BY Sheryl E. Reiss in Features | 22 AUG 18
Featured in
Issue 7

Female Patrons Throughout History

From Antiquity to the present day, women have been crucial in shaping taste, building collections and supporting artists

BY Sheryl E. Reiss in Features | 22 AUG 18

For more than 3,000 years, patronage of art and architecture has been a noteworthy path for women’s agency and self-expression. Over recent decades, patronage studies – which bring together issues of personal and group identity, political power and cultural production – have come to occupy a significant place in the history of art. It is well known that, in many cases, informed and intelligent patrons took an active role in shaping the character of the works they commissioned. The English term ‘patron’ comes from the Latin patronus (protector of clients or dependents, specifically freedmen), which is, in turn, derived from pater (father). Thus, the term ‘patronage’ is inherently gendered and, in nearly all cases, female patrons worked within the limitations of patriarchal societies. Yet, from Antiquity to the present day, women have requested (and collected) works of art and have commissioned buildings and urban interventions. It is important to stress that the patronage systems of the past were based on social stratification and inequalities in power and economic standing – so, in general, patronage by both women and men was the province of elites, who had the means to extend commissions. Some art historians have used the neologism ‘matronage’ when discussing women patrons but, along with most scholars working on the topic today, I prefer to use the traditional – albeit gendered – term patronage. 

The Ancient World

In New Kingdom Ancient Egypt, the 18th-dynasty pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut (1508–1458 BCE) – who co-ruled with her nephew and stepson, Thutmose III, before declaring herself pharaoh – was a significant patron of art and architecture. Works associated with her include seated and standing portrait statues, such as the one in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which shows her in masculine dress but with inscriptions using feminized terms. Hatshepsut is best known for her mortuary temple at Deir-El-Bahari in upper Egypt near Luxor, designed by her courtier-architect Senmut. The temple, characterized by colonnaded terraces, is built into a cliffside and decorated with relief sculpture narrating events from the female pharaoh’s reign. 

Several ancient sources credit the erection of the monumental Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (c.350 BCE) – the final resting place for Mausolos, ruler of Caria – to his devoted widow, Artemisia II, who was later also interred there. The elaborate tomb, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, featured figures of the couple in a quadriga (four-horse chariot), fragments  of which are housed in London’s British Museum. Although modern scholarship has questioned Artemisia’s sole patronage of the monument, it is important to underscore that, in the early-modern era, some European women patrons modelled their own commissions on those of the Hellenistic queen, whose patronage was seen as an act of devotion to her deceased husband. 

Seated Statue of Hatshepsut, c.1479–58 BCE, indurated limestone and paint, 195 x 49 x 114 cm. Courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Rogers Fund

Another female patron from the ancient world was the Empress Livia (c.59 BCE–29 CE), wife of the Roman Emperor Augustus. She is associated with numerous portraits and coins, architectural and urban interventions and, especially, her villa at Primaporta, north of Rome, which was rediscovered in the late 16th century and excavated in the 19th century. The splendid garden frescoes from her villa, known from the sources as Ad Gallinas Albas, may now be viewed in the Museo Nazionale Romano in Palazzo Massimo alle Terme; these light-filled works convey the delights of the Roman suburban villa.

Medieval and Early-Modern Europe: Nun-Patrons

With the rise of Christianity, patronage by women was often for religious purposes and was frequently carried out by the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of early-Christian and subsequent medieval aristocrats and rulers.  These female patrons constructed churches and mausolea and commissioned sacred art. During the Middle Ages and the early-modern era in western Europe, nuns and other religious women became important patrons of art and architecture. One of the best known, the Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), is renowned for her mystical, botanical and musical texts. But she also commissioned – and, unusually, seems to have acted as painter of – illuminated manuscripts, in particular the 12th-century Scivias (Know the Ways) that  recorded her visions. 

Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias 2.1: The Redeemer, 1150/1927–33. 20th-century reconstruction in tempera on vellum of 12th-century original. Courtesy: Trivium Art History

Considerable scholarship has explored the roles of nun-patrons in early-modern Italy and northern Europe. Notably, the Franciscan nuns of Sant’Antonio of Padua in Perugia commissioned Raphael to paint the altarpiece Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints (c.1504), the main panel of which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In an interesting observation about female patronage and gendered reception, Giorgio Vasari – the great biographer of Italian Renaissance artists – tells us that Raphael depicted the altarpiece’s infant Jesus fully dressed in order to please the devout female patrons. Other Renaissance artists who worked for nun-patrons include Giovanni Bellini in Venice, Gerard David in Bruges and Antonio da Correggio in Parma. Around 1519, Correggio frescoed the umbrella vault and fireplace of the so-called Camera di San Paolo in the eponymous Benedictine convent with secular depictions of putti and an image of the pagan goddess Diana for its strong-willed abbess Giovanna da Piacenza (1479–1524). Like many nuns of the time, Giovanna was the highly educated daughter of nobles. Nuns and devout secular women were also important patrons of architecture and sacred art during the Counter-Reformation period (1545–63) and in Baroque Italy and Spain. 

Medieval and Early-Modern Europe: Secular Female Patrons 

In medieval France and at the Burgundian court, women were significant patrons (or recipient/owners) of illuminated manuscripts. A spectacular moralized bible in the Morgan Library in New York, for instance, depicts Queen Blanche of Castile (1188–1252) with her son, King Louis IX, who was later canonized. The queen’s gesture here suggests that she is advising her son, thus asserting her own agency. In the lower register we see a monk instructing an illuminator. In this period in northern Europe, Books of Hours – luxury devotional manuscripts that included prayers and other texts used by lay people – were particularly associated with women. In the grisaille annunciation scene in the tiny Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (c.1328), on view in the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the French Queen is shown at prayer with a book in her hands within an historiated initial ‘D’. Some 150 years later, The Hours of Mary of Burgundy (c.1477), now held in Vienna’s Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, was illuminated by several artists. Folio 14v shows Mary (daughter of the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, and wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I) at prayer, her devotions bringing forth a vision of herself in the presence of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven. The verisimilitude of 15th-century Flemish painting allows for this extraordinary trompe l’oeil illusion of a vision within an image of female devotion. 

Queens and other female rulers in early-modern Europe were patrons of both sacred and secular works of art and architecture. The daughter of Emperor Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy, Archduchess Margaret of Austria (1480–1530), served as regent of the Netherlands and was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Margaret was a significant collector of portraits, as well as objects from the New World, and she was a patron of Bernard van Orley, who painted several diptychs depicting her in widow’s garb on one panel, with images of the Virgin and Child on the other. Margaret was also the patron of the funerary chapel at Brou, near Bourg-en-Bresse, France. She is buried there with her beloved second husband, Philibert II, Duke of Savoy, and his mother, Margaret of Bourbon. The tombs of Margaret and Philibert are of the so-called double-decker type, each featuring effigies of the deceased seen both as living and in a state of decomposition: a category of effigy known as a transi. In her wifely devotion to the memory of her husband, Margaret modelled her patronage explicitly on that of Artemisia II of Caria. 

Raphael, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, c.1504, oil and gold on wood, 1.7 × 1.7 m (main panel), 75 × 180 cm (lunette). Courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and J. Pierpont Morgan

Another female ruler, the Italian-born Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France (1519–89), was a noteworthy patron of art and architecture. Her commissions included several chateaux and a funeral chapel added to the royal basilica at Saint-Denis for herself and her husband, King Henri II. The conjugal monument, in marble and bronze, shows the royal couple kneeling in prayer above gisant (supine) transi effigies of the pair in death. Catherine fashioned herself in a set of tapestries as the widow-patron Artemisia II and was compared to the Hellenistic queen by a contemporary poet. Catherine’s rival, her husband’s mistress Diane de Poitiers (1499–1566), was also an important patron who commissioned and decorated the Chateau of Anet, in northern France, with its formal gardens and representations of the patron as her namesake Diana, goddess of the hunt. These include the famous bronze relief by Benvenuto Cellini, now in the Louvre in Paris, which once graced the portal. (The topic of patronage by mistresses is a particularly interesting one that deserves further study.) 

