Cindy Sherman: Her “History Portrait” Series as Post-Modern Parody

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By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Bread and Circus senior contributing writer

uch ink has been spilled over the work of American photographer Cindy Sherman. Born in New Jersey in 1954, Sherman’s artistic career began in New York City in the 1970’s; she is perhaps best known for using herself as the subject of her photographs. That said, her works are not self-portraits in the traditional sense, for she adopts diverse personae (from the Latin for the “masks” used in drama) by donning make-up, setting herself before elaborate backdrops and wearing fanciful dress. Even in childhood, Sherman’s brothers and sisters recollect her often playing dress-up. In fact, she has continued to dress in costumes as a hobby (even in public) ever since. (See note 1)

Her “History Portrait” series of thirty-five photographs is particularly interesting for its blend of Post-Modern consciousness with timeless masterpieces of European masters. She created the group during the years 1989 and 1990 while she was living in Rome with her now ex-husband, the French film-maker Michel Auder. (note 2) Though nearly twenty years old, the series remains a classic; just this summer a multi-artist show at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis included some of her “History Portraits” in their exhibition “Portrait/Homage/Embodiment.”

The images in the “History” series either relate directly to images in classical European painting (the so-called Old Masters), or relate more generally to types found during that period. Although she created the series in (arguably) Europe’s greatest living museum, La Città Eterna (the Eternal City), incredibly she claims that she derived her inspiration vicariously. She’s been quoted as saying,

When I was doing those history pictures I was living in Rome but never went to the churches and museums there. I worked out of books, with reproductions. It’s an aspect of photography I appreciate conceptually: the idea that images can be reproduced and seen anytime, anywhere, by anyone. (note 3)

That said, the photos remain original conceptions, loosely based upon—but not duplicates of—original works.

Sherman began work on the series, apparently, as a commission to create images for use on Limoges porcelain plates. Duly inspired, she continued in that vein, making images in celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution of 1789. (note 4) At the opening of her corresponding show at Metro Pictures Gallery in New York, the photos were printed on a large scale and were hung in ornate gold frames—much like classic European paintings are hung in museums.

Though primarily a photographer/film-maker now, her attraction to painting began early in her life; as a school-aged child she often created drawings and paintings. In fact, contrary to what one might assume, photography did not even come naturally to her; in the early Seventies Sherman actually failed her first undergraduate course in photography. She also has claimed that she never did well in Art History where she had problems memorizing names and dates. (note 5) Downplaying her art-historical savvy, she’s said,

I’m illiterate in the historical, classic knowledge of photography, the stuff teachers attempted to bore into my head, which I resisted. The way I’ve always tried to cull information from older art and put it into my work is that I view it all anonymously, on a visceral level. (note 6)

She really blossomed artistically after graduating and moving to Manhattan. In 1983, she recalled a pivotal, painting-related inspiration for her unique approach to photography: “I had all this make-up. I just wanted to see how transformed I could look. It was like painting in a way.” (note 7)

Most art historians like to discuss Cindy Sherman’s photos in terms of a Feminist critique of the “male gaze”. Feminist art criticism assumes that the making of art—as well as its iconography and reception by viewers—is gender-influenced. (note 8 ) As a Feminist, therefore, Sherman’s work would serve to challenge the traditional male view of women’s roles in art and society. (note 9) In part, I agree that Sherman explores the changing face of women’s roles in history. In doing research on her “History Portrait” series, however, I became inspired to follow a new tack.

One article I encountered, from the May 15, 2000 New Yorker magazine, helped to clarify Sherman’s typically over-simplified relationship to Feminist theory. (note 10) The article’s author acknowledges Sherman’s apparent sympathy with Feminist theory, but goes on to say that Sherman purposefully doesn’t title her works in order to leave their meanings somewhat ambiguous. Sherman, for her part, has admitted that she doesn’t read the prodigious number of Feminist articles, and once stated that she hadn’t heard of the so-called “male-gaze”—again, the mainstay of Feminist readings of her photography. In the piece, Sherman goes so far as to claim she’s bored by “art-talk” and especially that “bogged-down in political issues.” (note 11) This would seem to downplay any straightforward Feminist agenda on Sherman’s part.

