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The Illustrious History of the Female Art Collector

Introducing the new Patricia Barnes Collection

Blog by Grace England, York Art Gallery’s MA scholar

Gender diversity within the museum world is a controversial topic within the 21st Century. It remains the case that within the vast National Gallery collection, spanning over 2,300 paintings from the thirteenth to the early 20th Century, there are still only 21 which were actually painted by female artists.

However, while the artists who made these valued works have more often than not been male, the same has not always been the case for the patron of the said work. The female art collector has been an integral part of the art world since ancient times and has maintained power and authority in almost equal standing to their male counterparts.

Female patrons have shaped art history as we know it and have been responsible for the patronage and eternal recognition of some of our most celebrated artists. One name that might come to mind is Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) Marchioness of Mantua, whose name is scattered through the Renaissance, connected with artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael to name a few. A more recent example is Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), heiress and founder of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), whose 20th Century art collection is one of the most formidable in Europe, and who is at least partly responsible for the success of the Dada and Surrealism movements.

A key aspect links all of these collectors; financial security and power. Indeed, throughout much of history, some of the most successful female art collectors have been some of the most politically elevated individuals. Most importantly, art has been pivotal to these women in their own social status and authority. This was far from the male dominated art connoisseurship of the 18th Century, where privileged gentlemen used art as a form of entertainment and mark of intellectual ability. For these women art was a serious political instrument, one that could mean the difference between social obscurity and real power.

For instance, Hatshepsut, one of the few female Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, is noted for having used a patronage of art to consolidate her rule within a deeply patriarchal ruling environment. Within surviving depictions (as much of the art depicting her was destroyed after her infamous reign) she was purposefully shown wearing a beard and traditional kingly garb, playing down her feminine features as a way to assert and legitimise her authority. Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, consistently amassed a massive art collection over her 34-year rule as a way to assert cultural authority over her contemporary male monarchs, many of whom saw Russia as backward and unreceptive to the European Enlightenment. It is no secret that art equates to power, and that has never been the case more so than with female art collectors throughout history.

It is therefore so important that museums and galleries continue to exhibit female artists, and also to highlight female art collectors and the role art has played in historical female power. York Art Gallery is delighted to have recently acquired art and ceramics from the wonderful British craft art collection of Patricia Barnes. Barnes is one such example of an educated, intrepid woman who used art and art patronage to forge an unorthodox creatively fulfilling pathway at a time when women still faced subjugation.

Born in 1928, she grew up in Miami and attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. The post-war period was arguably more regressive than progressive for women, and a college-education was viewed more as a prerequisite for marriage than a pathway to a professional career. However, Barnes continued in academia after her marriage, completing a second degree at Northwestern University and holding a teaching position at the Malcolm X College. After leaving the world of academia, where it still remained difficult for women to rise up the ranks of authority, she developed a successful career in real estate investment and property management.

Her financial success in this sector allowed her to build her collection, taking inspiration from English artist Vanessa Bell and the Bloomsbury Group. Later, when she moved part-time to London, she sought to create a salon with artist friends where they could hold discussions of contemporary art and literature, quite reminiscent of past female art patrons of history such as Madame du Pompadour. Barnes became an ardent and important collector of contemporary British ceramics, supporting artists such as Brian Illsley, Carol McNicoll, Alison Britton, Ken Eastman and David Garland.

Her children, who have generously arranged this donation, remember her as staunch in her refusal to conform to traditional ‘housewife’ expectations and for her fast-paced and exciting lifestyle. Barnes was exceptionally curious and well-read and was known to exclaim ‘life is a zoo!’ Much like the female art collectors of the past we have examined, Barnes was unorthodox, creative and fiercely determined in her patronage. She used her artistic interest to add to the world around her, and helped to demonstrate that art history, and the art world itself, was heavily forged by women, and is not as male-dominated as we may have thought.

Bibliography https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-female-patrons-shaped-art-history

Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century: The Autobiography, (Andre Deutsch Ltd: 2005)