As part of her 2023 Block Curatorial Internship Vitoria Monteiro de Carvalho Faria conducted original research within the museum collection. Her investigation into the visual and thematic connections between two prints resulted in an installation in the Block’s conference space. Faria shares the intriguing alignment she curated at the museum.
Although separated by 150 years, different cultures and media, Maria Katharina Prestel’s Venus Bathing (ca. 1780) and Henri Matisse’s Repose on the Banquette (1929) provide different ways and approaches of representing women by female and male artists. When paired, these two prints in the Block Museum’s collection propose a reflection on different representations of women’s bodies.
Maria Katharina Prestel (1747–1794) (Figure 3) was a German printmaker who had a successful career, but remains an understudied and overlooked artist in art historical literature. Together with her husband, the printmaker Johann Gottlieb Prestel (1739–1808), she created reproductions of artworks by Dutch, German, and Italian artists. Showing rare and forward-thinking behavior for women of the time, in 1786 Maria Katharina left her husband and moved to London with their four children. Thanks to her expertise in making aquatints, she was able to independently support her family by working for the publisher John Boydell.
Created before she left for London, Venus Bathing is part of the Cabinet Praun series, which corresponds to a book of print plates made by Maria Katharina and her husband. The publication illustrates drawings owned by Paulus Praun (1548–1616). Venus Bathing is an etching after a drawing by the celebrated Italian artist Annibale Carracci (1560–1609). Although no similar drawing by Carracci is known today, the painting Venus Adorned by the Graces (1590–1595) (Figure 4) is similar to the etching in the Block’s collection. The rhythmic and dance-like movements of the nude Graces and Venus compare to the classicized and idealized depiction of the female nude in Venus Bathing. In her etching, Prestel pays particular attention to contours of the female bodies, drawing on Italian Renaissance conventions of the idealized nude. The figure in the right foreground, surrounded by cupids, represents the Roman goddess Venus. The presence of Venus strengthens the allusion to an intimate space of virtuous characteristics such as love, beauty, and fertility.
The art historian Linda Nochlin has argued that from the Renaissance to the 19th century having access to nude models was essential to artists’ training and production of any work “with pretensions to grandeur.” Such access was entirely denied to women. For instance, as late as 1893, female students were not permitted to attend life drawing classes at the Royal Academy in London. It is likely that Maria Katharina Prestel was able to produce Venus Bathing because a similar version had been previously made by a male artist, Carracci. Because we do not know the actual source of the etching, the question of what Prestel added to the composition—either from her own imagination or a life model—remains unanswered.
In Prestel’s print, the different and active movements of the women contrast with the motionless pose of the woman in Matisse’ Repose on the Banquette (Figure 2). Matisse depicts a contemporary woman reclining on a loveseat. She wears a seemingly sheer robe, and her pose is rather sexualized. One of her legs is bent in a suggestive pose conveying sexual desire and availability. Intimacy is a recurring theme in Matisse’s printmaking career, especially in his many female nudes and odalisques. The latter theme, on which Repose on the Banquette is modeled, became increasingly significant in Matisse’s oeuvreafter the French artist traveled to North Africa around 1912.
As imperialist France colonized North Africa (Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria) beginning in the early 19th century, ideas about the Orient as an exotic and unknown place inhabited European imaginations. The odalisque represents the exoticism of the imagined and fetishized female Eastern “Other” in Ottoman harems. As the art historian Oriana Baddeley has noted, women depicted in Orientalist harems were perceived by a male European audience as “offering sexual gratification.”
In Repose on the Banquette, the space, clothing, and decorative elements are all suggestive of an exotic, fetishized space. The decoration on the cloche-style hat and patterns of oval and diamond shaped forms on the wall allude to Matisse’s treatment of the odalisque subject. As a comparison, another example of Matisse’s Orientalist style is the painting Odalisque à la culotte rouge (1924–1925) (Figure 5). In it, the woman also reclines on a loveseat while supporting her head with her hand. Although she is more dressed than the woman in Repose on the Banquette, the decorative details on her pants also resemble Orientalist fashion. As in the lithograph, the wall depicted in the painting contains two different patterns that are suggestive of a wallpaper. Overall, both works depict sensualized women inhabiting private and feminine spaces in an Orientalist manner.
Although both Venus Bathing and Repose on the Banquette depict women in imaginative spaces and in sensual tones, Matisse’s depiction of the female body is fetishized and sexualized. His scene of female intimacy and privacy also alludes to themes of voyeurism, appealing to European male desires and curiosity towards odalisques. On the other hand, Venus Bathing portrays a mythological scene which, in spite of its nudity and sensuality, would have been perceived by an 18th-century audience as virtuous.
Baddeley,Oriana. “The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse.” Oxford Art Journal 7, no.1 (1984): 69–71.
Herath, Thisaranie. “Women and Orientalism: 19th century Representations of the Harem by European female travelers and Ottoman women.” Constellations 7, no.1 (2015): 31–40.
Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?.” ARTnews 69, no. 9 (January 1971): 22–39.
Suzuki, Sarah. Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004.
 In the celebrated essay Why There Have Been No Great Women Artists (1971), Linda Nochlin explains there were talented women artists in the Early Modern period, but how they were insufficiently investigated and appreciated or considered less important than male peers.
 John Boydell owned the leading print publishing house in London at the time and created a new trend for collecting facsimiles of prominent European artists. See “Collections Online: British Museum,” Collections Online | British Museum, accessed April 10, 2023, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG20601.
 Praun started collecting art at the age of fifteen and acquired drawings by prominent Italian Renaissance artists such as Vasari, Correggio, Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, among others. See “Desseins Des Meilleurs Peintres D’italie, D’allemagne, Et Des Pays-Bas Du Cabinet De Monsieur Paul De Praun à Nuremberg. Gravés D’après Les Originaux Par Jean Théophile Prestel, Peintre.: Books: Ra Collection: Royal Academy of Arts,” Books | RA Collection | Royal Academy of Arts, accessed April 10, 2023, https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/book/desseins-des-meilleurs-peintres-ditalie-dallemagne-et-des-pays-bas-du and “Praun, Paul Von,” Provenance, accessed April 10, 2023, https://www.nga.gov/collection/provenance-info.9370.html.
 Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” ARTnews 69, no. 9 (January 1971): 22-39.
 Nochlin, p. 22-39.
 Sarah Suzuki, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004), 106.
 Thisaranie Herath, “Women and Orientalism: 19th century Representations of the Harem by European female travelers and Ottoman women,” Constellations 7, no.1 (2015): 31-40.
 Oriana Baddeley, “The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse,” Oxford Art Journal 7, no.1 (1984): 69-71.
Header image courtesy of Northwestern Art Review