ancient woman artist invented relief portrait in love for boyfriend

Across the historical record, men have much more frequently and ardently expressed love for women than women have expressed love for men. What accounts for the long history of women’s relative reticence in expressing heterosexual love? Expressing love for men doesn’t require rare material resources or extensive education. Anyone, in any circumstances, can express profound love for men. Nonetheless, scholars today have gone so far as to disregard men’s feelings, hurt men’s self-esteem, and devalue men’s lives. This oppressive gender culture isn’t inevitable. In fact, with strong, independent action, a woman in ancient Corinth expressed love for her boyfriend. Unjustly marginalized in dominant art history, she should be credited with originating bas-relief portraits and making art herstory.

Women artists in the ancient world didn’t engage only with women. The eminent first-century Roman scholar Pliny the Elder described outstanding women artists learning from men, painting men, and teaching men:

Timarete, the daughter of Micon, painted the very ancient panel picture of Artemis at Ephesus. Irene, daughter and student of the painter Cratinus, painted a young woman at Eleusis. Irene also painted Calypso, Theodorus the Juggler, and Alcisthenes the Dancer. Aristarete, the daughter and student of Nearchus, painted Asclepius. When Marcus Varro was a young man, Iaia of Cyzicus, who remained unmarried, painted in Rome pictures with a brush and also drew with an engraver on ivory. She made mainly portraits of women, as well as a large picture on wood of an old woman at Neapolis. She also made a self-portrait with a mirror. No one else had a quicker hand in painting. Her artistic skill was such that she obtained much higher prices than did the period’s most celebrated portrait painters, that is Sopolis and Dionysius, whose pictures fill the galleries. A certain Olympias also painted. The only fact recorded about her is that Autobulus was her student.

{ Timarete, Miconis filia, Dianam, quae in tabula Ephesi est antiquissimae picturae; Irene, Cratini pictoris filia et discipula, puellam, quae est Eleusine, Calypso et praestigiatorem Theodorum, Alcisthenen saltatorem; Aristarete, Nearchi filia et discipula, Aesculapium. Iaia Cyzicena, perpetua virgo, M. Varronis iuventa Romae et penicillo pinxit et cestro in ebore imagines mulierum maxime et Neapoli anum in grandi tabula, suam quoque imaginem ad speculum. nec ullius velocior in pictura manus fuit, artis vero tantum, ut multum manipretiis antecederet celeberrimos eadem aetate imaginum pictores Sopolim et Dionysium, quorum tabulae pinacothecas inplent. pinxit et quaedam Olympias, de qua hoc solum memoratur, discipulum eius fuisse Autobulum. }[1]

Theodorus the Juggler and Alcisthenes the Dancer probably were celebrities. Asclepius was a god of medicine. Women artists’ paintings of these men probably didn’t express personal love for them. Women artists, like other professionals, understandably made paintings that would sell well.

painting by Joseph Wright of Derby showing the Corinthian woman-artist at work

Artists, however, aren’t necessarily confined to their financial interests. In ancient Corinth, a woman now commonly known as Kora of Sicyon designed the first bas-relief portrait in love for her boyfriend. Pliny explained:

Butades of Sicyon, a potter at Corinth, was the first to invent shaping likenesses from potter’s clay. This work was for his daughter, who was captivated in love for a young man. When the young man was leaving to travel abroad, she inscribed in outline on a wall the shadow of his face from a lamp. Her father pressed clay on this and made a bas-relief. He set it forth with rest of his pottery to harden by fire. This bas-relief reportedly was kept in the Shrine of the Nymphs until Mummius destroyed Corinth.

{ Fingere ex argilla similitudines Butades Sicyonius figulus primus invenit Corinthi filiae opera, quae capta amore iuventis, abeunte illo peregre, umbram ex facie eius ad lucernam in pariete lineis circumscripsit, quibus pater eius inpressa argilla typum fecit et cum ceteris fictilibus induratum igni proposuit, eumque servatum in Nymphaeo, donec Mummius Corinthum everterit, tradunt. }[2]

This women of ancient Corinth has been credited with originating painting.[3] More importantly, this great woman artist pioneered a new way of expressing love for men. She shattered shackles of gynocentrism to expand forms of art.

black and brown chalk drawing of the Corinthian woman-artist at work: Vincenzo Camuccini, The Invention of Painting.

