It is no secret that some of the world’s greatest art patrons have been women. Today, some of their names can be seen on the façades of renowned institutions, from New York’s Whitney Museum to Mexico City’s Museo Dolores Olmedo. From ancient times through the 20th century, arts patronage was an important way for women to exercise agency in a world that was otherwise closed to them. Read more about these art patrons, ranging from a Renaissance Woman to an Edo Period art proponent. These 16th-17th century women art patrons helped shape not only the culture of their time and place but also set the tone for the future.
Isabella d’Este: Renaissance Art Patron And Ancient Art Enthusiast
Born in 1474 into the ruling family of Ferrara, Italy, Isabella d’Este was blessed with parents who believed in educating their daughters as well as their sons. Her extensive humanist education proved useful later in life when, as the wife of Francesco, the Marquess of Mantua, she served as her husband’s regent during his military campaigns. When Francesco was taken prisoner in 1509, Isabella proved herself to be a keen stateswoman by protecting Mantua from enemy advances and eventually negotiating his release. Her greatest contribution, however, was her transformation of Mantua into one of Renaissance Italy’s thriving cultural centers. A true Renaissance woman, she became one of its greatest art patrons. Isabella’s personal appreciation for art endeared her to some of the most well-known creatives of her time, from Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael to Baldassare Castiglione.
Isabella’s correspondence reveals a penchant for ancient art objects, in particular. Among her most coveted possessions, for example, was a bust of Emperor Octavian, as well as a small statue of Cupid by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles. The latter was eventually displayed alongside Sleeping Cupid by Michelangelo, thus illustrating Isabella’s appreciation for the aesthetic ties between Classical works and the products of her own time. Isabella’s penchant for Classical themes also extended to paintings, of which she owned at least seven depicting mythological scenes. Among these were Andrea Mantegna’s Parnassus (1497) and Antonio da Correggio’s Allegory of Virtue and Allegory of Vice (c. 1528-30). All three paintings featured goddesses like Venus, Pallas Athena, and Diana. Aside from their physical beauty, the goddesses symbolized Isabella’s humanist knowledge and virtues.
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Like many patrons of her time, Isabella’s collection also featured several likenesses of the Marquessa herself. The most famous of these images is an unfinished chalk drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. Per Isabella’s request, the delicate portrait is startlingly lifelike, with near-perfect proportions and foreshortening. While her face is portrayed in a crisp profile, her front-facing shoulders that draw attention to the details of her billowing sleeves hint at Marquessa’s eye for fashion. Today, many scholars consider Portrait of Isabella d’Este on par with Mona Lisa as an example of Leonardo’s style of portraiture that was both lifelike and in harmony with universal beauty.
An inventory completed following her death in 1539 revealed over seven thousand paintings, books, and antiquities. Remembered by scholars as the “First Lady of the Renaissance,” Isabella’s influence shaped the careers of some of the period’s most significant artists, and thus echoes through the development of Western art in subsequent centuries. Today, the contents of Renaissance woman Isabella d’Este’s collection now reside in some of the world’s most renowned museums, including the Musée du Louvre in Paris and London’s National Gallery.
Catherine de’ Medici: Royal Renaissance Woman
Two centuries before Marie Antoinette’s excesses became the stuff of legend, Catherine de’ Medici was the reigning queen of controversy. Born in Florence in 1519, Catherine was the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, and member of the influential Medici clan, whose lineage included several popes and statesmen. Catherine’s privilege was short-lived, however, as both of her parents died within a month of her birth. Shuttled between relatives, Catherine narrowly managed to survive the overthrow of the Medici stronghold in 1527. After several years as a political hostage, the young duchessa was taken under the wing of her uncle, Pope Clement VII. It was Clement who, in 1533, brokered 14-year-old Catherine’s marriage to Henry, Duke of Orléans, the second son of King Francis I of France.
The death of Henry’s older brother in 1536 meant that Catherine was now the dauphine, or future queen consort. Under pressure to secure that future of the Valois dynasty, Catherine subsequently gave birth to six surviving children, including three sons. Once Henry assumed the throne in 1547, however, Catherine’s political influence was largely curtailed by her husband’s preference for his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. That all changed, 1559, when Henry died following a jousting accident. For the next several years, Catherine ruled France as the regent for her young sons– first Francis II, and later Charles IX. It was during this time that Catherine began wielding more control over France’s diplomacy and purse-strings, also becoming one of Italy’s forerunning art patrons and an archetypal Renaissance woman.
For Catherine, art and architecture were a tool to promote the Valois’ prestige during a period of upheaval and anti-monarchy sentiment. As a result, she sponsored major building projects throughout the country, including the Tuileries and Hôtel de la Reine in Paris. Her most detailed project was her husband’s tomb in the basilica of Saint Denis. Designed by Francisco Primaticcio, the structure included an ornate marble sculpture for Henry’s heart.
