In nineteenth-century Britain, at a moment when art history was crystallizing into a discipline and the social and public function of art was a topic of heated debate, a significant number of women pursued careers in art writing, positioning themselves as authoritative voices in this newly emerging field. Female art historians, writers, and critics authored countless monographs, articles, pamphlets, guidebooks, and travel accounts detailing their encounters with old master works of art. However, like female artists — the ‘Old Mistresses’ — their important contributions to the history of art have remained largely unacknowledged. This landmark collection celebrates the foundational interventions of women such as Maria Callcott, Anna Jameson, Mary Merrifield, Elizabeth Eastlake, Julia Cartwright, Maud Cruttwell, Mary Berenson, Lucy Olcott Perkins, and Christiana Herringham in the history, collection, display, and reception of the old masters. Featuring fifteen articles from a range of disciplinary perspectives, and uncovering a wealth of little-known texts and unpublished archival material, it takes us from women’s early forays into art criticism in late eighteenth-century travel writing through their accomplishment of sound scholarly methods and professional reputations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The issue discusses art historians whose methods were empirical and whose objectives were to achieve a greater understanding of technical skills of old master painters, alongside women who wrote lyrically about the imaginative aspects of their work, or were more interested in analysing its iconographical as well as its historical and political dimensions. It thinks about how women look at old master paintings, such as Moroni’s Tailor, then and now. An appendix of short biographies of the women discussed provides factual information about their lives, and a comprehensive bibliography takes stock of where we have arrived, demonstrating just how substantial and multifaceted the field has become, and how impossible to ignore.
Cover image: Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, The Virgin and Child with Saints Paul and George, after Giovanni Bellini, pen and ink, 12.6 × 15.9 cm, The Lady Eastlake Drawing Album (1842–58), fol. 39. © The National Gallery, London. The thumbnails in the Table of Contents for the introduction to this issue and to Diane Apostolos-Cappadona’s introduction to the Biographical Section are details from this drawing.