Expressing love for men has always been a daring endeavor. Consider, for example, the eminent Roman landscape painter Studius:

Examples of his paintings are noble villas accessed across marshes, tottering men with women on their shoulders, trembling with them being carried according to a promise, and many other paintings of such liveliness and very flippant wit.

{ sunt in eius exemplaribus nobiles palustri accessu villae, succollatis sponsione mulieribus labantes, trepidis quae feruntur, plurimae praeterea tales argutiae facetissimi salis. }[4]

Depicting Roman men’s subordination to women as men literally carrying women on their shoulders covers social criticism with flippant wit. Everyone must be wary. Women who simply appreciate men with their female gazes can cause men dire harm. For example, Gobryas, an elderly Assyrian military leader serving Cyrus the Great, reported:

Once the Assyrian king was drinking with my son and another of the king’s companions. The other was Gadatas, the son of a man much more powerful than I. The king had Gadatas seized and castrated, only because, as some say, the king’s concubine had praised his companion. She said that Gadatas was handsome and that the woman who was going to be his wife would be happy. But as the king himself now says, it was because his companion had made a sexual advance to his concubine. So now Gadatas is a eunuch, but he is a ruler, for his father died.

{ ἑνὸς δὲ ἀνδρὸς πολὺ δυνατωτέρου ἢ ἐγὼ υἱόν, καὶ ἐκείνου ἑταῖρον ὄντα ὥσπερ τὸν ἐμόν, συμπίνοντα παρ᾿ ἑαυτῷ συλλαβὼν ἐξέτεμεν, ὡς μέν τινες ἔφασαν, ὅτι ἡ παλλακὴ αὐτοῦ ἐπῄνεσεν αὐτὸν ὡς καλὸς εἴη καὶ ἐμακάρισε τὴν μέλλουσαν αὐτῷ γυναῖκα ἔσεσθαι· ὡς δὲ αὐτὸς νῦν λέγει, ὅτι ἐπείρασεν αὐτοῦ τὴν παλλακίδα. καὶ νῦν οὗτος εὐνοῦχος μέν ἐστι, τὴν δ᾿ ἀρχὴν ἔχει, ἐπεὶ ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ ἐτελεύτησεν. }[5]

Falsely accusing men of attempting to “seduce” women has occurred far too often throughout history, as has gender bias in punishment for sex crimes. The Assyrian king’s accusation against Gadatas should be regarded as questionable. In any case, when expressing love for men, women must be aware of castration culture and seek to limit its harm to men and women.

The Corinthian woman-artist at work in David Allan's painting, "The Origin of Painting"

By the seventeenth century, the young Corinthian woman’s portrait of her boyfriend became understood as a sincere act of love at the origin of painting. The god of love Cupid guides this woman’s hand in Charles Le Brun and François Chauveau’s engraving printed in Paris in 1668. In Joachim von Sandrart’s engraving printed in Nuremberg in 1683, Cupid hovers above the woman’s head and apparently instructs her. Alexander Runciman’s painting “The Origin of Painting,” made in Scotland about 1772, has Cupid guiding the woman’s hand in tracing her boyfriend’s figure on the wall. To ensure that viewers don’t miss the meaning, on the wall is engraved the text, “behold the Greek woman-inventor, who has love as her master {amore magistro inventrix ecce Graia}.”[6] The English writer William Hayley in 1781 celebrated love, the Corinthian woman, and her sympathetic father:

Oh! LOVE, it was thy glory to impart
Its infant being to this magic art!
Inspir’d by thee, the soft Corinthian maid
Her graceful lover’s sleeping form portray’d:
Her boding heart his near departure knew,
Yet long’d to keep his image in her view:
Pleas’d she beheld the steady shadow fall,
By the clear lamp upon the even wall:
The line she trac’d with fond precision true,
And, drawing, doated on the form she drew;
Nor, as she glow’d with no forbidden fire,
Conceal’d the simple picture from her sire:
His kindred fancy, still to nature just,
Copied her line, and form’d the mimic bust.[7]

Between 1770 and 1820, art depicting the young Corinthian woman engraving her boyfriend’s shadow became a common motif broadly described as “the origin of painting.”[8] A woman expressing love for her boyfriend in ancient Corinth thus eventually acquired great significance in art history.

