When men portrayed women in their art

On International Women’s Day, we look at significant works by male artists from across the globe that depict the femininity and womanhood over the years.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Mar 07, 2022

In my early days as an art journalist, I once happened to interview a senior Indian artist, Anjolie Ela Menon, for a national television program that I co-hosted. The conversation was around International Women’s Day. Menon made a pertinent point; she asked – “Why don’t we call Husain a ‘man artist’? Why must we call a lady, who is an artist, a ‘woman artist’?”. She strongly felt, and I could not agree more, that an artist should be judged by their art, the ideas they investigate, and how skillfully they present the work. Gender by itself has no role in how art should be viewed.

The feminine and ideas of womanhood, however, need not be exclusive to the practitioners who ascribe to the ‘female’ gender. Figures of women depicting various moods and emotions have been used by artists who were men. Hyper detailed Baroque figure drawings and renaissance period paintings, to the expressionist and often bold works of Edward Munch, the subject has been of interest throughout the history of art. The much talked about ‘cerebral art’ work of Marcel Duchamp, titled Fountain changed the way people view art going beyond the engagement of retinal senses. There are interpretations of Fountain by looking at the photograph taken by Stieglitz, the only image of the original sculpture. Calvin Tomkins, the author of Duchamp: A Biography notes:

"Arensberg had referred to a 'lovely form' and it does not take much stretching of the imagination to see in the upside-down urinal's gently flowing curves the veiled head of a classic Renaissance Madonna…”

This observation by itself, need I say, raised eyebrows.

Evocative, personal, sensual, and often even controversial – the subject has attracted attention for reasons more than one. On this Women’s Day, we look at 10 significant works, all on the theme of women, but…all created by men!

Birth of Venus, 1485-1486, Painting | Sandro Botticelli | STIRworld
Birth of Venus, 1485-1486, Painting, Sandro Botticelli Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sandro Botticelli: Birth of Venus (1485)

The Birth of Venus is a famous oil painting by the Italian artist, Sandro Botticelli. The mythological painting is from an early Italian renaissance period portraying the goddess Venus arriving at the shore after her birth. The painting currently on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy is Botticelli’s symbol of love and beauty in both spiritual and physical terms representing humanistic values. Embodying the rebirth of civilisation, hope, geopolitical, social and cultural shift, this prominent icon of Italian renaissance that is the celebration of beauty and love contains several hidden meanings that results in curiosity.

Mona Lisa, 1503, Oil on poplar panel | Leonardo Da Vinci | STIRworld
Mona Lisa, 1503, Oil on poplar panel, Leonardo Da Vinci Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Leonardo Da Vinci: Mona Lisa (1506)

Probably the most famous painting created in the world is by an intellectual genius of High Renaissance who lived his life as a painter, draughtsman, engineer, scientist, theorist, sculptor, and architect, Leonardo da Vinci. The painting is of Lisa Gherardini, an Italian noblewoman. Painted in oil on white Lombardy panel, it has been on display at the Louvre, Paris, since 1797. The Mona Lisa's 1911 theft and subsequent return lead to massive increase in public recognition. There have been theories associated with the painting, such as its eyes following the viewer, the right eye containing the letters LV and the subject's eyes that seem to react to the viewer's gaze.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665, Oil Painting | Johannes Vermeer | STIRworld
Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665, Oil Painting, Johannes Vermeer Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665)

This oil painting by the Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer, has been subject of many literary and cinematic works. Some amazing facts about the painting conclude that there is no evidence whose face it is in the painting, the painting has alternately been called Girl in a Turban, Head of Girl in a Turban, The Young Girl with Turban, and Head of a Young Girl. It is Tronie, oil on canvas and it is placed in Mauritshuis, The Hague in the Netherlands. The painting is from Dutch Golden Age movement, and depicts a European girl wearing an exotic dress.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, Oil on canvas | Pablo Picasso | STIRworld
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, Oil on canvas, Pablo Picasso Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pablo Picasso: Les demoiselle (1907)

Through Pablo Picasso's biography it is known that with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the artist wanted to paint something entirely different, something extraordinary that would shock the viewers of his time. Picasso's competitive nature forced him to outdo his rival, Henri Matisse. This work smears a radical break from the traditional composition and perspective in a painting. The painting portrays five naked women that Picasso later calls as “my first exorcism painting”. The work on canvas is roughly handled, depicting spontaneity yet seems to be carefully choreographed. It caused a controversy when it was exhibited for the treatment of the subject by Picasso.

Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937, Oil on canvas | Pablo Picasso | STIRworld
Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937, Oil on canvas, Pablo Picasso Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pablo Picasso: Portrait of Dora Maar (1937)

Picasso was known to be a painter, sculptor, ceramicist and theatre designer. The oil on canvas painting of Dora Maar, the painter's lover, is seated on a chair. The painting is in the collection of Musee Picasso in Paris. Portrayed elegantly with fine jewellery and clothing, Henriette Theodora Markovitch (her full name) was a French photographer, painter and poet. She's painted in the cubist style by Picasso, referencing the importance of Dora Maar in Picasso's life. He made several paintings of her throughout their life together. Other significant paintings of Dora Maar include The Weeping Woman and Dora Maar au Chat.

Marilyn Diptych, 1962, Acrylic paint on canvas | Andy Warhol | STIRworld
Marilyn Diptych, 1962, Acrylic paint on canvas, Andy Warhol Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Andy Warhol: Marilyn Monroe 1967

Marilyn Monroe's diptych was created by American pop artist Andy Warhol. Through this work, Warhol commented on the fan culture around celebrities, where fans place celebrities as idols that in turn causes the public to approach them with sense of holiness and immortality. The Marilyn Monroe editions were published by Andy Warhol's print-publishing business, Factory Additions. Marilyn's diptychs were a series of prints; about repetitions Warhol said, “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel." The painting consists of 50 images. Each image is from the single publicity photograph from the film Niagara.

Miss Spring, 2012, Acrylic on canvas | Yoshitomo Nara | STIRworld
Miss Spring, 2012, Acrylic on canvas, Yoshitomo Nara Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yoshitomo Nara: Miss Spring 2000s

Yoshitomo Nara, now a 62-year-old Japanese artist, has had nearly 40 solo exhibitions. His works have been on display at the MoMA and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The artist's practice is focused on adorable and sinister child characters who are placed against a plain background, with simple bold lines and solid hues. The artist uses icons of weapons in many of his works. "Look at them, they [the weapons] are so small, like toys. Do you think they could fight with those?" he asks, and continues, "I don't think so. Rather, I kind of see the children among other, bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives..."

02 mins watch The Miraculous Journey, 2013, bronze | Damien Hirst | STIRworld
The Miraculous Journey, 2013, bronze, Damien Hirst Video: Village to city

Damien Hirst: The Miraculous Journey 2013

Damien Hirst is a British artist, entrepreneur, and an art collector. This work by Hirst speaks about the grace of the human reproductive process. “Everyone talks about life’s journey, but we have a whole journey before we are born,” he says. The work is a series of 14 large scale bronze sculptures that chronicle the gestation of fetus inside a uterus and ends with a statue of a 14-metre-tall figure of a baby. It is placed in front of Sidra Medical Center, a private hospital in Qatar. The large-scale installation is a startling piece that is dedicated to women and children at the hospital, the venue and the work simultaneously empowering each other.

Daughter and mother, 1997, Oil on canvas | John Currinl | STIRworld
Daughter and mother, 1997, Oil on canvas, John Currin Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

John Currin: Daughter and Mother, 1997

John Currin is an American artist from New York City who is best known for satirical figurative paintings influenced by Renaissance, pop culture magazine and fashion models. His paintings that portray domestic scenes, portraits, and nudes have often been called American Grotesque.

MF Hussain with Amrita Rao | STIRworld
MF Hussain with Amrita Rao Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MF Hussain: early 2000s

Husain's work titled Mother India (Bharat Mata) stirred a major controversy due to a nude portrayal of the ‘Mother’…an unclothed female figuration of the national map. Right-wing organisations called for his arrest, and several lawsuits were filed against him for hurting religious sentiments. The artist was known for his large-scale art, with vivid colours and strong subjects. He was one of the most celebrated and internationally recognised Indian artists of the 20th century, also one of the founding members of Bombay Progressive Artist's group. MF Husain was known to be a big fan of Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit's work. It is said that he watched one of her films 67 times. Also, Husain made a film with Dixit, titled Gaja Gamini. And after Amrita Rao's performance in the movie Vivah, the artist invited the actress to Dubai so he could paint her portrait live.

(Research support: Vatsala Sethi)

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