Review: Printing Women at the New York Public Library

If you find yourself in freezing mid-town Manhattan and need a place to duck into for warmth you can always do worse than the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue between 40th & 42nd Streets. And if you go by January 31, you can explore Three Centuries of Female Printmakers, 1570-1900 on the third floor.


As Madeleine Viljoen, the library’s curator of prints, puts it, “This unusually forward-thinking collection was assembled by Henrietta Louisa Koenen, wife of the first director of the Rijksmuseum Print Room in Amsterdam. From 1848 until 1861, she pursued her own keen interest in prints by acquiring an astonishing array of sheets by women artists of the 16th to the 19th century.” 

One engraving, from 1751 by Madame de Pompadour, of a child blowing bubbles, is a representative example of the talent on display in this collection. Ms. Viljoen again, “Whereas noblemen generally pursued heroic subject matter, their female counterparts tended toward themes of romance, courtship, family, and the home. The modest size and scope of these works suggest that they were intended for a small circle of friends and acquaintances, not for mass circulation.”

Another print, by Princess Elizabeth of England in 1806, of a woman led by Cupid, features a similarly familial theme.

One of the earliest works in the collection is a bust of a young woman from 1587 that is attributed to Marie de Medici. The artist was the daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany and she created this woodcut thirteen years before her marriage to Henri IV of France. If the inscription, which reads “Marie de Medici made this,” is true, this is the oldest existing print by a patrician woman.

A portrait of Napolean’s mother, Laetitia, from 1835, was created by Charlotte Bonaparte, the emperor’s neice and the subject’s granddaughter. Laetitia was 84 at the time the portrait was done. After her uncle was deposed and her father exiled, Charlotte immigrated to the US where she was a prolific lithographer.

In addition to these intimate portraits, there are fascinating and moving landscapes, botanicals and depictions of religious and mythological scenes on a grander scale.

So go inside, and warm up your body and mind as you peruse this unique collection.

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