A second article, titled “Cindy Sherman: An Artist to be Taken Seriously,” comes at Sherman from the opposite camp. This essay typifies dismissive views of Sherman’s “History” work based upon misreadings of the artist’s parodic intent. (note 12) Though, in general, the tenor of the article is positive, when he turns to the “History Portraits” series, the author’s opinions shift in tone. He writes:

The History Portraits (1989-90) in my opinion represent an artistic and creative low. The images are little more than smug parodies of classical art portraiture and make no emotional connection, or provoke any inner exploration by the viewer…The political message, drawn from the post-modernist schema, is obvious: civilisation and history is entirely subjective—something invented, to be chopped up and reconstituted according to one’s own whim. History has no value, other than what it can provide for the immediate needs of those studying it. (note 13)

The article exposes a common (often layman’s) misunderstanding of both Post-Modernism and parody. Admittedly, while many deconstructionists in the academy have unleashed tidal waves of unhealthy, solipsistic posturing, it remains a misconception that all post-modern artists, like Cindy Sherman, find no affinity for- or kinship with- past art. To the contrary, as a rule Post-Modern artists and architects have realized that there are rich veins of artistic thought to be mined and recycled, even rejuvenated.

As just one example, Moore and Hersey’s Post-Modern Piazza d’Italia built in 1978 in New Orleans brings together disparate elements from past architecture and mixes them with new technology. It is an eclectic mix of Classical, Renaissance and Baroque architectural elements with the surprising additions of stainless steel and neon lights. This Post-Modern architecture serves as a delightful, witty homage to the city’s Italian immigrants. It’s an engaging new twist on older, repeated forms—really the definition of Post-Modern art.

So, in sharp disagreement with some, when looking at works such as Sherman’s “History Portrait” series, we might see many exciting links to past and present forms and ensuing debates in art. Furthermore, because Cindy Sherman has found these living traditions in art fascinating and provocative for herself both as a Post-Modern artist and as a Feminist, this casts doubt on her supposed lack of art historical knowledge. Instead, as we shall see, it makes more sense to characterize her innovative use of past imagery as a critique of contemporary events in the art world, making the past relevant to the present, and provoking many inner explorations by the viewer.

Before we turn to her works, lastly, we should make note of the often-overlooked humor in Sherman’s work. In his statement, “The images are little more than smug parodies of classical art portraiture and make no emotional connection, or provoke any inner exploration by the viewer…” (note 14) the author of the aforementioned article glosses over the importance of “parody” as a perennial artistic form. In doing so, he (like many others) misses some of the finest allure of Sherman’s art.

Indeed, most Modern writers have fallen into the trap of thinking of parody in its limited, satirical terms. To understand what true parody is, one can argue the purpose of parody is not to burlesque (in essence to travesty), but rather to imitate, extend and challenge, all the while combining admiration for the model with true, comic laughter. Therefore, rather than seeing Sherman’s paintings as wry, cynical copies of Old Masters, or even as militant Feminist manifestos, one should consider Sherman’s images as homages to the past, ones that consider changing artistic processes, social mores and gender roles in Western society. She adroitly combines and recombines various modes and individual artists’ works in ways that betray a great understanding of European traditions.

In order to make sense of her photographs, we should concentrate on where the individual History Portrait photographs both overlap with- and differ from- their prototypes. It is in the discovery of these subtle similarities and differences that we can find both Sherman’s parodic comedy, as well as Sherman’s own perceptions about history and the role of women (and men) in art. Such a systematic approach will also help to suss out the presence of any Feminist ideology in Sherman’s oeuvre. Indeed, Feminist art historian Mary Garrard wrote in 1982 that one of the most fruitful places for seeking traces of the differences between the perceptions of female and male artists is in the treatment of traditional themes by both. (note 15) So let’s begin looking at works from Sherman’s series in studied comparison with her Old Master models. We’ll look at Sherman’s “Untitleds” in chronological order to highlight any evolving themes within Sherman’s series.


We begin with Sherman’s Untitled # 205, of 1989, a parody of Raphael’s Fornarina, of circa 1518. (Oil on panel. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome, Italy.) According to the Renaissance proto-art historian Giorgio Vasari, Raphael was more than a world-class painter and architect, he was also quite the dashing ladies-man—one might even go so far as to say the Orlando Bloom of the Italian Sixteenth Century. According to Vasari, he was absolutely taken with beautiful women: mistresses who notoriously kept him from finishing important commissions. Supposedly Raphael even went so far as to have one of them “installed” in the private Roman Palace in which he worked so they would not be long parted. This caused much consternation among his contemporaries, particularly his patrons. Raphael was so oversexed that died an untimely death at the age of 37, notes Vasari, by contracting a fever brought on by his escapades.

