The Housewife as Artist

Charles Sorel, The Extravagant Shepherd, Frontispiece, London 1654

Housewives and especially privileged noble women cultivated a knowledge of thuman nature, well-being and the various influences on mind and body. The cultivated their practices in order to maintain the humoral balance through which the body as a microcosm was in intimate exchange with the macrocosm. On the humoral balance Sabine Kalff states The Body is a Battlefield (Conflict and Control in Seventeenth-Century Physiology and Political Thought 2012), while Susanne Scholz speaks of Body Narratives (Writing the Nation and Fashioning the Subject in Early Modern England 2000). Fundamental studies on the early modern body include Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England by Michael Schoenfeldt (1999) and Gail Kern Paster’s The Body Embarrassed (1993).

The materials used by the Gentlewoman included food and medicines, tinctures and ointments, as well as various types of water, scents and, last but not least, visual impressions. As exemplified in Shakespeare’s play Paulina, the housewife has the power to animate and to heal. The fact that the human body was understood to be influenceable in many ways made it an object, a malleable material in the eyes of housewives as well as doctors.

The role of the housewife is therefore comparable to that of the painter or sculptor. Housewife and painter are united by the objective, disinterested view of the body and by comparing the individual body to a healthy and beautiful ideal, and their aim of creating ideal bodies. They also share the handling of the body, which was perceived as malleable and changeable, through waters and foods as well as through experience and perception.

Wellcome Western Ms. 213, Liber Comitissae Arundeliae, London, Wellcome Collection

Influencing the currents and flows of juices and winds in the body works in analogy to reshaping the body from flowing colors, and uncovering the layers of skin in the anatomy was in turn analogous to imitating the incarnato (the color of the flesh) with many different layers of color. A poetic analysis of the relationship between the human body and painting can be found in George Didi-Huberman’s Die Leibhaftige Malerei (2002).

Cornelis Cort after Jacopo Stradano, Academy of Art or Allegory of Disegno, 1578, Etching, 436 x 294 mm, London, British Museum

Reshaping and healing the body are only possible on the basis of knowledge of the nature of the body. This knowledge was conveyed contemporary on the one hand through books and on the other hand through practical experience. The art of healing, visits to anatomical sections, experiencing an operation or childbirth shaped an understanding of the body as an object and material. This becomes clear in contemporary representations in which, as in Cornelis Cort’s engraving based on Stradano’s art academy, artists in training draw not only statuettes but also skeletons and dead bodies, from which the skin is removed, layer by layer (Lucy Davis, Renaissance Inventions: Van Eyck’s Workshop as a Site of Discovery and Transformation in Jan van der Straet’s Nova Reperta 2009).

The physical condition was primarily determined by the color of the skin, which should allow conclusions to be drawn about the complexio, the composition of the body fluids. Since the Middle Ages, the incarnato as a theme of art has alternated between physical empathy and a superficial visual impression. There is a long art historical tradition on the color of flesh, including Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Marianne Koos and Daniela Bohde (Weder Haut noch Fleisch: Das Inkarnat in der Kunstgeschichte 2007), as well as Esther Wipfler’s Kunsttechnik und Kunstgeschichte: Das Inkarnat in der Malerei des Mittelalters (2012).

Cite this blog post
Jennifer Rabe (2021, April 5). The Housewife as Artist. Lady Arundel 1654–2054. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from

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