Renaissance Women at the KHM

At the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien you can currently still visit a very beautiful exhibition of luminous portraits of women dating back to the Renaissance, with works from several collections around the world. Titian´s Vision of Women is on only until 30 January 2022. I was lucky enough to be invited to see it before it is over.

Born somewhere around 1490, Tiziano Vecellio (Titian), became an apprentice to the famous painters Giovanni and Gentile Bellini at a young age. He worked alongside Giorgione and later established himself with his own artist studio. Known for his special way of using light and colours, he achieved quite a high status as recognised foremost artist of his time. In 1533 the Habsburg Emperor Charles V appointed Titian court painter. He inspired and influenced his contemporaries and artists that followed after him. Some 300 of his many paintings survive to this day.

For his paintings of females, Titian and his contemporaries were inspired by the love poetry and romance literature of his time, which elevated women to objects of desire, beautiful but mostly meek. He painted just after the turn of the 16th century, and over his long life became a highly sought after and well recognised artist. It was quite new at the time to be depicting women in the sensual and idealising style that Titian and his contemporaries, painters such as Tintoretto, Veronese, Giovanni Bellini, Palma Vecchio, Lorenzo Lotto, Paris Bordone and others began. The exhibition has a wonderful selection of paintings by many of these great Renaissance artists.

Two versions of the fabled Lucretia – a softly romantic one by Titian (L) and a rather more formidable looking one by Lorenzo Lotto.

The role of most women in Titian’s day was, unsurprisingly for the time, subordinate to that of men, and very few of these painters´ subjects can today be identified by name. They thus bear titles such as “The Beauty” or “Woman with a Plumed Hat” (sadly no photography permit for that one). For some female subjects there are theories as to who they may have been, but this is rare. The focus is on the painterly qualities of these portraits, the use of light and colours, the idealising style — sometimes depicting the women as classical deities, such as Flora, the goddess of flowers, or the lovers of gods, and often as characters from mythology. The exhibition has its critics: for some, it is too romantic, not feminist enough, does not make sufficiently evident the social conditions under which women lived in the Renaissance (see, for example, an interview (in German) with Lea Singer, author of “La Fenice” that deals with the darker side of Venice during Titian´s time).

For me it is always important to understand the historic and social context of art of any kind, because it enriches my understanding of what I am seeing. There are often deeper meanings in iconography, for example, that I would not be aware of without explanation. But I do not think the exhibition falls short. It may not be conceived to educate viewers about the historical suppression of women, emphasizing rather the astonishing developments in art history that made the painting of such brilliant portraits possible, which was quite a change from before 1500, when art was mainly religious in nature and the focus was not on the human individual, and certainly not on women (other than religious figures). (Incidentally, in an earlier blog post I wrote about the exhibition on Dürer´s time at the Belvedere Museum, which focused on just that time of transition to the Renaissance.)

Many of these paintings are full of iconography that the modern non-expert viewer cannot easily understand. The belt string with a small ball at the end that is worn by women in several of the paintings, for example, could be a symbol that the woman is willing to be led (on a leash of sorts) by her husband, it was explained to us. Also of interest are the many portraits of women baring one breast to the viewer. For a long time it was thought by art historians that these women could only have been sex workers (courtesans), but more recent research offered a new interpretation: the symbol of the bared breast was actually a way of showing that a woman opened her heart with love to her future husband.

Paris Bordone, The Lovers (L) and Bernardino Licinio, Young woman with her groom (R)
Bernardino Licinio, Portrait of a woman with bared breast

A rather more ironic depiction of the bared breast theme was painted by Albrecht Dürer in his allegory (1507), which shows an old woman with bared breast, symbolic for the impermanence of earthly goods – the unfortunate old woman is gripping a money purse in one hand, and Dürer meant it as a warning against greed.

Allegory by Albrecht Dürer.

The following quote from the 17th century is quite instructive as to how women were viewed in art too.

For in the rendering of female bodies – which do not demand sensitivity to anatomical matters of the depiction of proudly swelling muscles, but only a certain gentleness and refinement of proportion – right-thinking minds have always held Titian to be incomparable.

Carlo Ridolfi, 1648 (as quoted in the KHM exhibition booklet)

Beyond the romanticised female as a muse for the artist, the exhibition also shows the theme of love and marriage, represented by portraits of loving couples, but also lust, greed, and, at times , rape, and loss and grief over lost love. You will find idealised portraits, but also realistic ones, scenes taken from fables of antiquity to those containing graphic storytelling.

Titian, Venus blindfolding Cupid
Paris Bordone, Venus and Adonis (?)
Tintoretto, Susanna bathing

An interesting element in several of these paintings are mirrors – held by the women either in the act of beautifying themselves, or held to the viewer to show them the transience of life or perhaps the future.

Giovanni Bellini, Young woman at her toilet

Despite the objectification of women that is evident in the paintings, the era was not, however, without women artists and writers. Some society women hosted literary salons, where artists, clergymen and members of high society would congregate to discuss literature and society. They were helped by male patrons to publish their works. Such women were confident and full of wit. One of them was Moderata Fonte, who quipped:

“Women are called ›donne‹ because they are like a divine gift (dono celeste), without which there would be nothing either beautiful nor good.”

Moderata Fonte, female author (1555-1592), quoted on the KHM exhibition website

Another well known female poet was Veronica Franco, who was a courtesan moving in upper class circles, a defender of women’s rights, and a challenger of the passive feminine ideal that Petrarch had propagated and that the men of her time were so fond of.

Tintoretto, Veronica Franco (?)

For me, the Titian exhibition at the KHM is perfect in its beauty, and the historical context was not lost on me either. This may be because I was lucky to visit with a guided tour by Daniel Uchtmann, who provided many an acerbic insight into the role of Venetian Renaissance women, and the male point of view depicted through symbols in these paintings.

In any case, I strongly recommend a visit, and soon, because the exhibition ends on 30 January. Personally, I am going to see it a second time this evening, because the KHM is hosting a special “Venetian evening” that I got tickets for, and I am looking forward to Italian culinary delights after the guided tour – yumm!

Of course, if you are lucky enough to visit Milan in the spring, you can see it (again) there, as it will be moving on from Vienna to the Palazzo Reale, where it will be on view from 23 February.


Texts describing the artworks shown here have been adapted from the free booklet accompanying the exhibition and from the website of the KHM.

Idea and concept of the exhibition: Sylvia Ferino-Pagden
Curators: Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, Francesca Del Torre Scheuch and Wencke Deiters
Exhibition design: Gerhard Veigel

All photos (c) Karin Svadlenak-Gomez

One thought on “Renaissance Women at the KHM

  1. Thank you Karin for a fantastic coverage of this extraordinary exhibition – which can be seen only for a few more days. I did not have a chance to read your blog before visiting the exhibition last night. I wish that I had – I would have appreciated the visit even more. And after reading your blog, I am tempted to go back for a second visit :).


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