STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The National Art Museum in Spain, the Prado, has one of the world's biggest collections of renaissance and baroque art. This museum first opened its doors almost 200 years ago. And in all that time, it has never devoted a solo exhibition to a female artist, until now, when it features a 17th-century Flemish painter. Lauren Frayer had a look.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Not much is known about the life of Clara Peeters, even how old she was in 1607 when she painted her first known work - a dark, intricate still life of a candlestick next to a sprig of rosemary and a glass of wine. Her works have hung in the Prado for years, mixed in with other artists from the Baroque period in Northern Europe. But until now, she never had a room of her own.
ALEJANDRO VERGARA: I'm Alejandro Vergara, and I'm the senior curator of Northern European paintings at the Prado.
FRAYER: Alejandro Vergara chose Peeters to be the first woman ever to have her own show at the Prado. It all started, actually, with his wife.
VERGARA: Visiting the museum one day, she told me, where are the women artists? And I couldn't find any, so I went into our storage, and we brought her paintings out.
FRAYER: Still-life paintings by Clara Peeters with the artist's own reflection.
VERGARA: You see that tiny face up there? Here in the metal lid of a clay jug, you can see her face - barely see it.
FRAYER: She painted tiny self-portraits hidden in her compositions. It became her trademark and tells us something about a woman holding the paint brush.
VERGARA: Someone who's, you know, discreet and modest but really is seducing you into looking closely and carefully. And when you do that, you find her, so she's really trying to be seen.
FRAYER: Trying to be seen in the 17th-century art world run by all-male guilds. There's more parity in modern art, but when you walk through collections of medieval, renaissance or baroque art, it's mostly male artists.
MICOL HEBRON: I think there have been equal numbers of male and female artists. It's just that we have history being told exclusively through male eyes and voices.
FRAYER: Micol Hebron is a feminist artist and activist who launched Gallery Tally, a survey of gender in hundreds of museums and galleries around the world. Even in contemporary art, she found a roughly 70-30 split of male versus female artists on display. With older art, it's even harder to find women, but that doesn't mean they weren't there, she says.
HEBRON: There were many women artists who took on the names of male artists or who had anonymous attributions to their work or who were doing the work in - in male artists' studios and were under-acknowledged. A lot of that information is no longer secret.
FRAYER: And museums are starting to act. In conjunction with the Clara Peeters exhibition, the Prado is hosting an academic conference on women in art organized by Maria Cruz de Carlos.
MARIA CRUZ DE CARLOS: The historical facts deny that idea that women didn't have a presence in the arts. They always did. It's art history who has hidden that presence.
FRAYER: She says stodgy, old art museums rooted in tradition are slowly changing. The Prado's collection includes more than 5,000 male artists and 41 women, though it likely has more, labeled as anonymous, Carlos says. As women emerge from behind those works, they reveal their role in an art world mistakenly seen for centuries as all-male. Clara Peeters made that clear, with her self-portraits popping out of dark corners in her still-life paintings, demanding to be seen. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.
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