Monday, April 21, 2008

The Helpmate and the Courtesan

Veronica Franco

Judith Leyster (Self Portrait)

What do these two women have in common? The top watercolor is of a Venetian Renaissance poet and "Honored Courtesan". The woman below is a Dutch painter of the Baroque era who painted, taught pupils, and ran a painting workshop with her husband, also a painter. The two led very different lives but have in common their creative and technical abilities and also that they successfully competed in the marketplace of art and life at a time when few women were able to do so.

These women came together this past weekend in a 1 credit PSU class that I was privileged to teach: "The Helpmate and the Courtesan". Despite having to give up much of their weekend, the students were alert and enthusiastic.

We studied Leyster's paintings as to style, meaning, and context. Leyster was unknown from a few years after her death in 1660 until the end of the 19th century. Several of her works had been attributed to the great Frans Hals and other male painters. It is a pleasure to make her life and work more known.

We also studied the poetry and letters of Veronica Franco who expressed the wish for equality between men and women as well as her concern for women of all strata of society. Franco left an unbearable arranged marriage to become a courtesan. The courtesan occupied a unique place in Renaissance Venice. Only the most educated, witty, and determined reached the highest level where they were considered "Honored." Of women, they alone had access to libraries, literary salons, and discussions of art, music, and philosophy. They alone could travel independently and make decisions regarding their own lives. Veronica published two books and mingled with the Venetian nobility. She aroused the envy of some male writers, one of whom published horribly insulting verses about her. Here is an excerpt from her response to his cruel accusations:

"When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong; and others, coarse and harsh, are cowards. Women have not yet realized this, for if they should decide to do so, they would be able to fight you until death; and to prove that I speak the truth, amongst so many women, I will be the first to act, setting an example for them to follow."

The class did creative projects based on the lives and work of the two artists studied.

Collage of Veronica Franco

An assemblage for Judith and Veronica

A collage for Veronica: The courtesan side with a silk and flowered background; the writer side with a 3-D scroll of the frontispiece of one of her books

A drawing in beginning stages of Veronica Franco

A collage for Judith Leyster. The background references the tiled floors she used to show perspective in her paintings of interiors.

Judith Leyster and Veronica Franco side by side in this collage

One of three imaginary diary entries for Veronica. Here is the text of the entry shown:

The life I have made for myself is an interesting one. It is as though I live between worlds, my wealth saves me from being a woman of the streets, yet I am not allowed to enter the society from which I came. It is a times a lonely life, yet one of supreme satisfaction, not in body, but in mind. I do not always enjoy the overtures of my male acquaintances and the scorn from the women of my past is at times unbearable. Yet, I am free. To have a hand in my own future is worth whatever I must endure. to converse, to share with wit my thoughts and ideals...This world of words and wit and knowledge is life.

I wasn't able to get pictures of all the projects, but they were all well thought out and delightful--I hope those who didn't get to finish in class will do so at home. Many thanks to Angela for the pictures and to all the class for their fervent participation!

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