beating the lofty pre-sale estimate of $8.9M-$13.2M – and bringing in new buyers. The purchaser of Vigée Le Brun (who remains anonymous) had never bought an Old Master painting before. Christie’s Ghosh says that “the appetite for them has grown exponentially as people understand the importance of this strand of art history.”
Works by old masters still make up a fraction of the market. Lawrence Hendra, director of the Philip Mold Gallery, attributes this in part to a supply problem, based on the “prejudices of the times in which they lived and worked” which meant that “few women were able to pursue a career as To pursue a female artist and as such, good examples of female artist work are hard to find. . . If they show up, there will be fierce fighting for them.”
Is there a risk that the work will be overpriced based on the artist’s gender? No, says Georgina Hardy, head of evening sales for Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s in London. She mentions Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch, whose current record is $2.5 million, but whose work was more expensive than Rembrandt’s during her lifetime. In contrast, Rembrandt’s recent sales today have reached almost 175 million euros. Although artists like Gentileschi and Vigée Le Brun can fetch seven-figure sums, most female Old Masters sell for a fraction of that, and even the best female artists’ prices are a far cry from the staggering sums their male contemporaries can fetch.
There is, of course, much more to this movement than just the market. Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, on the Detroit Institute of Arts’ recent exhibition By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800, says: “It was very emotional when the show started that these artists and their stories physically took over the main exhibition space, a space that had never been given to them and not historically given to many women. The power of that has not escaped me.”
Gentliseschi may be a household name by now, but there are many more waiting to step into the limelight: Lavinia Fontana, Fede Galizia, Elisabetta Sirani, Josefa de Óbidos to name a few. The field of Female Old Masters still offers an enticing sense of possibility.