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Rediscovering Charlotte Catherine Patin, a 17th-Century Art Historian

Illustration in Pitture scelte: Joseph Juster (active ca. 1690) after Giampetrino (active 1495–1549), Madonna del giglio. (courtesy Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University) (click to enlarge)
Illustration in ‘Pitture scelte…’: Joseph Juster (active c. 1690) after Giampetrino (active 1495–1549), Madonna del giglio (courtesy Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University)

The origins of art history as a discipline are often linked to Johann Joachim Winckelmann in the 18th century, but even in the 17th century there were writers and scholars publishing critical examinations of art. Although these figures were on the whole men, there was one woman among them whose name often goes overlooked: French writer Charlotte Catherine Patin. Princeton University’s Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology recently acquired a copy of her 1691 Pitture scelte e dichiarate da Carla Caterina Patina, parigina accademica, considered among the earliest examples of art historical scholarship.

Title page of Pitture scelte... (1691) (courtesy Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University) (click to enlarge)
Title page of ‘Pitture scelte…’ (1691) (courtesy Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University) (click to enlarge)

“I view Patin chiefly as an under-appreciated pioneer in the field of women’s scholarship rather than just in art historical studies,” Nicola J. Shilliam, bibliographer at the library, told Hyperallergic. Pitture scelte is currently at the center of a small display on Patin at the library that’s on view through mid-January 2016.

Patin’s father — physician Charles Patin — encouraged women’s scholarship, especially for his daughters. Patin learned Latin, Italian, and German in addition to her native French, and was well-versed in history and current affairs which contextualize the art in her book. Her older sister Gabrielle Charlotte Patin is also remembered for her scholarship, including a Latin publication on Phoenician numismatics in 1683.

Pitture scelte features 40 different artworks from French and Italian collections, including pieces by Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, Jacopo Bassano, and Titian, each with a critical essay that considers iconography and provenance. Patin was able to view many of these pieces in person, as her family lived in Padua after her father fled France to avoid a galley sentence for importing banned books.

The Patin family (Familia Carolia Patini) (courtesy Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University)
Joseph Juster, “The Family of Charles Patin” (1684), after a painting by Noël Jouvenet. Charlotte Catherine Patin is on the far left. (courtesy Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University)

One reason Patin’s book is mostly forgotten may be due to the shaky quality of its engravings. Shilliam writes in a blog post on the Marquand Library site:

The inconsistent quality of the prints Patin used to illustrate her book, evident in the reproduction of the Frari altarpiece, by Noël Robert Cochin (1655–1695?), probably contributed to the relative lack of attention that has been paid to the publication. Patin herself alluded to the “youthful” work of some of the engravers. Nonetheless, the accompanying two-page critical essay considers questions of patronage, iconography, composition, and meaning, and the combination of careful observation, scholarship, and critical appreciation demonstrates Patin’s skills as an art historian.

It was the only work Patin published, as after the death of her father, she entered a convent in 1697 in Padua, where she remained until her death in 1744. You can find the whole of Pitture scelte (in Italian) digitized at the Internet Archive. Shilliam stated that although she “would not have been called an ‘art historian’ in the 17th century,” Patin “considers many of the issues that still occupy art historians — iconography, provenance, meaning, connoisseurship, and uses some of the tools still valued for the study of art history.” And as Shilliam said: “Given the lack of opportunities for women scholars at that time, that she published at all is remarkable.”

Charlotte Catherine Patin display at Princeton University's Marquand Library (courtesy Nicola J. Shilliam)
Charlotte Catherine Patin display at Princeton University’s Marquand Library (courtesy Nicola J. Shilliam)

The display on Charlotte Catherine Patin continues at Princeton University’s Marquand Library (1 Washington Road, Princeton, New Jersey) through January 2016. 

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