The Corinthian woman-artist tracing her boyfriend's silhouette in engraving in Charles Perrault's book La peinture

With the development of universal education and well-developed markets for symbolic works, the legacy of the ancient Corinthian woman artist expanded in different ways. Clara Erskine Clement, a member of a prominent and wealthy family in New England, crowned her career as a widely read art historian with her book, Women in the Fine Arts from the Seventh Century B.C. to the Twentieth Century A.D., published in 1904. Her book included a lengthy entry on the ancient Corinthian woman artist:

Kora or Callirhoë. It is a well-authenticated fact that in the Greek city of Sicyonia, about the middle of the seventh century before Christ, there lived the first woman artist of whom we have a reliable account.

Her story has been often told, and runs in this wise: Kora, or Callirhoë was much admired by the young men of Sicyonia for her grace and beauty, of which they caught but fleeting glimpses through her veil when they met her in the flower-market. By reason of Kora’s attraction the studio of her father, Dibutades, was frequented by many young Greeks, who watched for a sight of his daughter, while they praised his models in clay.

At length one of these youths begged the modeller to receive him as an apprentice, and, his request being granted, he became the daily companion of both Kora and her father. As the apprentice was skilled in letters, it soon came about that he was the teacher and ere long the lover of the charming maiden, who was duly betrothed to him.

The time for the apprentice to leave his master came all too soon. As he sat with Kora the evening before his departure, she was seized by an ardent wish for a portrait of her lover, and, with a coal from the brazier, she traced upon the wall the outline of the face so dear to her. This likeness her father instantly recognized, and, hastening to bring his clay, he filled in the sketch and thus produced the first portrait in bas-relief! It is a charming thought that from the inspiration of a pure affection so beautiful an art originated, and doubtless Kora’s influence contributed much to the artistic fame which her husband later achieved in Corinth.[9]

Although the only surviving ancient evidence about the ancient Corinthian woman artist essentially consists only of the one passage in Pliny, Clara Erskine Clement documented many additional claims about this woman artist. The Corinthian woman became widely known as Kora (apparently from the ancient Greek for “young woman {κόρη}”), or less commonly, Callirhoë (apparently from the ancient Greek for “beautiful stream {καλλίρρους}”).[10] Her grace and beauty, her modesty, her association with flowers, her many men-admirers, and the amorous young man becoming her teacher and then her husband all reflect ideas of love and gender prevalent among the northeastern American elite late in the nineteenth century.

Corinthian woman-artist tracing her boyfriend's silhouette in painting by Joseph-Benoit Suvée

As ideas of love and gender changed significantly across the twentieth century, so too did representations of the ancient Corinthian woman. Judy Chicago’s iconic Dinner Party, composed from 1974 to 1979, includes the name “Kora” on its Heritage Floor. Associated text explains:

In Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (C.E. 77) and other ancient sources, the potter Dibutades of Sicyon and his daughter Kora (also called Callirhoe) are credited with the invention of modeling in relief in the seventh century B.C.E. The story goes that Dibutades had a young apprentice with whom Kora fell in love. On the night that her lover was to complete his apprenticeship and leave, she used a piece of coal to trace his portrait on the wall. Her father saw the drawing and filled it in with clay, thus creating the first relief, which reputedly remained on the wall for 200 years.[11]

The Dinner Party apparently is indebted to Clara Erskine Clement or a closely related source for particular details: the name Callirhoe, the young apprentice preparing to leave after completing his apprenticeship, and the piece of coal. The gendered context, however, differs significantly. The Dinner Party features a dinner table setting for 39 women of noteworthy achievement, with no men. Its Heritage Floor shows the names of 999 women of noteworthy achievement, with no men. Judy Chicago explained that the women’s names on the Heritage Floor convey:

how many women had struggled into prominence or been able to make their ideas known — sometimes in the face of overwhelming obstacles — only (like the women on the table) to have their hard-earned achievements marginalized or erased.[12]

This iconic art of gender inclusion is the centerpiece of the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Surely not merely opium for the masses, it influentially signals the health and vitality of public discourse today.

The ancient Corinthian woman who lovingly traced her boyfriend’s shadow exemplifies the artistic woman leadership that can make dying societies fruitful and young. Expressions of women’s love for men too often have been suppressed or marginalized. Not surprisingly, men’s love for women dominates the historical record of expressing heterosexual love. That can change. With appropriate support and encouragement, women can achieve gender equality in love expression and eternally advance human welfare.