There is one school of thought that supposes that the model for his “La Fornarina” (“The Baker’s Wife”) was one of Raphael’s many enchanting mistresses. This idea is generally accepted, though insofar as it doesn’t recall the woman in his painting La Velata,” a work more generally considered to represent his favorite mistress, the attribution is somewhat troubling. (ca. 1514-1516. Oil on canvas. PittiPalace, Florence, Italy.) Because of its unknown sitter others maintain it could be a more straightforward, commissioned period portrait of a bride, one whose identity is now lost. Supporting this thesis is the fact that most of the Fornarina appears to have been painted by the lesser-hands of Raphael’s workshop; for surely, if it indeed was a seductive picture of his belovèd mistress, he would have painted it by his own hand. Conversely, however, some argue that the figure’s jewelled armband contains one of Raphael’s few “signatures”—perhaps suggesting his personal “possession” of the beauty. (note 16) Further contributing to the Fornarina’s ambiguous identity, the ring on her left hand together with the pearl on her turban symbolize both sexuality and purity within the sacred rites of marriage, as do the background leaves of myrtle, laurel and quince—all sacred to Venus, (note 17) and, all typical of period wedding portraiture.

With characteristic sixteenth-century contropposti (harmonious balance of opposites), the darkness of the background quietly recedes while the color and light of the figure gently pushes her into the foreground of the image. She’s most artfully presented for the viewer’s delectation. In this regard, the spicy red cloak, draped over her lap, is suggestive. Some cite Raphael’s awkward joining of the torso and legs beneath as deliberate a visual cue that provides sexual tension, enhancing the impression that her drapery could fall off at any moment. (note 18). This is underlined by the suggestive gesture of her hand, making a “V” (the classic pubic triangle), referring to her hidden genitals.

Turning to Sherman’s inspired version, her Untitled # 205, we again find the woman’s left hand over the same area, but now in a more demure gesture of modesty, not the clearly provocative, sexy hand gesture of the Raphael. In refining the metaphor, Sherman references a long artistic tradition of the Venus pudica—a term derived from the Latin pudendum, meaning “something to hide”.

In another—typically Shermanian—departure, she uses cheap, curtain-like looking material in place of Raphael’s delicate, diaphanous fabric. Sherman also provides a chintzier version of the woman’s head cloth, metamorphosing the original richly embroidered, exotic yellow-and-black turban into a glorified dishtowel.

By contrast to Raphael’s carefully considered contrapposti, the background of Sherman’s composition is a very stark, jet black and the model is sharply, even harshly lit. The klieg-light treatment emphasizes the woman’s thick make-up, wig and prosthetics in a jarring, even revolting way. Most notable—in what purports to be a sexually-charged image—are the unabashedly false breasts and the fact that this woman appears to be pregnant. Do these “unnatural” breasts and pregnancy foil the sexually-charged male gaze? Furthermore, what does it mean that the artist wants us to know that the model is so obviously “dressed-up”?

The devil, as always, may be in the details. In her photograph, instead of a signed, jeweled armband Sherman wears a cheap woman’s garter. Does the change suggest the independence of Sherman’s character from the ownership of men? (note 19) Or, referencing the bride’s leg garter from a Modern reception, does it indicate a humorous allusion to the modern language of marriage? If Sherman’s #205 is an image about marriage, does her photo also thereby snarkily allude to impending childbirth and the drudgery of housework (with the Fifties-ish head-wrap) rather than a European bride’s traditional purity and private seductiveness? (note 20) In her facial expression, Sherman’s figure does seem more pensive and concerned than the easy-going, graceful creature presented by Raphael. Unlike her counterpart, For example, Sherman’s model seems to be overly concerned that her loosened drapery doesn’t fall off, that it conceals rather than reveals.

All things considered, Sherman’s figure looks a lot less like a masterpiece, and more like a Modern American housewife posing as a seductress, unable to pull off the charade. In this vein, we should recall that it is Sherman herself posing for the picture, and, it is known that she is a self-professed “prude”. According to her biography, in her second attempt at a college-level photography class she balked at a straightforward assignment to photograph herself in the nude.

