Re-presentation, disability and gender: Historical representations of women in artistic images

In my last post on this subject I found that online representations of women, including disabled women, were vary narrow and wanted to see whether the same can be said in terms of their representation in important imagery and so I begin on this journey today.


I use the term “important imagery” to recognise the fact that some images carry more weight than others (Barthes 1980). Who created them, how much they cost, the level of promotion and dissemination all affect the power of any image.  For example a Magnum photographer’s image carries more weight with that status than some popular images, and has established routes of dissemination and consumption.  Of course, an image maybe important without being popular and vice versa. One only has to think of the painting of Myra Hindley made from casts of a child’s handprints to see a work that is unpopular but important enough to be exhibited (link here).

Connoisseurship is an important concept to recognise here as authors such as Solomon-Godeau have shown how the importance of imagery is not inherent but rather created by other factors (1991, pages 4-27).  Accordingly I will use the term important imagery to refer to images valued either by the popularity and status of the artist or by the power of their routes of dissemination and exhibition.

When I think about important paintings of women through history my minds eye firstly conjures up those very early Egyptian icons and latter iconic representations of the Virgin Mary where she is portrayed half figuratively and half symbolically. These approaches give way to women being represented more figuratively in paintings like Pietro Lorenzetti’s Madonna and Child (1280-1348), The Madonna of the Pinks (‘La Madonna dei Garofani’) (about 1506-7), Ruben’s Madonna and Child (@ 1630) and most of these have some commonalities. For example, it seems to me that the representations of women in important art works are largely westernised white representations – with the representation heavily influenced by the dominant fashion for beauty of the time.

These once these rarefied images had the chance to become popular as well as important with the onset of mechanical reproduction, and changed again with the invention of photography, and yet once 6more with the invention of mass media and then social media. Some photographers used the new mechanisms to continue in a painterly tradition, so we can see for example, Madonna with Children by Julia Margaret Cameron here is a photo but very traditional in approach whereas other artists such as Emil Nolde took a much more radical stance (here using print). Of course, I am not saying all images are limited, for example Lucian Freud’s painting entitled Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995 strongly counters the fashion. But for every single image of women who depart from the standard there are hundreds that reinforce it and this seems to have been the case throughout history wither in important or popular representations.

Can we categorise the representation of women?
Even though this piece of work is a small step on my journey to look at the representation of disabled women would I be failing if I left the reader thinking that all important or popular imagery is wholly westernised, young and white?

The short answer is no! Indeed the representation of women seems to me to fall into three categories: the naked women; the religious (pious?) women and the woman of status. But most of the representations are still based on one archetype: that is white, westernised versions of womanhood.

But what about the representation of disabled women? Have they been as limited in terms of representation? I will explore this next.

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes published by Vintage 1981 (2000 edition)

A Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock, University of Minnesota Press, 1991


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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