Minoan bull-leaping fresco from the Knossos Palace, Crete

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[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History {Naturalis Historia} 35.147-8 (section 40), Latin text from Rackham (1952), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Following Linderski (2003) pp. 83-7, I’ve amended Calypso, senem to Calypso, where the later is equivalent to the rare accusative variant Calypsonem. Calpyso thus indicates a painting of the goddess Calypso, not a woman painter.

[2] Pliny, Naturalis Historia 35.151 (section 43), sourced as previously. Mummius destroyed Corinth in 146 BGC. Pliny went on to credit Butades with inventing a common form of ancient architectural ornamentation:

Butades invented adding red earth to the material or modeling out of red chalk. He first placed masks as fronts to the outer gutter-tiles on roofs. Initially he called these low-reliefs prostypa. Later he likewise made high-relief ectypa. Ornaments on the pediments of temples originated from these. Because of Butades, these are called plastae.

{ Butadis inventum est rubricam addere aut ex rubra creta fingere, primusque personas tegularum extremis imbricibus inposuit, quae inter initia prostypa vocavit; postea idem ectypa fecit. hinc et fastigia templorum orta. propter hunc plastae appellati. }

Naturalis Historia 35.152 (section 43), Latin text and English translation sourced as previously.

Probably between 177 and 180 GC, Athenagoras of Athens apparently drew upon Pliny’s account of the history of art. Describing the making of idols, Athenagoras declared:

Images were not in use before the discovery of molding, painting, and sculpture. Then came Saurius of Samos, Crato of Sicyon, Cleanthes of Corinth, and the Corinthian maid. Tracing out shadows was discovered by Saurius, who drew the outline of a horse standing in the sun. Painting was discovered by Crato, who colored in the outlines of the shadows of a man and woman on a whitened tablet. Relief modeling was discovered by the Corinthian maid. She fell in love with someone and traced the outline of his shadow on the wall as he slept. Then her father, a potter, delighted with so precise a likeness, made a relief of the outline and filled it with clay. The relief is preserved to this very day in Corinth.

{ αἱ δ’ εἰκόνες μέχρι μήπω πλαστικὴ καὶ γραφικὴ καὶ ἀνδριαντοποιητικὴ ἦσαν, οὐδὲ ἐνομίζοντο· Σαυρίου δὲ τοῦ Σαμίου καὶ Κράτωνος τοῦ Σικυωνίου καὶ Κλεάνθους τοῦ Κορινθίου καὶ κόρης Κορινθίας ἐπιγενομένων καὶ σκιαγραφίας μὲν εὑρεθείσης ὑπὸ Σαυρίου ἵππον ἐν ἡλίῳ περιγράψαντος, γραφικῆς δὲ ὑπὸ Κράτωνος ἐν πίνακι λελευκωμένῳ σκιὰς ἀνδρὸς καὶ γυναικὸς ἐναλείψαντος, –ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς κόρης ἡ κοροπλαθικὴ εὑρέθη (ἐρωτικῶς γάρ τινος ἔχουσα περιέγραψεν αὐτοῦ κοιμωμένου ἐν τοίχῳ τὴν σκιάν, εἶθ’ ὁ πατὴρ ἡσθεὶς ἀπαραλλάκτῳ οὔσῃ τῇ ὁμοιότητι– κέραμον δὲ εἰργάζετο–ἀναγλύψας τὴν περιγραφὴν πηλῷ προσ ανεπλήρωσεν· ὁ τύπος ἔτι καὶ νῦν ἐν Κορίνθῳ σῴζεται) }

Athenagoras of Athens, Embassy for the Christians {Πρεσβεία περί Χριστιανών / Legatio Pro Christianis} 17.3, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Schoedel (1972). Athenagoras’s Legatio is also called his Apology or Plea for the Christians. On Athenagoras, Williams (2020) Chapter 9.

After Pliny wrote, an entrepreneur in Corinth perhaps put forward a claimed relief of the Corinthian woman. In particular, Pliny’s Naturalis Historia may have generated new fame for her. Athenagoras, who was not highly knowledgeable about painting, perhaps referred to this new Corinthian tourist attraction. Besides Pliny and Athenagoras, no other pre-medieval reference to the pioneering Corinthian woman artist is known.