If Raphael’s figure is an earnest, seductive-yet-pure bride, we should ask, does Sherman reject this presentation or update and embrace it? Does her homage amount to parody or satire? Can one assume that Sherman insists upon a Feminist perspective in this photograph? An adequate perspective to answer these questions perhaps requires further knowledge of Sherman’s approach to the past. Let’s look at another member of the “History Portrait” series in order to find some connective threads and perhaps some further ideological transparency.


Jean Fouquet was the French royal painter to Kings Louis the XI and Charles the VII. We know from records that he made a fundamental artistic pilgrimage to Italy between 1445-47. An astute student of what he found there, the cosmopolitan Fouquet was able to successfully marry the minute detail of the Northerners with the Humanism and Albertian perspective of the Italians. In his mature works, such as the Melun Diptych, he seems to blend Northern and Italian Renaissance elements seamlessly. (ca. 1450. Oil on panel. Left Panel: Gemälde Galerie, Berlin, Germany. Right panel: KoninklijkMuseum voor Schone Kunsten,Antwerp, Belgium.)

In one half of his the altarpiece, the right-hand panel, we find an iconic image of the Madonna and Christ Child. It is paired with a left-hand donor panel showing the altarpiece’s patron, Étienne Chevalier: ambassador, treasurer, and controller for King Charles the VII (successor to Louis XI). Furthermore, Chevalier served as special advisor to his Majesty’s royal mistress, Agnès Sorel, functioning as the executor of Sorel’s personal will and estate. On the back of the diptych is an eighteenth-century note that claims the painting fulfilled a vow at the death of Agnès, and so is dated to that same year, 1450.

On the main panel, the Madonna’s dress is half-open in the symbolic gesture of Virgo (or Maria) lactans, the Virgin as nursing mother. Though used for centuries as an embodiment of Christian mercy, this type of image is no longer typically found in religious art following the Council of Trent (1545-63). From that period of the Counter-Reformation until today, the Catholic Church has discouraged any undue nudity of religious figures. To Fouquet’s contemporaries however, the painter’s sympathetic depiction of Mary in this physical way emphasized her role as mother, as well as underlined Christ’s corporeal humanity and fragility. The figures’ humanity acted as a counterbalance to their omnipotent divinity and highlighted Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.

Though youthful and tender in sentiment, these are not soft figures. The forms in Fouquet’s painting are less naturally-human, but more inorganically-geometric forms; witness the egg of Mary’s head, the spheres of her breasts, and the awkward cylinders that make up the Christ Child’s body. Such geometry recalls Greek ideals of perfection in stark contrast to a fallen humanity. While admiring their purity of form, one cannot help but notice the ashen quality of their flesh—as if the figures are corpses, or fabricated from stone. This treatment recalls the tradition of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin, Mary suffering almost unto death with the passing of her Son. Absent fleshtones, the only colors in the right panel come from the jeweled crown, the elaborate throne and the blue and red cherubs (cherubim and seraphim)—the rest resembles a grisaille, the painted description of a sculpture.

Although Euclidean in form, the Madonna nonetheless conforms to period canons of courtly beauty with her shaved or plucked forehead, long neck and high, slender waist. The tantalizing, personalized inscription on the reverse of the panel has emboldened some scholars to conclude that the model for the Madonna was none other than the king’s mistress, herself. Thus, along with the evidence from the inscription, many suppose the particularized, delicate features of the Madonna must recall Agnès’ own coveted features. Adding fuel to the fire, the original ornate frame that still surrounds the work, with its exquisite blue velvet and Étienne’s initial “E” in pearls, curiously interwoven with tell-tale love-knots in gold and silver thread, insists on more than mere religious adoration.

With royal exchequer Étienne Chevalier expending countless francs on such an elaborate image and romantic frame, should we believe that Agnès Sorel held more than a professional interest for him? Was she his mistress as well as the King’s? Absent a cache of love letters, we must make due with a more practical solution. Following a popular period trend, Agnès may have been Chevalier’s Platonic love interest. Indeed, her austere, distant look was the norm of the aloof lady in popular love poetry by the celebrated wordsmith Petrarch (1304-1374).

With this background, it would seem that in Sherman’s corresponding Untitled # 216 (1989) we have yet a second instance of a high-profile “Mistress” explored by the artist. Does this fact necessarily point to any Feminist significance?

