"The women in these paintings paid the highest prices for their “transgressions”. We don’t have to, and the very least we can do is raise a glass to them in all their bad, wild, brave, magnificient glory."

– India Knight

 
 

Powerful women – whether their power comes from sex, money, marriage, politics or all four – have a hard time reputation-wise. History is generally not kind to them, rushing to smooth over their complexities and call them names instead. They are viragos, seductresses, demonic plotters, enchantresses and witches. They are mad or “unnatural,” or both. Rumours abound; gossip swirls; entire careers get reduced to one-liners. Catherine II of Russia, known as Catherine the Great, is remembered for supposedly having relations with a horse, not for her impressive grasp on foreign policy (and the rest).

Sometimes the gossip is not merely career, but life- ending: Anne Boleyn, a towering figure that single- handedly brought about England’s seismic parting from Rome, is beheaded because she supposedly slept with her own brother – a better excuse than simply being too clever by half. Courtesans, often unusually intelligent and ambitious women using the oldest shortcut to power available to them at the time, are merely “whores”. And those women that do manage to get into positions of real power, through accidents of birth or marriage, are eternally, restlessly looking over their shoulder; ever at the mercy of a male- decreed killing, incarceration or – for the lucky ones – exile to a nunnery. In real life as in literature, “difficult” women with robust ambitions are always punished. No wonder Lady Macbeth, undone and ‘unsex’d’ went mad: to have remained sane and sanguine would have been an affront to the whole of femininity.

Alice Instone has been drawing women since she was little: “I think there may have been some link in my mind between the perfect female exterior and gaining some kind of control,” she says. “Clearly I’m still obsessed by the relationship between gender and power, but it’s also about femininity, beauty, female sexuality, how we consume images of women, how they make us feel. I’ve always been drawn to the ‘bad’ woman, seductresses and the sort of women who seemed to have lots of power (even if it was very temporary) – so for this show I wanted to immerse myself in all those memorable images that I had mentally collected over the years.”

Reading the women’s biographies in this catalogue often sends a shudder down the spine. It is worth remembering that the indignities visited on the women portrayed here only affect us because they are, in the early part of the 21st century, still so resonant. Sex and scandal, the cutting down to size, the mocking of appearance, the relentless desire of society to pack women into neat little boxes – and, of course, the bizarre need to ‘punish’ every woman who’s no better than she should be.

But not everybody wants to play – not then, not now. The women in these paintings paid the highest prices for their “transgressions”. We don’t have to, and the very least we can do is raise a glass to them in all their bad, wild, brave, magnificient glory.