[3] In a recent book, a well-known art critic declared: “The Roman historian Pliny the Elder … even asserted that the art of painting originated with a woman.” Higgie (2021) p. 3. Pliny himself was hesitant to address the origin of painting and expressed uncertainty about it:

The question as to the origin of the art of painting is uncertain and it does not belong to the plan of this work. The Egyptians declare that it was invented among themselves six thousand years ago before it passed over into Greece — which is clearly an idle assertion. As to the Greeks, some of them say it was discovered at Sicyon, others in Corinth, but all agree that it began with tracing an outline round a man’s shadow and consequently that pictures were originally done in this way, but the second stage when a more elaborate method had been invented was done in a single color and called monochrome, a method still in use at the present day. Line-drawing was invented by the Egyptian Philocles or by the Corinthian Cleanthes, but it was first practiced by the Corinthian Aridices and the Sicyonian Telephanes — these were at that stage not using any color, yet already adding lines here and there to the interior of the outlines

{ De picturae initiis incerta nec instituti operis quaestio est. Aegyptii sex milibus annorum aput ipsos inventam, priusquam in Graeciam transiret, adfirmant, vana praedicatione, ut palam est; Graeci autem alii Sicyone, alii aput Corinthios repertam, omnes umbra hominis lineis circumducta, itaque primam talem, secundam singulis coloribus et monochromaton dictam, postquam operosior inventa erat, duratque talis etiam nunc. inventam liniarem a Philocle Aegyptio vel Cleanthe Corinthio primi exercuere Aridices Corinthius et Telephanes Sicyonius, sine ullo etiamnum hi colore, iam tamen spargentes linias intus. }

Naturalis Historia 35.15-6 (section 5), Latin text and English translation from Rackham (1952). Elsewhere, Pliny states that painting was invented:

by Egyptians, and in Greece by Euchir the kinsman of Daedalus according to Aristotle, but according to Theophrastus by Polygnotus of Athens.

{ Aegypti et in Graecia Euchir Daedali cognatus ut Aristoteli placet, ut Theophrasto Polygnotus Atheniensis. }

Naturalis Historia 7.205 (section 56), Latin text and English translation from id. For classical sources concerning the history of painting in Greece, Reinach (1921) Chapter 3, and Overbeck (1868) pp. 67-9.

[4] Pliny, Naturalis Historia 35.117 (section 37), Latin text from Rackham (1952), my English translation, benefiting from that of id and Ling (1977) p. 1.

[5] Xenophon of Athens, Cyropaedia / The Education of Cyrus {Κύρου παιδεία} 5.2.28, ancient Greek text from Miller (1914), English translation (modified for ease of readability) from Ambler (2001).

[6] On love at the origin of painting and the woman artist of Corinth, Muecke (1999). Charles Le Brun and François Chauveau’s engraving on the origin of painting is shown above. Joachim von Sandrart’s engraving of the origin of painting in the Latin edition of his Teutsche Academie, printed in Nuremberg in 1683, is freely available on For a color image of Alexander Runciman’s painting of the origin of painting, Cannady (2006) Figure 22. For Runciman’s preliminary wash and a more detailed monochrome image, MacMillan (1973) Plates 88 and 105. The text engraved on the wall is to the viewer’s left of the boyfriend’s head. For the transcription of the Latin text, Rosenblum (1957) p. 282.

In today’s scholarship, a very important issue is iconography relating to the mythic goddess of love Cupid:

These paintings demonstrate extremes in the representation of the maid of Corinth as an artist: in the one she is merely the chaste cypher of Cupid’s impetus to art; in the other she is the female artist, herself eroticized for a masculine gaze and impelled by her own urges, whose creative act in tracing the shadow is itself a mere echo of her parallel gesture of physical desire. … The popularity of the story of the Corinthian maid is registered through this proliferation of images representing the origin of art, but no single interpretation of the female artist dominated. The maid sometimes appears to be actively motivated by human desire alone, sometimes to be the passive recipient of Cupid’s active direction; the scene is sometimes highly intimate, with only the girl and her lover present, sometimes public, though still within the domestic sphere, with other human figures in attendance. This flexibility in imagining the origin of art equally suggests flexibility in imagining the female artist. The images allow for a range of imagined autonomy, of posited relationships between the woman as artist and her muse, and the woman as desiring lover and her object.

King (2004) pp. 634, 636. In the Aeneid, Cupid inflames Dido with love for Aeneas. Nonetheless, Dido isn’t a “chaste cypher.” More generally, women should not regard men as their serfs or their objects.

