Critics’ Picks

Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Cosway, Music Has Charms, ca. 1785, crayon manner, 5 1/2 x 6 1/2''.

Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Cosway, Music Has Charms, ca. 1785, crayon manner, 5 1/2 x 6 1/2''.

New York

“Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers 1570–1900”

The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building | NYPL
476 5th Ave
October 2, 2015–May 27, 2016

Of the many delights in this survey, my favorite is Der Raupen wunderbare Verwunderlung (The Wonderful Transformation of Caterpillars) from 1679 by Maria Sibylla Merian—an ambitious volume as lovely to see as it is fun to say. Open to a single spread of text and illustration, the book contains fifty such copperplates depicting the life cycle of caterpillars in great scientific detail, along with, according to the work’s caption, “the fruits and flowers on which they feasted.”

The exhibition, curated by Madeleine Viljoen, is a wunderbar feast, celebrating the extraordinary efforts of generations of women (from creators to collectors to curators) without glossing over the adversity and sexism etched in acid bite onto the most bucolic landscapes. The works were originally assembled by Henrietta Louisa Koenen between 1848 and 1861 and are part of a collection at the library that has not been shown since 1901. Koenen’s husband was director of the print room at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and she quietly began her own personal collection, buying works by amateur and professional female artists from the sixteenth to nineteenth century.

Viljoen gathers a broad array of styles, skills, and subject matter: Here are prints by the first woman to sign her work in the sixteenth century and women signing their work simply “his wife,” women copying famous artists’ compositions (a common printmaking practice), and women depicting themselves in frank self-portraits (Angelica Kauffman’s casual pose is breathtaking, as is the scale of Thérèse Holbein’s image of her sketching in Alpine scenery). There are botany studies, calligraphy, and abstract lace designs particularly suited to the exacting lines of engraving. There’s a garlanded portrait of a woman who was earning her doctorate in 1680 (though we know that it was never bestowed).

Cutting history open, the wall labels have just the right amount of juicy detail. Look for references to heterodox ménages; the story of a print depicting a lounging lion and putti in the woods, given as a “suggestive gift” to Thomas Jefferson by its maker, Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Cosway; delightful doodles of heads and horses by a seventeen-year-old princess practicing how to write her name backward to accommodate the etching’s printing; and the first female student at the University of Utrecht, who made the commanding Self-Portrait of Anna Maria van Schurman, Aged 33, 1640. This, in short, is a banquet you will leave hungry for more.