Resistance in Art


Timoclea Killing Her Rapist, Elisabetta Sirani, 1659, Italy 2) Virgin and Child, 1663, Italy**

Google Arts and Culture           National Museum of Women in the Arts

Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665)

Although she only lived to the age of 27, Elisabetta Sirani produced over 200 paintings, drawings, and etchings. Her home city of Bologna had liberal attitudes towards female education and family artisan workshops. Sirani herself, as a result of her father’s gout, ran her family’s workshop, and supported her three siblings and parents on her own art. Additionally, she opened her own painting school for women, one of the first outside of a convent. Elisabetta Sirani attracted many wealthy patrons and guests; her skills and her ability to paint quickly made her studio a popular attraction for visitors — including Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici. In her artwork, Sirani chose to depict female strength and resisted norms by illustrating her female subjects with courage and intelligence, which were qualities not usually attributed to women. Moreover, the majority of her art fell into the category of history paintings, as opposed to the religious scenes or the portraits that women were expected to complete. 

The Works

Most likely through her father’s library, Elisabetta Sirani had access to Plutarch’s biography of Alexander the Great. Here, she would have read about a scene during the invasion of Thebes; a Thracian captain rapes a Thebian woman named Timoclea. After the assault, the captain asks where Timoclea hides her valuables, and she then leads him to a well. As he peers down the hole, she pushes him down and then drops heavy rocks to ensure his death. Most depictions of Sirani’s time portray Timoclea and her children begging for mercy before Alexander the Great, but the artist chose this scene instead. Sirani’s Timoclea lacks eroticism with her modest dress and kempt hair — rape is usually represented in art with sensuality and nudity. The artist also chooses to depict Timoclea with courage, a trait not commonly connected with women, by giving her an erect posture and a stoic demeanor, opposite to the captain’s position. With this contrast, Sirani literally inverts the gender hierarchy through posture. In the second painting, Virgin and Child, Elisabetta Sirani represents Mary as a young and real mother instead of the remote religious figure highly revered by millions of people. Christ is depicted as a playful baby grabbing for his mother’s flowers. The brushwork on Mary’s white sleeve not only shows Sirani’s masterful skill but also a homemade quality. In Virgin and Child, Mary and Jesus lack the rich, mystical adornments that often appear with them in devotional painting. Furthermore, Mary wears a turban favored by peasant women in Bologna. 

How does this relate to the theme? 

By intentionally painting Timoclea’s justice over her assaulter rather than Alexander the Great’s judgement, Elisabetta Sirani shifts our historical memory and shows a perspective that relies on the point of view of a woman, resisting a more established one.  Sirani’s identity as a historical painter was unusual for female painters during the Baroque period. While about forty-two percent of her paintings were religious, the fifteen percent that depicted scenes from classical history is enough to distinguish her and her students from other female painters in the seventeenth century. Elisabetta Sirani had access to education and iconic historical works such as Plutarch’s biography of Alexander the Great. Sirani claimed authorship over her works by signing and dating them; these signatures can be found on the base of the well (left) and the embroidery of the pillow (right). 


  • Why was it important for Elisabetta Sirani to tell this part of Timoclea’s story? How does this interpretation connect to movements like #MeToo?
  • Compare and contrast the central female figures in the two paintings. How do they resist the stereotypes of how women should behave?


The Artist and Her Family at a Fourth of July Picnic, Lilly Martin Spencer, 1864, United States **

National Museum of Women in the Arts

About Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902): Lilly Martin Spencer is one of the few noted woman artists from the Antebellum period. Spencer and her politically progressive family moved from England to Ohio when she was a child, and from there her interest in painting blossomed. To support her career, the Martins moved to Cincinnati, a booming urban center, to provide her with more resources. There, she studied with artist John Insco Williams. She then married Benjamin Rush Spencer at twenty-two and moved to upstate New York. Lilly Martin Spencer and her husband ran a successful business selling her paintings. Benjamin Spencer left his job as a tailor to help her and care for their children (seven out of thirteen of which survived to adulthood). This gave Spencer freedom from the limitations of the domestic life normally placed on women. 

