There’s Something About Mary: National Museum of Women in the Arts Mounts the Perfect Christmas Show (While Straying from Its Mission)

Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609-10. Oil on canvas. 46 1/2 x 33 7/8 in. Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florece; inv.1890 no. 2129
Artemisia Gentileschi. Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609-10. Oil on canvas. 46 1/2 x 33 7/8 in. Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florece; inv.1890 no. 2129


“NMWA was founded in 1981 with the singular mission to bring to light remarkable women artists of the past while also promoting the best women artists working today. Through its programming, NMWA directly addresses the gender imbalance in the presentation of art, therefore assuring great women artists a place of honor now and into the future.”

I went to the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) last week to view “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, ” an exhibition of close to 70 works that trace the development of Marian imagery. I expected to see exquisite pieces from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. They are there—Michaelangelo, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Tiepolo, Della Robia, Fra Fillippo Lippi, who is one of my all-time faves, and more. The exhibition also includes textiles, prints, reliefs, stained glass, sculptures and paintings. There’s a nod to the north with six Durer woodcuts, and a grisaille on loan from the National Gallery of Art, in Washington. There’s also a Tiepolo on loan from the NGA, you know, the one with the baby that looks like a real baby.

As a modern woman and artist, I was curious to see if the museum would rise to the occasion and present works that were more contemporary as well and present a conversation about Mary, within the theological context as well as in a secular, social, and art historical one. NMWA has presented feminist artists, so why not present women theologians and feminist art historians on the topic as well? Let’s face it; we women are still dealing with the repercussions of Madonna-Whore syndrome in some way, shape or form in our daily lives as well as globally via media entertainment and advertising. It never seems to end. My expectations were dashed however, when I read the exhibition only considered works up to the 18th century, so as to compliment the architecture of the museum building. An odd explanation considering most of the exhibition space obliterates the architecture with standard gallery white walls and wall-to-wall carpeting.

Many of the works in the exhibition are breathtaking in their execution and should be viewed with an understanding of their art historical context and developments. There is very adequate explanation of the symbolism involved in the work of the eras, and how artists developed ways of depicting the Madonna and Child, but unfortunately, there was a lack of discussion of developments in artistic craft and technique.

Here also, was an opportunity for a museum that has focused on women artists in the past to continue its work as well, particularly since it just won the Simone de Beauvoir prize from France. . The de Beauvoir prize is ordinarily given to individuals for outstanding humanitarian service, not to institutions.

There are but four women artists in this exhibition, including Artemisia Gentileschi, which is not surprising given historical conditions and because only in the last 40 years have female Renaissance and medieval artists begun to receive their scholarly due. Gentileschi’s approach to Mary is humanist. I adore humanism. Mary is no longer enthroned, she is simply dressed on a plain chair, perched somewhat awkwardly in haste, perhaps interrupted from a chore by her hungry son, and naturally bears her breast to the Christ child.

For the museum to present a major exhibition on Marian imagery as a central theme and not include images beyond the 18th century and ignore more modern depictions by artists and women artists for that matter, is beyond my comprehension really. For the curator, Monsignor Timothy Verdon, to omit them, I completely understand.

Everything about this presentation seems to trumpet, “We’re showing images of the most amazing, strongest and iconic woman of all time and that does fit in with our mission!” No, you’ve strayed from your mission NMWA. I am deeply disappointed. You’ve shifted your emphasis from women as creators to woman as subject matter by mostly men as orchestrated by one of the most patriarchal institutions in history, and you’re getting an honor from the Simone de Beauvoir Foundation too, most probably based on work prior to this exhibition. Simone, if she knew, would be rolling over in her grave.

Picturing Mary is also accompanied by an on-line virtual exhibition A Global Icon: Mary in Context  with numerous fascinating works of Mary from the middle east, Asia, Central and South America and other cultures. There is a printed catalog available for sale.

The exhibition is on view through April 12 (through Easter).

The National Museum of Women in the Arts: 1250 New York Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20005


One thought on “There’s Something About Mary: National Museum of Women in the Arts Mounts the Perfect Christmas Show (While Straying from Its Mission)”

  1. This is upsetting. I don’t think the term “women in the arts” was ever meant to include “women in the paintings”. It’s absurd, on the face of it, to have a sexist show at an institution that is supposed to be for women! And particularly galling is the fact that it would have been a SIMPLE TASK to present a show on Marian art that was most, or even all women, were it not for their time restriction, a curatorial conceit that I am instantly suspicious of. This is one of the largest topics in art history, but obviously if you are restricting your choices to pre-18th century works you’re choosing a historical focus that automatically excludes women for you. I think women in DC should organize a protest!

    Liked by 1 person

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