Deconstructing Feminine Civility

Here’s the abstract to the talk that I’m delivering at the Renaissance Society of America Annual Conference, Washington, DC, in March 2012.  It will be part of the session “Playing with Convention: Humor and the Early Modern Portrait,” that I am co-organizing with Sandra Cheng.

Deconstructing Feminine Civility: Counter-Portraits of Élite Women by Jan Steen

Early modern portraits of élite women have often been seen as signifiers of women’s social functions as sweethearts, wives, mothers, and the subordinates of men. This paper will explore portraits of upper-class women by the Dutch artist Jan Steen that function rather differently.  Steen’s images evince parodic intent that renders the conventional public personae of the portrayed individuals ambivalent: a trend that has elsewhere been termed “counter-portraiture.” In contrast to traditional portraits of élite sitters, “counter-portraits” open up avenues of irony, giving us a richer understanding of the role of women in early modern culture.  This paper will provide a northern extension to a reassessment of Italian images of women in Virtue and Beauty, exploring of how the parodic “counter-portrait” construct is used in female portraiture specifically, and what meanings such a survey might illuminate.

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