The Work: The Artist and Her Family at a Fourth of July Picnic is, on the surface, a painting of a picturesque domestic scene steeped in wholesome American patriotism. However, it includes several allusions to the state of the nation during the 1860s, social upheaval, and the abolition of slavery. These small symbols of resistance are subtle, but they change the meaning of the painting upon further inspection. First, Spencer takes a satirical look at her husband; Benjamin is spread out on the ground, next to a broken swing, while onlookers laugh at him. This lack of seriousness clues the viewer into a change in society’s attitude and spirit, especially of the wealthy northern elite. Other details of social change populate the painting; in the bottom right corner, a Black man distracted by the scene before him accidentally spills wine on a white woman’s dress and a Black woman next to him looks away from the white child she is meant to care for. These details could hint towards more autonomy for Black people towards the end of the Civil War, but their caricatured appearances and the expression of the woman facing the Black man could instead signal a disdain for the influx of free Black people migrating to the north. Close to the river, a woman in a light colored dress wears a soldier’s cap, and directly below her, a boy fires a pistol into the air near a pair of preoccupied lovers. These tiny elements were intentionally combined and placed in this painting of a national holiday to communicate the building resistance accumulating in the second half of the nineteenth century. Looking at the work as a whole, the subjects form the shape of a pyramid, with the Black servants and secret lovers located on the bottom and pushed to the edges, and the wealthy family occupying the core area. At the top of this pyramid is a child, raised up, waving the American flag. The fall of the patriarch, the strong white man, and the laughter that ensues, depicts the crumbling social order and hierarchies. 

How does this relate to the theme? Lilly Martin Spencer was the breadwinner of her family. This position reverses the gender roles of the time, with the mother working and using her own skills to generate wealth while the man is charged with caring for children and maintaining the household. The viewer glimpses this change of societal roles, however faint, with the woman wearing a soldier’s cap. Whether we look at the depiction of Black people in Spencer’s painting as positive or negative, it is clear that either way, she is expressing the resistance of Black people that came with the thirteenth amendment in 1865. While racism was certainly rampant in both the north and the south, abolitionism was popular in the Union states. 


  • In what ways do we study or critique the state of our country or community in the twenty-first century?
  • Where can you find passive resistance and active resistance in this painting?
  • Is violence always necessary to resist? Discuss your answer to this question in the context of Spencer’s painting.!/search?q=lilly%20martin%20spencer,We%20Both%20Must%20Fade%20(Mrs.

Art in an Age of Civil Struggle, 1848-1871, Albert Boime, pages 417-18

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, Betye Saar, 1972, United States

Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

About Betye Saar (1926-): Betye Saar lived and worked in California for most of the twentieth century, and was a part of the movement of African American artists that existed there during the Civil Rights Movement. After studying design at the University of California at Los Angeles, Saar discovered assemblage as a medium. Assemblage involves taking everyday objects and combining them to create a work of art, with each individual object’s meaning changed through the context of the art it is surrounded with. Much of her work borrows from African cultures, such as shrine-like sculptures or room-sized pieces that invite viewers to add their own items in. Above all, Betye Saar’s work confronts a broad range of ideas, from mysticism in the twenty-first century to Christian tradition to racism in America. 

