This anthology fills a major lacuna in the study of Northern European art. The eleven essays address a range of issues related to women artists, images of women, and theoretical gender concerns. As with any anthology, there is no pretension to complete coverage and in fact it could be argued that the value of such a work resides almost as much in the gaps revealed and the questions raised – ‘all pointing the way toward future studies’ – as in the particular material covered. Carroll and Stewart were especially thoughtful about the role of their book as a teaching tool as well as a scholarly contribution. Realizing that thesis-driven articles can model the process of academic inquiry for students more effectively than most survey textbooks, they explicitly designed this anthology as a ‘supplemental reader’ primarily for undergraduate and graduate students and only secondarily for colleagues in the field (xvi). Perhaps the book would have been more directly relevant as a course reader if it were focused more narrowly on a particular period in Northern European art history rather than spanning eight centuries, but then the rich array of themes, materials, and issues would have been diluted.
To aid teachers who might want to use the anthology in their courses, Carroll and Stewart included a helpful, though rather cursory, chart listing the articles suited for courses in medieval, Northern Renaissance, and Northern Baroque art, along with the specific nationalities, mediums, and themes addressed in each. The editors’ desire to strengthen the link between cutting-edge scholarship and pedagogical practices is laudable, and the clearly written and well illustrated articles should be accessible – indeed inspiring – to most intelligent undergraduates.
Carroll and Stewart provide a useful introduction that lays out the structure of the anthology and justifies the thematic rather than chronological approach. Their intention was to give a ‘more complex and nuanced understanding of early European women and the possibilities open to them’ (xviii), which they achieved by inviting essays that disrupt the simplistic saint/sinner dichotomy found so often in earlier scholarship about women in the early modern period. Even in the ‘Saints and Sinners’ section this dualistic view begins to break down, and the diversity of female roles, voices, and themes is further augmented in the last section on ‘Sisters, Wives, Poets.’ The authors provide multiple perspectives on the works under consideration, emphasizing the fluidity of the interpretive process when issues such as patronage, audience response, and cultural context are brought to the fore. Common ground for these disparate essays can be found in the contextual approach used by the authors (attending especially to literary parallels and social, religious, and political conditions) and in their interest in the multivalence of imagery (xx). While the dates range from the late ninth to the late seventeenth century and the art works include engraved gemstone seals, ivory mirrors, tapestries, and prints as well as paintings, the stated intention of ‘decoding women’s roles’ (xxiii) also ties the essays together.
Certain recurrent themes facilitate this process of decoding. The idea of the gaze, for example, is used in a way that breaks open the traditional notion of a passive, neutral viewer and adds further complexity as we are led to consider multiple kinds of viewing: that of the artist, the patron, and the audience(s), as well as the viewing channels (or blocked viewing) within the image itself. In her article on Roghman’s engravings of women involved in domestic tasks, for example, Sheila Peacock investigates ‘society’s complex web of relationships and gazes’ (45) and emphasizes the significance of the averted head deflecting the viewer’s inspection (56). The female gaze is understandably central to Susan Smith’s analysis of Gothic mirrors, and she brings up a variety of related issues such as the effect of a woman’s invitational glance as well as her responsiveness to the look of her male lover, the uneasiness caused by women’s active scrutiny, and the role of the owner as well as the secondary viewer.
A more conscious consideration of class (of both viewer and viewed) throughout this anthology could have complemented the gender focus, although it is used occasionally as an analytical tool (indeed more often than in much art historical scholarship). Stewart discusses official vs. popular cultures in her article on Sebald Beham’s Spinning Bee (146), for instance, and Genevra Kornbluth analyzes status, ambition, and power as related to the seal of Richildis (169). Also, reading Smith’s ‘The Gothic Mirror and the Female Gaze’ right after Peacock’s ‘Domesticity in the Public Sphere’ leads us, despite the very different periods and mediums, to rethink the role of class and economic background in the making and viewing of these works that refer on the one hand to domestic laboring (represented in the inexpensive medium of the print) and on the other to its antithesis, leisured gazing (represented in the luxury medium of ivory).
The editors have provided us with a series of such fruitful conjunctions in their arrangement of the book. Another intriguing pairing can be found with the essays by Jane Carroll, on Dominican nuns, and Corine Schleif, on artists’ wives, which create a dialogue about workshop practices and attitudes toward women as participants in the creative process. More obviously, the essays on Lucretia by Carol Schuler and Pia Cuneo function well together as they feature multivalent interpretation. Linda Hults provides another example of effective interpretive layering in her essay on Dürer’s Four Witches, in which Venus and the Graces rub shoulders with witches and classical humanism co-exists with contemporary politics, apocalyptic thinking, and witchcraft literature. Similarly, Linda Stone-Ferrier’s analysis of Metsu’s Weeping Woman in the Blacksmith’s Shop raises the possibility of identifying the central woman both as the Covetous Wife from a contemporary farce and also as a well-known female poet of the period, thus confirming, like many of the essays here, the value of a ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’ analytical approach.
Laurinda Dixon, like others, attends to the role of viewer and patron in constructing visual meaning, and in the process of identifying their disparate though sometimes overlapping concerns she sets Jan Steen’s paintings of doctors’ visits into the complex contextual background of classical and early modern medical theory and practice as well as seventeenth-century social and sexual mores. Her essay, in fact, serves as a fitting conclusion to the book, not only chronologically but also, and more importantly, as a model for the way this new kind of scholarship can serve as a ‘celebration of the multiplicity and exuberance’ (xvi) of Northern European art history.
Elise Lawton Smith