Visual Material

Visual sources offer important evidence about gender in a society. Paintings, murals, sculptures, and mosaics often provide information about the positions of women in a particular society through representations of women, men, sexuality, class, diet, familial relations, religion, daily activities, leisure, and work. Women are also part of the visual record as artists.

Greek Vase

Representations of women are visible in Egyptian tomb paintings, African sculpture, and on Ancient Greek vases. Figurative paintings, especially portraiture in the Western tradition, can provide a wealth of detail about the lives of individual subjects, including women. For example, a series of paintings of women produced in the 1660s by the Flemish artist Jan Vermeer provide detail on the interior of Dutch homes as well as on female clothing and social status. They also incorporate assumptions about contemporary female literacy and musical training. The main figure in The Love Letter (1669) sits with a lute on her lap and an unopened letter in her hand, with her female servant looking on.

The Love Letter

Other visual materials include women as symbols of certain values or beliefs. In statues, representations of the female body have often taken allegorical form, especially in the West. Modern states frequently use female figures to represent values such as liberty, freedom, justice, reason, truth, virtue, and wisdom, concepts drawn from Ancient Greece. So, too, were representations of regions and areas, for example, Austria and Germania, often rendered female in sculptural form.

The “femaleness” of some of these concepts has been adopted elsewhere in the world. In one recent example, the statue Chinese students raised on Tiananmen Square in Beijing during pro-democracy demonstrations in the spring of 1989 was the “Goddess of Democracy.” We can also learn by asking questions about who creates art and how it is valued. Who is considered an artist in a given culture? Does art created by women have the same value as art created by men? Who has access to training and materials necessary for creating formal art?