A 20th Century Celebration of Female Artists

Rocco Forte Hotels

Have you ever noticed how art history is a little one-sided? The writer, researcher and journalist Katy Hessel seeks to redress the balance with her book, The Story of Art Without Men.

Taking the title of the Austrian professor Ernst Gombrich’s renowned book The Story of Art and turning it on its head, Katy puts women artists from the Renaissance to the Guerrilla Girls in the spotlight.

With her book to hand, go in search of pioneering women artists. Join us on a journey that leaps across genres and geography, from Italian iconography to the coast of Cornwall in the UK.


Renaissance women

For women in Renaissance Europe, life drawing classes and travel to the great cultural centres of Rome, Florence and Venice were off-limits.Yet some women became great artists against the odds.

When you’re next in Florence, take the seven-minute walk from Hotel Savoy to the refectory within the black and white church of Santa Maria Novella. Look up at the glorious canvas of “The Last Supper”. You’re admiring the work of the first-known Florentine female Renaissance artist. Say her name, Plautilla Nelli, and consider how this Dominican nun became one of only four women among hundreds of men praised by the Italian painter Giorgio Vasari in The Lives of the Artists.

Head to the Uffizi Gallery, five minutes’ walk from our hotel, to see Nelli’s “San Marco Saint Catherine”, restored for her 2017 monographic show there. It’s extraordinary to think these works were created at the all-female workshop Nelli set up at her convent of Santa Caterina in Cafaggio – in Piazza San Marco, Florence.

Star of The Baroque

It may come as a surprise that as recently as 2020, The National Gallery in London staged its first solo show by a historic female artist – the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

Make your way to Rome to discover Gentileschi’s birthplace, from where she became an international celebrity in her lifetime. Women artists were still rare in the 17th century but Artemisia broke boundaries, working across Italy and London, counting King Charles I and the influential Medici family as patrons. Back in London, go to The National Gallery to admire her remarkable “Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria”.

Floral works come into bloom

Turn to the botanical pages of Hessel’s book to discover floral artworks by the Dutch painter Maria Sibylla Merian and English artist Mary Delany. Both can be seen at the British Museum, a 15-minute drive from Brown’s Hotel. Delany’s intricate paper collages, produced at the age of 72, drew the admiration of King George III and Queen Charlotte. On a visit to Kew Gardens, picture Mary Delany chatting with the royals as she tutored the Queen and the princesses in all things botanical, including the plants’ Latin names.

Women artists on a global scale

Hopping from the States via Europe to Japan, The Story of Art Without Men takes us through every significant art movement. Travel to Munich to explore Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), formed in the capital of Bavaria in 1911.

Seek out one of the movement’s leading figures, Gabriele Münter, at The Lenbachhaus, six minutes’ walk from The Charles Hotel, where you’ll find the world’s largest collection of art of the Blauer Reiter and exceptional works by Münter.

1920’s Berlin

Revisit 1920’s Berlin through the works of Käthe Kollwitz, a pioneer of German Expressionism. In Berlin’s city centre, make your way to the focal point of the memorial outside the Neue Wache, a four-minute walk from Hotel de Rome – you can’t fail to be moved by her memorial, “Mother with her Dead Son”. Explore her life in Berlin with a digital tour, Käthe TO GO, created by the people who run a museum dedicated to Kollwitz, at Charlottenburg Palace, half an hour away from our hotel.

What next for women artists?

In the words of the contemporary British artist Tracey Emin, reviewing Hessel’s book, “It’s a long way before balance is truly redressed, but this is a good start.” It’s also good to see that, from May 2023, Tate Britain presents a complete rehang of its collection of British art, to feature more women artists.

Explore the history of art through a female lens from the comfort of Rocco Forte Hotels, sharing a city with some of the world’s best art galleries in London, Rome, Munich and Berlin.

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