A Space of Their Own: Adelheid Gealt Talks Making Room for Women Artists

A Space of Their Own: Adelheid Gealt Talks Making Room for Women Artists

In 1971, the late art historian Linda Nochlin took to the pages of ARTNews to answer the question, “Why have there been no great women artists?” In her investigation, Nochlin spared no one — aiming her pen at the academy, the art market and even feminist “solutions” to the so-called “woman problem.” What resulted from this inquiry was not a treatise on overlooked or forgotten women, but a sweeping and rigorous account of the institutional and cultural barriers that have long-impaired the development of “great” women artists.

Nochlin’s essay precipitated a critical shift in understanding inclusion. Still, women, especially those working prior to the 20th century, remain woefully under-documented. And while the industry has made some strides in rewriting art history to include minorities not represented in books, galleries or museums — after all, the total number of women highlighted in H. W. Janson’s “History of Art,” a campus classic, is up to over two dozen from zero, which is exactly how many women were included in the original 1962 version — where advancements have been made, access to visual reproductions of the work often remains sparse.

Portrait of a Princely Family,” Anna Dorothea Therbusch.

In a monumental effort to correct this absence, a group of researchers at Indiana University is working with the foundation Advancing Women Artists (which has spearheaded vital efforts to restore women’s art in Italy) to create a new database dedicated to documenting women artists working in the United States and Europe between the 15th and 19th centuries. The database, as reported by Hyperallergic, joins projects such as Clara, AWARE and the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative in an effort to compile both historical and visual information about women artists into a central, easily accessible place.

Aptly named A Space of Their Own, the database is set to launch in the spring of 2019 and will include a large repository of images and illustrations to accompany the artists — a crucial component for truly advancing knowledge and access.

We spoke over email with Indiana University art history professor Adelheid Gealt, the director of A Space of Their Own, about the project, the challenges of creating such a database and what she hopes will come out of the efforts.

How did you get involved with this project? 

The project is the brainchild of the late Dr. Jane Fortune, Emmy-winning founder of Advancing Women Artists Foundation. Dr. Fortune, who sadly passed away in September of this year, was an author, philanthropist and wonderful, truly inspiring person! She and I met through a group called “The Mistresses,” an Indianapolis-based group of women who went to various cultural locations. I gave them all a tour of our museum (now the Eskenazi Museum of Art) when I was director. My own long-term research on a survey of artists and how they visualized their families overlapped with Jane’s interest in women artists.


In 2016, a year after I retired from the directorship, Jane asked me to help her create a virtual museum devoted to women artists because of her long-term work finding and restoring works by Italian women artists that she was finding in Florence. Most of these works went back into storage. She wanted a way for works by women artists to remain visible. I suggested a large, comprehensive website, and she liked the idea, and her foundation gave us our first funding.

Advancing Women Artists, which is directed by Linda Falcone, became our first partner; the Eskenazi Museum also stepped up thanks to Dr. David Brenneman, the museum’s director, as has my department of Art History at IU. Soon thereafter the Samuel H. Kress Foundation also joined us, and so energy and interest continues to build.

What has been the biggest challenge of working on this project?

That’s hard to say. Our challenges include funding, of course — many museums are simply responding by sending us all their information, as well as images, gratis. I was so touched, for example, when Dr. Keith Christiansen, curator at the Met, responded almost immediately. His assistant Gretchen Wold has been just terrific. But a number of museums are charging us to reproduce their holdings, and we’re compiling a list.

I suppose another big challenge is the fact that museum databases can’t sort by gender — which means unless the curator can take the time, or knows what they have (as the Met’s painting department did), we have to search their databases on our own. We did get a grant from IU’s Women’s Philanthropy Council this year to hire someone to do just that.

So we’ve created a “Master List” based on names of women artists we’ve gleaned from many sources, and we have a grad student, Erin Hennessey, who is working on what I call “data mining.” She’s starting to look through existing databases from major museums to see what they hold.

And what has been the biggest surprise?

One surprise is the warm-hearted media response we’ve received. Also the kindness of so many museum curators from the US and Great Britain and Europe. Thanks to Dr. Julien Chapuis, curator at the Bode Museum in Berlin (an IU grad), we were put in touch with CODART, and that has reached many curators, and the responses continue to come in.

In terms of women artists who have surprised me: I was surprised to find Dolley Madison as an artist. I was also just blown away by the diversity of talent. There’s a Dutch woman artist, Joanna Koerten (16150-1715), who produced amazing paper cut outs. Esther Inglis (1571–1624), an English woman artist, made embroidery, calligraphy and illuminations! Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588) of Florence was self-taught and painted a huge “Last Supper,” which Jane Fortune, Linda Falcone and the Advancing Women Artists Foundation helped restore!

“The Last Supper,” Plautilla Nelli.

Marie-Anne Collot (1748–1821) was an incredibly gifted sculptor who did a famous portrait of Peter the Great, and I’m interested because she did an amazing portrait of her father-in-law. I should mention the 18th-century English artist Mary Delany (1700-1788), who did such amazing botanical specimens out of paper.

Another surprise has been the emphasis (maybe I should not have been surprised) on appearance — whether or not women artists were attractive was something writers and critics commented on from the Renaissance on. In the 16th century, Vasari writes on the sculptress Prosperizia de’ Rossi: “This Prosperizia was very beautiful in person, and played and sang in her day better than any other woman of her city.” In the 18th century, Diderot criticizes Anna Dorothea Therbusch, a German painter who had come to Paris, for not having an attractive bosom or derriere.

Paper collage examples by Mary Delany.

Women, even women artists, are prisoners of their looks — as Mary Wollstonecraft noted in her “Vindication of the Rights of Woman”: “Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”

You sent out a call for information on women artists in European collections. What has the response been like?

Terrific — in the US we were able to use email; in Great Britain, we had to resort to snail mail, but got a big response. CODART helped with Dutch and Flemish; we will probably use snail mail for Germany; we’re just starting to reach out to French museums.

What are your hopes for the database?

My biggest hope is that this database and website will truly honor the memory of a remarkable woman and beloved friend, Dr. Jane Fortune. I hope that it will continue to grow and become a source of inspiration to women as well as a resource for scholars and students. I hope it becomes a catalyst for all kinds of projects and programs that will further remind us of the resilience, imagination, innovation and creative talent expressed by women throughout history despite so many odds against them.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Top Image: "Self-Portrait," Anna Dorothea Therbusch.