Through the Looking Glass: How Women are Painted by Men

Last year, in a poetry workshop, our class received the assignment to construct a short poem with the theme decided by each of us. I remember this poem being one of the most effortless pieces to write. In hindsight, I feel it was relatively easy for me to construct because I knew exactly what I wanted to say and how I wanted to convey it. In the poem, I touch on how women have been historically depicted in art: one-dimensional, likely unclothed, bearing a ‘seductive’ or alluring expression. If not possessing any or all of these characteristics, the women are more often than not portrayed as dead (see Ophelia by John Everett Millais). This phenomenon involving male painters dictating how women are portrayed on canvas can be summed up in one concept: the male gaze. The phrase was coined in 1975 by film critic Laura Mulvey and can be defined as “the presentation of women in visual arts and literature from a male, heterosexual perspective where women are depicted as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer” (1).

Male Gaze
by Lily Pickart

To be a spectacle is to be mute
while men in wife-beaters, in three piece suits
eye your nakedness under gilded iron spectacles.
I have wondered our art, wandered our art
to see women only painted as dead or dressless.
Because a woman covered is better a woman buried.
How her blossoms of adonis and rue
grow once more in Ophelia’s lifeless hand.
As if rankings were loyal to pageant stages,
judged in the schools, in the streets, in the pools, in the sheets.
Her name is Nothing, traded for a number
pinned to her collar. A flat chest does not deserve a ten.
My mouth stitched closed, I sit and sink
under the glare of glass fashioned by men.

We all know world-renowned paintings that feature a female subject: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring–the list continues. There’s more than one thing that connects these mentioned masterpieces and others like it: not only are they centered around a female subject, but the artworks are all painted by men.

The closer we look at these so-called masterpieces, the more we recognize that is just how women, and any gender outside men, is seen through the male’s eyes: a master’s pieces, pawns, play-things whose only purpose is to appeal to man’s stare. We as a patriarchal society are obsessed with pinning a woman’s worth to a singular aspect of her identity, usually centered around the notion of sexuality. Paintings of women by men are saturated with an emphasis on the female subject’s sexual status, to a somewhat sickening degree (edit: a very sickening degree). Take Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus: are we to embrace that the goddess is portrayed as a fully developed woman whose nudity is the piece’s focal point? Her eyes fall downward, as opposed to looking directly at the viewer.

This ‘absent’ expression on female subjects plays well into the idea of male gaze, due to the fact the male painter/viewer is actively watching the women, whose attention is not turned toward him. Likewise, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring also fails to place the female subject in an engaged stance, one that is equal to the male onlooker. Instead of positioning the girl’s body forward, she’s painted with only three quarters of her face visible, almost as if she has been caught off-guard.

Furthermore, perhaps the most apparent example, Edouard Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass shows a nude woman sitting with two fully-clothed men, with another woman in the background’s pond, dressed in a light bathing costume. The surrounding landscape is dark and sinks backward, further propelling the pale nude women to the viewer’s attention. Once again, the women both assume a more passive presence: the main nude woman is looking over her shoulder with three quarters of her face visible, while the other woman looks downward and shrinks into the neutral tones of the pond. The painting itself bothers me in its blatant submission to male fantasies, as well as the lack of cohesion in the subjects’ dress styles–did nobody establish a dress code before they hit the town? Jokes aside, the piece further supports the idea that women subjects are carefully constructed to appeal to the male gaze. Why are only the women nude? Why can’t the men be nude? Why have such a stark contrast between the women’s bare skin and the dark forestry? How would men react to seeing painting after painting of male subjects depicted as passive beings, or nude among hoards of fully clothed women?

I am a woman, not an exhibit. – Iris Whittle (1)


Of course, my intention is not to invalidate the artistry of these male painters. They display exceptional talent in capturing the complexities involved within each artwork, from contrast to tone to detail. The point I want to capitalize is as follows: Why must women in art be dehumanized to reflect male ideas of women? Better yet, why are we so willing to exalt these male painters over their women and non-binary counterparts? We can attempt to blame it on the fact that, historically, women have had little access to proper education or individual freedom, as they were, and continue to be, seen as secondary beings, dependent on their male partners with the single purpose of birthing children. Yet, how are we to explain the erasure of women artists who did overcome such barriers to pursue art? With her outstanding attention to detail and incorporation of texture, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) should be a household name, just as any male painter in or surrounding the Baroque era: Diego Velázquez, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, etc.

Gentileschi’s talent challenges that of male Baroque figureheads; yet, society stifles her impact in favor of men with similar or lesser gifts. I argue that behind Gentileschi’s lack of visibility stands two reasons that ultimately cost her a higher fame. Firstly, she was a woman. In the 17th century, women were not perceived as equals to men, a mindset that still grips society in modern times. Gentileschi had a rare advantage in that her father was an accomplished painter who encouraged all of the family’s children to participate in the arts (2). Without such familial support, there would be very little hope for Gentileschi to pursue her passion.

Secondly, her paintings portrayed the truth of women living in a time where men had no requirement or moral obligation to be just toward women. Several of Gentileschi’s paintings revolve around strong women avenging their honor by challenging or rejecting men: Susanna and the Elders, Jael and Sisera, and Judith Slaying Holofernes. We don’t often see discomfort in renditions of the Biblical tale Susanna and the Elders portrayed as accurately as it is in Gentileschi’s version, which emphasizes Susanna’s unmistakable resistance toward hovering, perverted men.

“…A woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen…” 

-Artemisia Gentileschi (4)

What I appreciate most about Gentileschi’s representation of women is that she equips female subjects with an agency that is usually only assigned to male subjects. They are portrayed as strong and active, free of the need to consider the male gaze. Gentileschi’s approach can be seen in that of other women painters throughout history who have defied established norms regarding gender characterization on the canvas. For example, Frida Kahlo’s self portraits often depict her staring unflinchingly at the viewer, without any trace of shyness or allure that is so often attached to women subjects.

Similarly, contemporary painter Yayoi Kusama, whose polka-dotted masterpieces never fail to grab the viewer’s attention, mirrors Frida’s approach in ensuring women are presented facing forward and engaged with the viewer: there’s no passiveness present in the subjects. So, what impact does this have? Quite honestly, a lot. In consuming such art, we slowly abandon previously established ideas of how women are based on their depiction in visual art. We start to reject the idea that women are passive beings, or one-dimensional characters and embrace the fact that women, as well as all genders, are worthy of equal treatment and representation.