Skip to content

Women through the Ages: a Brief Look at Women in Artwork

by Kristen Vincenty


in the galleries , interpretation , self-guided tours , European Painting & Sculpture , American Painting & Sculpture , women in art , Kristen Vincenty

Walking through the halls of the Cincinnati Art Museum, I was struck by the evolution of the depiction of women through the ages.  Most surprising to me, was that through millennia, there are repetitive themes of: grace, serenity, poise, and strength. When looking closer at the artworks, I could find key examples throughout our collection and bridging art movements to reflect how each theme is illustrated to depict women in art.

Virgin and ChildIn the days of the Renaissance and Gothic periods, displays of religious scenes were prevalent amongst artists throughout Europe. One woman in particular, was frequently the topic of many paintings, sculptures, reliefs, and carvings; this woman is none other than the Virgin Mary. Wandering through the Renaissance galleries, Mary’s face is everywhere, always slightly different, but often clutching a young child, Jesus Christ. Many times we hear the story of Mary and her son, but her depictions spanning these time periods always show her gracefully carrying her child. One example I particularly enjoy is Virgin and Child(1971.553) which is an Italian ivory carving, currently on display. Although much smaller than many of the other wooden carvings you can find throughout the Art Museum, I enjoy this piece particularly for its size. Looking at Mary’s relaxed face, her gracefully flowing clothing, and the smile on her baby’s face, it is a fantastic depiction of the grace that she carries with her and exudes throughout her many representations.

One of the recent acquisitions of the Cincinnati Art Museum is the photoPetra (Pieces) by Ryan McGinley (2014.18). This photo displays a model serenely resting in a pond, her nude body covered by mud, staring into the distance. The sheer size of this photo, currently on display in Gallery 231, causes you to step back to absorb the full scale of the woman staring back at you. Looking at this photo, I can’t help but ask the question, what is she thinking? Looking at this print for yourself, what do you discern?

With the background of scenic Eden Park behind her, Eve Disconsolate(1888.86) has long stood in the Art Museum. Poised with the snake by her ankles, she angelically looks forward into the distance, realizing the consequences of her actions. Eve Disconsolate has always been one of my favorite sculptures, with her gentle fluid motion and poised demeanor, she seems to guard herself from the future to come and yet stands with such confidence. What is your favorite sculpture at the Cincinnati Art Museum?

StrengthHiram Powers’ Eve Disconsolate,
Unable to see her face, we can see the dilapidation of the 1937 flood displayed in Home—After the Flood, New Richmond, Ohio by Herman H. Wessel (2003.252). This painting although starkly in contrast from the previous works of art discussed, shows the darkness and dismay of a home torn apart by flooding. The woman in the painting stands stoically, surveying the wreckage of her home. Although we do not know who this woman is, upon first looking at this painting, I felt her determination to overcome what was in front of her. This strength I feel, comes from the fact that we cannot see this woman, and as she survey’s the wreckage, she looks towards the future. Faced with similar destruction, you can see images of strong women and men today, online with those who have recently been affected in Nepal with the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit on April 25, 2015. If you would like to aid in the efforts to rebuild and help those in Nepal,  you can follow this link.Home—After the Flood, New Richmond, Ohio by Herman H. Wessel

The next time you walk through the Cincinnati Art Museum, I hope that you will stop and look at all of the different ways that women have shaped art by their appearance within it’s many forms. I challenge you to find other works of art portraying women, and see if you can find one or multiple examples of these themes within them.

Image Credit:

  • Virgin and Child; Sculpture, Mid 14th Century; ivory; John J. Emery Fund; 1971.553
  • Hiram Powers (American, b. 1805, d. 1873); Eve Disconsolate, 1858-1860; marble; Gift of Nicholas Longworth; 1888.86
  • Herman H. Wessel (American, b. 1878, d. 1969) Home- After the Flood, New Richmond, Ohio, 1937; oil on Masonite; Gift of Mildred A. and James E. Gilchrist in memory of Dr. and Mrs. Wm. H. Rohdenburg; 2003.252