Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of a Noblewoman, c. 1580.
Yesterday I happened to be looking at Maxwell Armfield’s An Artist in Italy, his series of travel articles from the 1920s in which he views the landscapes and buidings with a colourist’s eye and describes the paintings he’s seen. It happened to be appropriate reading for International Women’s Day because his section on Bologna featured the leading role played by women artists and intellectuals in that city – Novella Andrea, Caterina dei Vigi, Prosperzia de’ Rossi, Lavinia Fontana and Elizabeth Sironi.
Armfield’s interest in women artists wasn’t accidental: he was married to the feminist writer Constance Smedley, whom he’d met at Birmingham Art School in the 1890’s. Her writing is almost forgotten now but she’s remembered as the founder of the International Lyceum Clubs for Women Artists and Writers, which she set up to provide support for professional women. As the Dictionary of National Biography says, “She aspired, not only to enable women to compete equally with men, but to create a democratic, non-hierarchical, centre for worldwide cultural exchange, and travelled across Europe, helping women in Amsterdam (1904), Berlin (1905), Paris (1906), and Florence (1908) to open clubhouses.” Their marriage was unconventional: Armfield was gay and Smedley’s disabilities precluded normal marital relations, but they had a productive artistic partnership in England and the USA and they probably travelled to Bologna together.
Constance Smedley and Maxwell Armfield.