Aside from architecture, Catherine brought more prestige to French painting and art patronage through relationships with artists like Jean Cousin the Younger and Antoine Caron. The latter was noted for his Mannerist style– as evidenced in the elongated, twisted figures and high-contrast colors of his Triumph of the Seasons– that reflected the ongoing tension in France during the Wars of Religion. Caron also designed the Valois Tapestries. Now displayed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, this ornate set of eight tapestries depict several magnificences, or court festivals, Catherine directed to mark major occasions. These performances were a major outlet for Catherine’s own creative energies, and she was closely involved with everything music and the set design. Notably, Catherine oversaw the creation of Ballet Comique de la Reine, a performance many scholars consider the first modern ballet.
Despite the funds Catherine poured into arts, her influence as a Renaissance woman and art patron had few lasting effects. The collapse of the Valois dynasty shortly after her death in 1589 ushered in a new period dominated by the tastes and whims of the Bourbons. Catherine’s building projects were left unfinished, and most were eventually destroyed, while her extensive art collection was sold to pay her debts. The only sliver of her efforts that remained was her penchant for extravagant court festivals and entertainment; two hundred years later, the French monarchy’s continued celebrations of excess and frivolity would help trigger the economic woes and civil unrest that gave way to the French Revolution.
Margaret of Austria: Art Collection And Politics
Archduchess Margaret of Austria’s early life was marked by a series of false starts. Born in 1480 to Emperor Maximilian I and Margaret of Burgundy, Margaret was only two years old when she was betrothed to the future Charles VIII of France. She thus spent most of her formative years at the French court, where she was educated in languages, music, politics, and literature, among other subjects. The engagement was broken, however, in 1491. Margaret subsequently married Juan, heir to the throne of Spain, in 1497, but the prince died only six months into their union. Finally, in 1501, the fledgling archduchess found happiness in a marriage to Philibert II, Duke of Savoy.
The Duke’s death in 1504 sent Margaret into a prolonged period of grief, but also signaled the beginning of her impressive tenure as one of the most influential women and art patrons in Europe. After refusing to marry again, in 1507 she was appointed regent of the Netherlands for her nephew, Emperor Charles V. Exercising the diplomatic acumen she acquired from her former mother-in-law, Isabel of Castile, as well as her godmother, Margaret of York, Margaret proved herself to be a shrewd politician and capable leader. Thanks to her dedication to arts and letters, her court at Mechelen drew talent from across the continent. So vast was her collection of everything from jewels and sculpture to ethnographic objects that in 1521 the great painter Albrecht Dürer expressed awe at her “precious things and precious library.”
For Margaret, art and architecture were political tools as well as sources of interest. She was an eclectic Renaissance woman and one of the prominent art patrons of her time. Her main architectural project, the church of St. Nicolas at Brou in Bourg-en-Bresse, was completed in a Renaissance Gothic style that distinguished it from the aesthetics of Italy and France. Margaret’s main interest, however, was portraiture: The Première Chambre of her apartments at Mechelen, was a who’s-who of European royalty, most of whom were connected to Margaret by blood or by marriage. Contemporary records list twenty-nine portraits total, including likenesses of Charles V, Maximilian I, assorted Spanish Habsburgs, and the Tudors of England. Pride of place was given to the Burgundian ducal line, of which Margaret was a direct descendent. Although Margaret’s own portrait was missing from the hall, it is likely those displayed were chosen to legitimize her presence in the Netherlands through her connections with some of the continent’s most powerful figures.
Given her shrewd use of art as a political statement, it is not surprising that Margaret was also a demanding art patron who she knew what she liked. When it came to style, for example, she seems to have embraced the northern artists’ interest for faithfully representing their subjects: Around 1525, she sent her court painter Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen on an extended trip in order to paint several of her relatives, with the specific request that he create the most accurate likenesses possible. She was also conscious of how she constructed her own image: Her official portrait by Bernard van Orley is believed to be quite true to life, and depicts her as a devout, serious widow. This image was eventually copied and distributed to her relatives and political allies, including England’s Henry VIII. Her strategic employment of the arts throughout her tenure proved useful: After her death in 1530, Margaret was remembered as a skilled leader who commanded a disputed region through over two decades, as well as a loyal art patron who fostered the careers of several northern Renaissance artists.