[7] Hayley (1778) Epistle I, vv. 124-137. In note iv to verse 126, Hayley accurate described the ancient source texts. Some manuscripts of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia have the potter-father’s name as Dibutades of Sicyon. Butades of Sicyon is now generally regarded as a better reading. On editions of Hayley’s poem, Rosenblum (1957) p. 284, note 41, which doesn’t mention the 1778 edition or the 1779 edition.

The brief reference to Pliny’s account of the Corinthian woman artist in Hayley (1778) inspired the English author Amelia Opie to write a poem entitled “Epistle supposed to be Addressed by Eudora, The Maid of Corinth, to Her Lover Philemon, Informing him of her having traced his Shadow on the Wall while he was sleeping, the Night before his Departure: Together with the joyful Consequences of this Action.” King (2004) p. 630, and p. 648, n. 3. For a critical edition of the poem, King & Pierce (2009) pp. 63-73 (poem 55). Opie’s Corinthian woman artist, whom she calls Eudora, is understand in today’s scholarship as today’s ideal woman:

In her interpretation, Opie depicts a woman of extraordinary creative power, who is both domestic and political, uniting private elements of erotic desire and domestic satisfaction with public issues of the civic function of art. … Like Eudora’s drawing and sculpture, Opie’s “Maid of Corinth” can be seen as offering an aesthetic venue for the exploration and articulation of female desire and as suggesting the power of art to transform potentially socially transgressive private acts to public artistic benefit.

King (2004) pp. 630, 648. That’s not at all a transgressive interpretation.

[8] Rosenblum (1957) pp. 281-2. Affirmed by Levitine (1958) p. 330. A dog, symbolizing loyality, occasionally was included in the compositions. Rosenblum (1957) p. 284, calling the dog Fido.

Men have also created images of women that they love. The ancient Greek sculptor Pygmalion of Cyprus carved a woman in ivory and then fell in love with her. She subsequently acquired the name Galatea. The medieval Romance of the Rose brilliantly adapts the legend of Pygmalion and Galatea. In 1827, Auguste Jean-Baptiste Vinchon and Nicolas Louis-Françe Gosse made a grisaille The Origin of Drawing {L’origine du Dessin} for the Louvre’s Musée Charles X. In that grisaille, the man traces the outline of his beloved woman. A man artist tracing the silhouette of his beloved woman also is shown in an emblem that Jean-Charles de La Fosse made in 1768, as well as in Antoine-Claude Fleury’s The origin of painting {L’origine de la peinture} (c. 1808), and in a painting by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1830. On this iconography, Levintine (1958) p. 330. Schinkel’s painting inspired an etching by Julius Caesar Thaeter in 1839. Nonetheless, among art depicting the origin of painting, the woman artist has dominated.

About 1784, Gilles-Louis Chrétien pioneered a mechanized means for quickly creating multiple silhouette portraits of a sitter. Such machines and their products became known as a physionotraces / physiognotraces. At least thirty profile portraitists using physiognotraces were active in New England between 1790 and 1810. The operator of one physiognotrace reportedly made 8,000 silhouettes about 1802 in the U.S. Bellion (1999). Men were among the operators of physiognotraces.

In myth, women have continued to dominate the origin of painting. The prominent art gallery operator Almine Rech, who runs galleries in Brussels, London, New York, and Shanghai, recounted the myth for her 2023 exhibit “Feeling of Light”:

The most famous myth about the birth of painting is probably the one told by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History c. 75 AD: the story of Dibutade’s daughter, the young woman who drew the outline of her lover’s shadow in charcoal on the wall of her house before he left for a long journey, capturing his silhouette to give his presence the illusion of eternity. This woman, whose first name Pliny omits to mention {sic}, was the first painter in history. Kora of Sicyon — her actual name {sic} — created painting as an antidote to absence and disappearance, and invented an art whose necessity has been continually affirmed ever since.

It is to this woman that we owe the invention of representation, the form we give to the impossibility of forgetting. Kora of Sicyon thus made it possible to offer an ultimate attention, a final light to an image before it disappears, this famous “feeling of light” of which the poet and painter Etel Adnan speaks.

From Almine Rech’s online exhibit documentation for “Feeling of Light.”

[9] Waters (1904) pp. 200-1. Featuring Kora in the first page of her introduction, Waters underscored the authenticity of the story of Kora:

We have some knowledge of women artists in ancient days. Few stories of that time are so authentic as that of Kora, who made the design for the first bas-relief, in the city of Sicyonia, in the seventh century B.C.

