‘A Woman’s Worth’: Male conceptions of feminine beauty | Arts & Culture

In a series of paintings curated by the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, male artists

In a series of paintings curated by the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, male artists portray women in a multitude of different ways. Yet one thing remains the same — all of the women are being looked upon and depicted in a passive manner.  

 “A Woman’s Worth,” a virtual exhibit at the JSMA, provides a feminist theory lens to these classic paintings by male artists.

In “Nude Reading,” an oil painting by Pierre Daura, a woman lounges naked, legs crossed, reading a book. The perspective of the piece suggests that the woman is being watched. In another image, “Madonna of the Cherries,” a woman sits with an infant on her lap. She gazes down at the child, again suggesting that she is being watched. According to the exhibit, she represents the Virgin Mary and the expectations of compassion and motherhood.

Each piece within the exhibit interrogates the ways women have been portrayed by male artists from the 16th to the 19th century. The collection of paintings explore themes of objectification, the female form, portrayals of the idealized body and the role of women in society. 

The exhibit drew inspiration from the Feminist Art Coalition, an organization that highlights feminist art history. It uses pieces from the JSMA’s permanent collection and focuses mostly on Western European artists. 

“Until the latter half of the twentieth century, with some notable exceptions, men were in control of how women were portrayed and thus how femininity and women’s worth was perceived,” said Emily Shinn, the exhibit’s curator. “It is important to question how representation impacts social and cultural functions and norms, and how this is so deeply ingrained in thinking patterns we may not be aware of.”

“A Woman’s Worth” provides a variety of images representing the Virgin Mary. According to the exhibit, she depicts expectations of chastity, innocence and compassion. The Virgin Mary is often pictured with a young child on her lap, representing motherhood. 

The exhibit also highlights a series of more abstract pieces. “The Artist and his Model II,” by Pablo Picasso, shows an artist painting a nude woman. The piece represents the objectification of the female form, cultural standards of beauty and the ways male artists project their desires in their artwork. 

“My hope is viewers of the exhibition will take away the idea of looking at a painting more closely than before, asking questions about why something looks the way it does, and in regards to the representation of women, what ramifications might this have?” Shinn said. “How does the creator of images influence these judgments and expectations?”

The Feminist Art Coalition started in 2017 as a response to the 2016 presidential election. According to the website, the coalition’s goal is to promote change in institutions and “generate cultural awareness of feminist thought, experience and action.”

“A Woman’s Worth” is one of many exhibits that are now offered virtually via the JSMA website. This includes downloadable gallery guides, PowerPoints and Zoom talks with curators.

“Though an in-person experience with art cannot be duplicated, our digital shift has actually expanded the quantity of resources we can provide to the student community and wider public, in some cases enabling a closer look at the art than would be possible in the galleries and extended resources for further study,” Shinn said.

The virtual exhibit is accessible on the JSMA website. It runs through July 18.