Hürrem Sultan, a.k.a. Roxelana: Art Patron Of The Ottoman Empire
The ascent of Hürrem Sultan is one of history’s most unlikely tales. Born Aleksandra Lisowska in 1505, she spent the first several years of her life in the village of Rohatyn, modern-day Ukraine. Her life changed dramatically at 14 years old, when her village was sacked by invaders and she was captured as a slave. After surviving a harrowing journey first to Crimea and then across the Black Sea to Istanbul, she was eventually sold as a concubine in the harem at Topkapi, the palace of Emperor Suleiman I.
Life in the Ottoman Empire was a world away from Rohatyn. When he ascended the throne in 1520, Suleiman ruled over a population of hundreds of millions that spanned parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa. Instead of forming alliances through marriage, Ottoman rulers ensured the continuation of their line through concubines in the harem. Home to about 150 women, the harem was an isolated place where women– mostly slaves from conquered nations– were trained in the Turkish language and the principles of Islam, as well as music, literature, dancing, and other hobbies. While most European visitors imagined the harem as an erotic hideaway, in reality, it functioned more like a strict religious monastery. It was here that Aleksandra, now called Roxelana, or “Russian girl,” eventually made her way into the history books.
Although reportedly not a great beauty, Roxelana’s spirited personality and intellect endeared her to Suleiman. While tradition dictated that each concubine could only bear one son, Roxelana eventually had several children with Suleiman. In the early 1530s, the emperor broke with centuries of custom and formally married Roxelana, making her the first royal consort to have the title of Haseki Sultan. Her new position came with a dowry of 5,000 ducats as well as a daily salary of 2,000 silver coins, most of which she poured into extensive public works projects. Her greatest accomplishment was the Haseki Sultan complex. Designed by Mimar Sinan, the stone-and-brick complex included a mosque, a school, a soup kitchen, and a hospital.
Aside from her eponymous complex, Roxelana also funded buildings and public resources in other cities, including Mecca and Jerusalem. She died in 1558, having made unprecedented contributions as both a stateswoman and an art patron. Today, scholars credit Roxelana with ushering in the so-called “Sultanate of Women,” a period of time in Ottoman history when royal women exercised unique influence on political affairs.
Tōfuku Mon-In: Edo Period Japanese Art Patron
Born Tokugawa Masako in 1607, Tōfuku mon-in was the daughter of Tokugawa Hidetada, the second shōgun of Japan’s Edo period. In 1620 she married Emperor Go-Mizunoo, thus creating an alliance between the Kyoto-based imperial family and the Edo military regime. Although the wedding was celebrated with elaborate festivities, Go-Mizunoo had already indicated a preference for a concubine with whom he had two children. It was only after the birth of her daughter, Princess Okiko, in 1624, that Masako earned the title of chūgū, or Empress Consort. Five years later, in 1629, Go-Mizunoo abdicated in favor of Okiko, who subsequently became Empress Meishō. It was at this point that Masako adopted the Buddhist name Tōfuku mon-in.
Although her time as consort was short-lived, Tōfuku mon-in continued to be influential well into her later years. While the military shogunate continued to control more aspects of the government, Tōfuku mon-in used her personal wealth to bolster the imperial court’s cultural standards. She poured funds into the reconstruction of several Buddhist temples that were destroyed by civil war including the Enshō-ji in Koriyama and Kūon-ji in Kyoto. She presented many of these sites with paintings by renowned artists; some of these works, such as Korean Envoys by Dōun Masanobu, are still in the temples’ possession.
Aside from her work rebuilding temples, Tōfuku mon-in also had a deep personal investment in art and court culture. Skilled in calligraphy and composition, she was known for hosting poetry parties in her quarters. Her love of poetry is immortalized in one of the best-known commissions in her collection, Poetry Slips Attached to Cherry and Maple Trees. Now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, this set of six screens by Tosa Mitsuoki depicts 60 slips of poetry, or tanzaku, to tree branches. The vivid contrast between the fall maple scenes and the spring cherry blossoms combined with the contours of the “swaying” tanzaku represents a wistful, melancholy reflection on the fleetingness of beauty.
As one of the art patrons of the Edo Period, Tōfuku mon-in’s interest spanned across mediums. Although poetry was perhaps her greatest interest, she also collected religious icons, reliquaries, and paintings, as well as tea wares for the chanoyu, or tea ceremony. For the latter, she often looked to ceramicist Nonomura Ninsei, whose bold patterns and refined execution complemented Tōfuku mon-in’s own penchant for blending contemporary and classical styles. Her interview hall at the palace, for example, featured striking, colorful elements alongside poetry cards and ornaments. One of her most coveted interior commissions was a set of cedar doors painted with festival scenes and images of large carp in fishermen’s nets. By the time she died in 1678, Tōfuku mon-in had amassed a massive collection of art objects that provide a stunning archive of creativity from a particular period in her country’s history.