Id. p. xi. Waters provided an account of “Kora or Callirhoë” with a few additional colorful details in Waters (1887), Part II (Sculpture), pp. 20-1.

Clara Erskine was born in 1834 in privileged circumstances among the New England elite. Clara was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where her father, a businessman, had temporarily brought his family. When Clara was two, her family settled in Milford, Massachusetts. Milford was the hometown of Clara’s mother, Harriet Bethiah Erskine. Clara’s family spent much time among the New England elite in Boston and Cambridge. Her family hired private tutors to educate her. She apparently learned to read Greek and Latin, and had speaking, reading, and writing knowledge of German, Italian, and French. Von Lintel (2013) pp. 41, including p. 41, n. 9.

Clara Erskine married the wealthy Boston businessman James Hazen Clement in 1852. She had five children, traveled extensively, including to many countries of Europe, India, China, and Japan. She also developed a career as a professional writer. She became a “talented, respected, and prolific art historian,” and her books achieved “widespread popularity … across American.” Von Lintel (2013) pp. 63, 50. She was a strong, independent professional:

Waters was bargaining with publishers for higher royalties and better contracts, and was willing to drop one firm to establish a relationship with another house where she felt her books would be more effectively “pushed” or marketed. She grew to take pride in the fact that her publishers “knew that [she was] in a position to be independent,” and that she was well versed in the workings of the book business. She even voiced her opinions about the difficulties of working with publishers, whom she called “a cranky and trying race.” Lacking institutional support from a university or museum, Waters drew upon her business acumen and strong personality to promote her position as a published art historian.

Id. p. 45, footnotes omitted. Clara Erskine’s husband James Hazen Clement died in 1881. In 1882 she married the wealthy Edwin Forbes Waters. He was both an author (see, e.g. Waters (1878)) and the owner of the Boston Daily Advertiser.

[10] The Corinthian woman is called “Cora of Sicyon” in Francisco Pecheco’s The Art of Painting {El Arte de la Pintura} (1649). King (2004) p. 651, n. 29. That name, which isn’t in Pliny, seems to be a mistranslation of Athenagoras’s account, which is probably a Greek adaptation of Pliny. See “Corinthian young woman {κόρη Κορῐνθῐ́ᾱ}” translated as “Core” in Athenagoras’s Πρεσβεία περί Χριστιανών 17.3 in Humphreys (1714) p. 173. In the mid-nineteenth century, B. P. Pratten translated that phrase as “Corinthian damsel” and noted “Or, Koré. It is doubtful whether or not this should be regarded as a proper name.” See text in the Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II. Crehan (1956) and Schoedel (1972) both translate that phrase as “Corinthian maid.” The name Callirhoë for the Corinthian woman is a relatively rare tradition with no known ancient textual basis.

The Corinthian woman has also been commonly called Dibutade, Dibutades, and Dibutadis. See, e.g. the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.) teaching resource on the “Greco-Roman myth of Dibutades.” Dibutade and associated names are inferior textual readings of her father’s name in Pliny. Based on surviving manuscript evidence, the best reading in now judged to be Butades. The corresponding name of the Corinthian woman’s father in Athenagoras is Boutades. The modern myth of Dibutades, which is far more extensive than the Greco-Roman myth, surely should be of interest to teachers and students.

Whether Butades of Sicyon and his daughter were actual historical figures in Corinth isn’t clear. The time in which Butades of Sicyon and his daughter reportedly lived in Corinth isn’t stated or known. Minoan frescoes in Crete, which include painted, outlined figures, date to the first half of the second millennium BGC. On the history of Greek painting, Rumpf (1947).

[11] Documentation for the Dinner Party’s Heritage Floor name Kora on the website for Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

[12] Quote attributed to Judy Chicago in the documentation for the Dinner Party’s Heritage Floor on the website for Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. This grand narrative is now pervasive. For example, it’s featured in the publisher’s blurb for a woman’s book on women’s self-portraits:

Until the twentieth century, art history was, in the main, written by white men who tended to write about other white men. The idea that women in the West have always made art was rarely cited as a possibility. Yet they have — and, of course, continue to do so — often against tremendous odds, from laws and religion to the pressures of family and public disapproval.

