Boom time for old female masters

“I still get goosebumps thinking back to that day,” says Palmyre Manivet, associate director of art restorers Simon Gillespie Studio, recalling the moment in 2018 when a colleague discovered the 17th-century artist’s signature Artemisia Gentileschi on a painting of David and Goliath. . The thrill Manivet felt reverberated through the art world: a new Gentileschi had been awarded. Dealers, galleries and auction houses must have been thrilled too, as the market for female old masters exploded like never before. Gentileschi set a record price of $5.3 million in 2019.

For centuries, women feted by their contemporaries have been dismissed after their death by art historians as victims of pervasive institutional and societal misogyny. Academic interest in female artists began to rise in the 1970s, but auction houses date the market’s rise to around 2017, in part due to the increased number of women in positions of power around the world. art, as well as the #MeToo movement that is shaking up stilted attitudes.

There has been a concerted effort to expand art collections, says Calvine Harvey, vice president of Sotheby’s in New York. “I think everyone, museums and private collectors, took a step back and thought about their collections and realized how important it was to make sure they had a diverse collection.”

‘Merry Company’ by Judith Leyster, sold at Christie’s London for £1.8 million in 2018 © Courtesy of Christie’s

‘Head of a Boy’ by Michaelina Wautiers, sold at Christie’s London for £400,000 last year © Courtesy of Christie’s

This was confirmed in the prices. Olivia Ghosh, junior Old Masters specialist at Christie’s in London, cites Judith Leyster’s ‘Merry Company’, which set a record in 2018 when it sold for £1.8million, surpassing the previous record of the entertainer of just £485,000 as of 2016, huge progress in such a short time.

The Flemish artist Michaelina Wautier (1604-1689), a raw contemporary of Gentileschi, is another example. Over the years his work has been widely attributed to his brother or another painter, Jacob van Oost. But a 2018 retrospective at the MAS in Antwerp became a blockbuster, after initially struggling to find a venue, and since then prices for Wautier’s paintings have skyrocketed. Christie’s sold a portrait in 2019 for $759,000 (it carried an estimate of $300,000-$500,000) and a smaller work in 2021 for £400,000 (which was estimated at just £60,000-£80,000) .

“It’s pretty amazing to see an artist completely rediscovered like this and brought to the forefront,” says Chloe Stead, Senior Global Director at Colnaghi Gallery. “Proof of people’s interest in the story of his rediscovery can be seen both in the market demand for his works and in the success of this exhibition.”

‘Portrait of the Artist’s Son, Bartholomew Beale’ by Mary Beale, sold for £93,750 at Sotheby’s in 2019

A portrait of a boy by Mary Beale, sold for £100,000 at Reeman Dansie in 2021 © Courtesy of Reeman Dansie

Greater interest – academic and commercial – means 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, attributed as an ’18th-century Italian school’ and valued at just £400-600. But keen-eyed dealers and collectors recognized similarities to the 17th-century English painter Mary Beale – who often painted her children – in her warm, vibrant colors, in her brushstrokes reminiscent of Van Dyck, some of whose works hung At her place. Bidding rose until the hammer fell to £100,000, setting a new record for Beale (beating £93,750 at Sotheby’s in 2019).

An oil study of Charles Beale, the Artist’s Husband (c. 1660) by Mary Beale © Courtesy of Weiss Gallery

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 Weiss’ highlights at Tefaf Maastricht (June 24-30) this year.

Celebrity attention also seems to have helped the market. Designer Victoria Beckham partnered with Sotheby’s to exhibit female Old Masters portraits at its flagship London store in 2018 and the following year endorsed the Sotheby’s show in New York. The triumphant woman, which featured 21 works by 14 different female Old Masters. Harvey says that while it “seems quite normal today to think about focusing on selling female artists, we didn’t get good press when we first did that.”

Critics dismissed it as a gimmick, although the records of seven of the artists featured were broken; Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s “Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan” sold for $7.2 million, making it the most expensive female painting of all time. Sales of female artists at major auction houses have been successful – The triumphant woman earned $14.6 million with fees, beating the high pre-sale estimate of $8.9-13.2 million – and attracted new buyers. The buyer of Vigée Le Brun (who remains anonymous) had never bought an old painting before. Ghosh of Christie’s says “the appetite for them has grown exponentially as people understand the importance of this strand of art history.”

‘Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan’ (1788) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, sold at Sotheby’s New York for $7.2 million in 2019

Works by female Old Masters still represent 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 could pursue careers in ‘artists and as such’. it is difficult to find good examples of work by female artists. . . when they show up, they are hotly contested.

Is there a danger that the work will become too expensive because of the gender of the artist? No, says Georgina Hardy, head of nightly sales of old paintings at Sotheby’s in London. She mentions Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch, whose current record is $2.5 million but whose work during her lifetime was more expensive than Rembrandt’s. Today, however, Rembrandt’s recent sales have approached 175 million euros. Although artists such as Gentileschi and Vigée Le Brun can fetch seven-figure sums, most female Old Masters sell for a fraction of that, and even the top prices of female artists fall far short of the dizzying sums their male contemporaries may require.

‘Glass Tazza with Peaches, Jasmine Flowers and Apples’ (1607) by Fede Galizia © @D.Farley.

There is of course much more to this movement than the market. Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, reflects on the recent exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800, says: “It was very moving when the show started that these women artists and their stories physically occupied the main exhibition space, a space that had never been granted to them and which has not been granted to many. of women historically. The power of this has not escaped me.

Gentliseschi may now be a household name, but there are many more waiting to be in the spotlight: Lavinia Fontana, Fede Galizia, Elisabetta Sirani, Josefa de Óbidos, to name a few. . The domain of ancient female masters still offers a tantalizing sense of possibility.