This Exhibit on Female Printmakers Is a Treasure Trove of Fascinating Women

In Depth

There are certain stereotypes about women’s creativity prior to the twentieth century, and generally they revolve around appropriately domestic novels, amateur watercolors, needlework, and “folk art.” But there’ve always been women who found ways around those rules. Witness, for instance, an ongoing exhibit at the New York Public Library, featuring works by female printmakers from the 1500s through the 1800s.

Late 17th century engraving of Gabrielis Carola Patina by Susanna Maria von Sandrart (1658–1718).

Much of the exhibition—called “Printing Women”—is drawn from the collection of Henrietta Louisa Koenen, who was married to the first director of the print room at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. She lived from 1830 to 1881 and spent the middle of the nineteenth century collecting work by female printmakers specifically. The mere existence of her stash challenges preconceptions: “Physically demanding and technically challenging, printmaking has often been considered the labor of men,” writes the exhibition’s curator, Madeleine Viljoen, in her explanatory essay accompanying the exhibit. “But as this group of engravings, etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs by female printmakers demonstrates, women have been active in the medium for almost as long as its origins, in the early to mid-15th century.”

Many of the works, unsurprisingly, are the work of aristocratic and even royal women passing the time. There’s a lithograph by Queen Victoria (below) and two engravings by Madame de Pompadour. Which is fascinating in its own right. Something like engraving—which involves carving your design into some tough material like copper, often with acid—doesn’t really fit with preconceived notions of what mistresses/princesses of yore did for fun. My personal favorite was the woman who specialized in bookplates.

Lithograph by Queen Victoria, 1846.

The exhibit also explores the fields were women made an especially strong showing, and why. For instance, a section devoted to “gendered books” features a circa-1601 copy of Ecclesiastes calligraphed by a Scottish woman named Esther Inglis, as well as a book of woodblock lace designs by Italian Renaissance lace designer Elisabetta Catanea Parasole. Talented women were also channelled into less respected genres—portraiture and botanical illustrations, for instance, as opposed to “history” scenes—in part because they were barred from classes involving nude models that would’ve enabled them to develop their technical skills. But these are some of the loveliest works in the exhibit.

19th century lithography Hibiscus et Pastemone by Pauline Girardin (French, born 1818).

Most fascinating of all, however, are the contributions from women for whom this was a profession rather than a leisure activity. And there, the exhibit reads like a collection of fascinating mini biographies. Oftentimes you’ll leave wanting much, much more information. For instance: “One of three engraver sisters (with Marie Nicole and Louise Magdaleine), Marie Anne Horthemels married the printmaker Nicolas Henri Tardieu in 1712.” A trio of engraver sisters! Do go on! The exhibit also drops the existence of Caroline Watson, “the first professional woman printmaker in Britain,” who was made Engraver to the Queen 1785. Must be a story there.

Women learning their craft in family workshops is a common thread running through the exhibit:

Susanna Maria von Sandrart was trained in the art of copper engraving by her father, Jacob von Sandrart, but was forced to give up her chosen profession upon marriage. She rejoined the family business in 1687, the year of her husband’s death, stating, “I had the advantage that I could support my father’s and brother’s work so I could earn my living and not be a burden to anyone.” This work was in all likelihood executed during the hiatus before she remarried in 1695, at which point she was once again compelled to abandon her craft.

Here’s an especially fascinating character:

Angelica Kauffman learned to draw and paint from her father, Joseph Johann Kauffman. She was a founding member of the Royal Academy in London and is best known for her neoclassical scenes based on history, mythology, and literature. She made around 40 etchings, many of which reproduced her own paintings and helped promote her fame.

Kauffman appears several times and comes off as quite publicity-savvy. The exhibit also features a self-portrait, as well as an reproduction etching of her portrait of famous archeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann—which the placard notes was done “at the height of Winckelmann’s fame.” Which would presumably mean the height of the market for etchings of the man’s face.

“Half‐length Portrait of a Woman, with a Child Holding an Apple,” Angelica Kauffman, etching, 1763.

The exhibit runs through January 31.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Images courtesy New York Public Library. Lead image “Les suites d’un naufrage” by Catherine Elizabeth Cousinet Lempereur and Nicolas de Launay after Jules Vernet, engraving, late 1700s.

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