In The Mirror and the Palette, Jennifer Higgie introduces us to a cross-section of women artists who embody the fact that there is more than one way to understand our planet, more than one way to live in it and more than one way to make art about it. Spanning 500 years, biography and cultural history intertwine in a narrative packed with tales of rebellion, adventure, revolution, travel and tragedy enacted by women who turned their back on convention and lived lives of great resilience, creativity and bravery.

Higgie (2021), publisher’s blurb. Clara Erskine Clement Waters probably would regard this 2021 woman’s book on women’s self-portraits as parochial, juvenile, and ridiculous. For a similar example of current hackneyed rhetoric, McCormack (2021). AI systems now seem to be mass-producing this sort of work across the Internet.

The popularity from 1770 to 1820 of paintings of the Corithinian woman now known as Kora originating the art of painting might be related to gendered sentiment. A leading scholar of this legend stated:

To explain the popularity of this legend (a popularity which even extended to textiles), one should mention still another tendency of the period, expecially in France. This was the prominent role of women painters around 1800, witness such notable examples as Angelica Kauffmann, Elisabeth Vigée-Liebrun, Adélaide Labille-Guiard, Constance Mayer, and David’s now famous pupil, Constance Charpentier. It was only natural that the many women painters of an era which so often disguised itself in antique clothing should be proud that Greek legend held the inventor of their art to be a woman, a fact which is rarely overlooked in the early pages of subsequent histories of women artists

Rosenblum (1957) p. 288. The now vast body of work on gender and art seems not to have explored this point.

[images] (1) The Corinthian woman artist at work. Excerpt from a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. Originally titled “The Origin of Painting,” now commonly titled “The Corinthian Maid.” Wright painted it between 1782 and 1784 for the eminent English potter and businessman Josiah Wedgwood. Preserved as accession # 1983.1.46 in the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), Paul Mellon Collection, with the image rightly contributed to the public domain. (2) The Corinthian woman artist at work in a black and brown chalk drawing by Vincenzo Camuccini. He made this drawing, titled “The Invention of Drawing,” about 1816-1820. Preserved as accession # 46283r in the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa). Purchased in 2014 with the support of the Friends of the Print Room Trust, National Gallery of Canada Foundation, in honour of Mimi Cazort, Curator of Prints and Drawings from 1970 to 1997. (3) The Corinthian woman artist at work in a painting by David Allan. Allan made this painting, titled “The Origin of Painting” / “The Maid of Corinth” in 1775. Preserved as accession # NG 612 in the National Galleries of Scotland. Presented by Mrs Byres of Tonley 1875. Here’s a print based on the painting. (4) The Corinthian woman artist tracing her boyfriend’s silhouette in an engraving in Charles Perrault’s book The Painting {La peinture} (1668). The composition is based on a painting by Charles Le Brun, and the engraving is by François Chauveau. Image from Muecke (1999) p. 298. Perrault’s La peinture is a poem in praise of Charles Le Brun, the director of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture {Académie royale de Peinture et de Sculpture} from 1655 until his death in 1690. La peinture concludes with a story of the origin of painting. It tells of a young shepherdess on the island of Paphos tracing the silhouette of her beloved man with Love’s guidance. An engraving by Pieter Schenk in 1693 duplicates that of Charles Le Brun and François Chauveau. Schenk’s engraving was printed in The Cabinet of Fine Arts or Collection of Prints, engraved after the Paintings of a Ceiling where the Fine Arts are Represented {Le Cabinet des Beaux Arts ou Recueil d’Estampes, gravées d’apres les Tableaux d’un ceiling ou les Beaux Arts sont representés / De Schatkamer der Vrye Konsten of Verzameling van verscheidene Printen, gegraveerd na eenige Zolderstukken, in welke deze Konsten vertoond worden}. It’s preserved as accession # BI-1904-39 in the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, Netherlands). Image on Wikimedia Commons. (5) The Corinthian woman artist tracing her boyfriend’s silhouette. Excerpt from painting that Joseph-Benoit Suvée painted in 1791. This painting is known by the title “The invention of the Art of Drawing.” Preserved as accession # 0000.GRO0132.I in the Groeningemuseum (Bruges, Belgium). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. Additional resources: collection of art similarly depicting the origin of painting, another curated collection, and a list of works. (6) Minoan bull-leaping fresco from the Knossos Palace, Crete. Made between 1600 and 1450 BGC. Preserved in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete. Source image via Wikimedia Commons.


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