In part because of her widespread patronage and often aggressive acquisition of art (both ancient and contemporary), and in part because her activities are exceptionally well-documented in letters, account books and inventories, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua (1474–1539), has been, and remains, the quintessential exemplar of the female art patron in Renaissance Italy. Unusually well-educated for a woman of the period, she was an extraordinarily demanding patron. Until relatively recently, Isabella has also been singled out as the great exception, a nearly unique instance of a Renaissance woman who acted as a patron of art. She commissioned a number of Italy’s most famous artists – among them Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Mantegna, Pietro Perugino and Titian – to decorate her rooms in Mantua’s Castello di San Giorgio and Ducal Palace, as well as to paint portraits of her. She also commissioned medals, manuscripts and other decorative objects. In one surviving letter, she described her ‘insatiable desire for antiquities’ and, indeed, she went to great lengths to obtain ancient works of art. The sculptor Antico (Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi) fashioned many small, precious bronzes after antique works for her. Isabella was dubbed Prima donna del mondo (foremost woman of the world) by her contemporaries and today her patronage and collecting continue to be the subject of much research. In the past 25 years, there has also been a great deal of scholarship dedicated to other Italian female patrons of this period in places including grand ducal Florence, Venice, papal Rome and various north Italian courts. Particularly interesting research has been done in recent years on patronage and collecting by non-elite women in Renaissance Italy. Examples include several middle-class female patrons of the Florentine painter Neri di Bicci, whose commissions are documented in his workshop record books. 

In her patronage of portraits of herself, the most famous female ruler in history, Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1533–1603), conveyed carefully crafted messages about her lineage, power and gender. In 1588, the monarch famously proclaimed to the troops who had been assembled in Tilbury to prepare to repel Spanish invaders: ‘I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too.’ In the so-called ‘Sieve Portraits’ made of the Queen by various artists, her virginity is referenced via her holding of a sieve – an allusion to the Roman vestal virgin Tuccia – while, in others, her regal authority is stressed. With few exceptions, Elizabeth never aged in her portraits. In versions of the Armada Portrait (1588), by an unknown artist, the Queen’s power is symbolized by the imperial crown and the globe upon which she rests her right hand. In the background, two scenes of the Spanish Armada allude to the English victory over the Spanish fleet sent to invade England and overthrow Protestantism in 1588; the English cause was greatly bolstered by fierce storms. The portrait visualizes a great propaganda victory for Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, and is a triumph of self-fashioning through art.

Titian, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, c.1534–36, oil on canvas, 100 × 60 cm. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Women Artists, Women Patrons

The celebrated Bolognese painter Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) was prized by late Renaissance noblewomen of Bologna for her ability to render their jewels, sumptuous dresses and even their lap dogs with meticulous attention to detail. These traits may be observed in the artist’s portrait of a young woman (c.1580), from the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., in which the sitter wears a lavish red dress of the type commonly worn by brides in 16th-century Bologna. Fontana also painted portraits of several wealthy Bolognese widows.

The story of women patrons has continued to the present day. The commissions of royal mistresses, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry, helped to shape artistic taste in 18th-century France; subsequently, Queen Marie Antoinette supported the career of her preferred portraitist, the painter Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun; and notable late 19th- and 20th-century patrons and collectors include Peggy Guggenheim, Louisine Havemeyer, Gertrude Stein and A’Lelia Walker. Today, some 3,500 years after Hatshepsut, women continue to support contemporary art and architecture with great enthusiasm. From Antiquity to our own time, a number of the issues considered here – particularly female agency and self-expression – are still very much relevant to the study of art patronage by women. 

Published in Frieze Masters, issue 7, 2018, with the title ‘Women’s Agency’.

Main image: Unknown Artist, Portrait of Elizabeth I of England, The Armada Portrait, 1588, oil on panel, 1.1 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: Woburn Abbey Collection, Woburn

Dr. Sheryl E. Reiss is a writer and the scholar-in-residence at the Newberry Library, Chicago, USA.