Female Sexuality and the Male Gaze in the National Gallery

The diversity of London’s galleries and museums provides unmatched possibilities to challenge students’ critical thinking, regardless of the discipline of study. Accent London’s extensive networks include dozens of local faculty, researchers, and professional guides who thrive on the possibility of designing lectures customized to each program’s unique learning goals.

In June, Michigan State University students participating in the annual Gender, Sex and Feminism in the UK program in London spent an afternoon with Luisa-Maria MacCormack, an experienced guide and art historian, who explored representations of female sexuality in art history through the vast collections of the National Gallery.

MacCormack is a founding member of the londondrawinggroup collective, which organizes workshops in London galleries and museums. Her lecture in the National Gallery was an immersive three-hour journey into the stories of curious paintings and the power of the gaze. The small group considered how the prolonged history of male-dominated art has portrayed women, and how the male gaze has permeated notions of female sexuality for centuries.

To begin, the group was led through a series of rooms with paintings from Medieval Europe, all of which were in line with the doctrine of the church. These were then compared with Da Vinci’s Virgin on the Rocks, in which matriarchal identity was at the center of the painting, an act that consciously pushed the limits of female representation in art.

Next, the group explored the nuance of the nude through paintings by Titian, Velasquez and Francesco Hayez in their own context. The power of the gaze was made evident as observers can find themselves staring directly into the eyes of female characters as if they were involved in the controversial scenes depicted.

Another major theme in this journey was the power of female sexuality. Samson and Delilah by Rubens features a well-known female character amid betrayal; it does not argue that there is power in femininity, but rather implies its villainizing. Students were then challenged to reflect on the disparaging of female sexuality through Adam and Eve by Gossaert.