The Work: The Liberation of Aunt Jemima was created when Betye Saar found out about an open call to Black artists to show their work at the Rainbow Sign, a community near the headquarters of the Black Panthers in Berkeley, California. The exhibition was centered around artwork inspired by Black heroes, making this Saar’s first strongly political work. As an artist who works in assemblage, Saar collects many items that show racist images and stereotypes. The “mammy” stock character appeared in the late 1800s and was tacked on to household items, such as jars or broom containers. The item in Saar’s Liberation was made to hold a notepad and a pencil; instead, Saar replaced the pencil with a rifle and the notepad with an image of a Black woman holding a mixed race child. The image references the sexual exploitation and assault that Black slaves faced from their white owners. Saar then placed a raised fist (the symbol of Black power) over the skirt image, and set the doll before a wall of Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix labels and on a floor of cotton. Saar saw Aunt Jemima as a Black hero, especially for women, who needed to be freed from the racism that held her down. Later, Angela Davis claimed the piece was “the start of the Black feminist movement.”

How does this relate to the theme? The mammy stereotype represents Black domestic servitude as well as the comforting, motherly presence associated with Aunt Jemima — enslaved Black women often worked as maids and nannies. Mammy items were often used as jars or broom containers, and they were meant to serve the owner as an object to place things into. By connecting the stock character with Black power, Betye Saar resists these two qualities and negates the ability for white people to “use” the mammy product by taking away the ability to place a pencil in her hand. Saar turned a negative image to a positive one for the purpose of Black people, thereby reversing (and resisting) the Aunt Jemima figure’s original purpose of serving white people. Additionally, Saar gives Aunt Jemima weapons, ensuring that Black women liberate themselves.


  • How is violence intertwined with resistance? At what point is violence necessary when it comes to protesting?

Horror on the National Mall!, Guerilla Girls, 2007, United States**

National Museum of Women in the Arts

About the Guerilla Girls (1985-): As an anonymous collective of artists and activists, the Guerilla Girls wear gorilla masks and operate under the names of female artists when they appear in public. Their work began in 1985 with posters in New York exposing the discrimination faced by female artists and artists of color on behalf of art institutions. These bold visuals shared shock-worthy data and facts in a cynical and sometimes humorous fashion — making their messages inviting and accessible to a broad audience. As the group grew, they included more issues such as art censorship, government corruption, and reproductive rights. Going into the twenty-first century, their platform has expanded their activity online with social media, given public lectures, and have published books. 

The Work: In 2007, art critic Blake Gopnik asked the Guerilla Girls to create a page-sized work to accompany a Washington Post section on feminism and art. The piece is tabloid style; it is explicitly meant for the public and for the purpose of exposing a secret. The loud graphics combined with the flurry of facts and accusations seem to attack the viewer. Furthermore, the data at the bottom of the page was collected from the websites of the museums that they are exposing. With the data, the Guerilla Girls offer their target audience (the institutions) a solution: “Take away execs’ high salaries and secret expense accounts and use $$$ to buy and exhibit more art by women and artists of color!” By presenting both the problem and the solution, the Guerilla Girls take action (thereby actively resisting) with Horror on the National Mall! The tabloid format balances the point of views between the artist and the viewer, making it seem as though the narrator is on the audience’s side, creating an “Us versus Them” rhetoric more appealing to the public. According to the Guerilla Girls’ website, when the Post called the museums to check the data, the “the institutions went bananas! The National Gallery hurriedly installed a sculpture by an artist of color and the Hirshhorn suddenly found works by women and artists of color it never knew it owned! Who knows how many works they’re scrambling to install right now?”

How does this relate to the theme? Horror On the National Mall! was originally printed in the Washington Post. Therefore, it was mass produced and sent to millions of people, taking a “populist approach to art.” Although the piece eventually made it to exhibitions and into the collections of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, it started out as a piece of  art for the public — it resisted the standard of the institution and reached a broad audience. Additionally, the piece resists the rhetoric that “good art” by women or “good” women artists just don’t exist. Instead, the Guerilla Girls place the blame on the museums themselves by insisting that they are held hostage in the basements of these institutions. 


  • Design a plan for a guerilla piece of art. What issue would you target? How would you use your platform to speak on this issue? 
  • How does making art accessible for the public challenge the status quo of who gets to see art and how to understand it?

Published by Georgina Emerson

Founder & Director of Teach About Women

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