In translating the image into her own idiom, Sherman first removes the Madonna’s throne and the angels, those emblems that clearly emphasized divinity in the original image. Furthermore, Sherman wraps up her model’s baby in such a way as to obscure it, thereby minimizing its role. In disrupting the traditional context of the Virgo Lactans, one might argue that the negation of the nursing infant emphasizes and redefines the woman’s state of undress, creating a more seductive, lurid image for the uninitiated viewer. As with La Fornarina, instead of fine brocade, Sherman’s woman wears chintzy-looking lace drapery. Does this further change the significance? Does she appear as more as an earthly, temporal woman—even losing her status as queen?

Even in the post-Vatican II years, we might ask if Sherman’s Post-Modern treatment might make contemporary Christians uncomfortable, particularly in the United States. What would their imagined reaction be? The anecdotal writings of Garrison Keillor come to mind in this context. He has remarked that while European authorities often edit our American movies for gratuitous violence, Puritanical Americans in turn edit theirs for “scathing” sexual content—as if sex were a deadly weapon.

While a certain Puritanical streak in mainstream America may serve to explain some of Sherman’s interest in the Virgo Lactans motif, a survey of contemporary events during 1989 sheds greater light on her artistic frame of reference. In that year, controversy abounded in the U.S. art world with the New York-born artist Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. The subject of Serrano’s photograph was a crucifix in the artist’s own urine mixed with cow’s blood. By many it was seen as a hauntingly beautiful image, yet others derided it because of its questionable artistic media and provocative name.

The fallout among conservative politicians was intense. On May 18, 1989, New York senator Alfonse D’Amato tore a reproduction of the Piss Christ photograph into pieces on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Railing against the artist and his supporter, the National Endowment for the Arts, D’Amato stated:

This is not a question of free speech. This is a question of abuse of taxpayers’ money. If we allow this group of so-called art experts to get away with this, to defame us and to use our money, well, then we do not deserve to be in office. (note 21).

Later, Senator Jesse Helms followed suit by again condemning both the image and the N.E.A. as the body that funded its exhibition in the senator’s home state of North Carolina.

Though dissimilar in presentation and title, Sherman and Serrano’s photos share certain fundamental aspects. As we’ve seen, though it may be considered sexually-provocative by some, Sherman’s Melun Madonna image is, in fact, generously rooted in European symbolism and tradition. And, though Serrano’s is more provocatively-titled, his photograph, too, is equally contextualized within the Western tradition with its Baroque lighting, perspective and drama. Moreover, these thematic similarities are born of the same artistic substrate: both Serrano and Sherman are contemporaries from the New York-scene. She was born in New Jersey in 1954 and grew up on Long Island, and Serrano, born in 1950, hails from nearby Brooklyn. In the end, though she was living across the Atlantic in Rome when she created herUntitled #216, it would be strange if Sherman did not find the electric atmosphere of the battle between American politicians and the contemporary art scene engaging.

As further evidence of this trend in Sherman’s oeuvre, we’re going to turn to the Baroque period now, as Sherman did, in another of her parodic photographs from the series.


The Sick Bacchus is one of Caravaggio’s earliest known paintings, completed after he moved to Rome from the North of Italy. (ca. 1593, Oil on canvas. Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy.) Most scholars agree that it is probably a youthful self-portrait as Bacchus; artists, of course, being their own cheapest models. The painting may also allude to the season of Autumn personified, or more generally to the pleasures of drinking and merrymaking. La dolce vita, Baroque style.

The painting earned its nickname, the “Sick Bacchus” (Bacchino Malato), because of the jaundiced look of the figure; some literal-minded scholars suggesting it was painted when Caravaggio was suffering from a bout of Malaria. (note 22) One can see the difference in the skin tone when comparing it to another Caravaggio Bacchus from almost the same time, the Uffizi’s Bacchus in Florence. (ca. 1597, Oil on canvas. Italy.)

One might ask why Caravaggio includes the protruding bare shoulder. This element, in concert with a sensual look, luscious curls, and all those tactile, juicy fruits being offered to the viewer, seem to beg for interpretation. After all, why should Bacchus—the god of wine and personal release—engage the viewer directly, and, in such a come-hither way? For many, the Bacchus paintings bear-out the conviction that Caravaggio was homosexual, as suggested by various ambiguous episodes from his biography. Further fanning the flames, Caravaggio used an antique sculptural prototype similar to the Villa Albani Antinoüs as a model for his painting. (note 23). This particular artistic quotation is tantalizing in its provenance, for Antinoüs was famously the young same-sex partner of the ancient Roman Emperor Hadrian (AD 76-138): the ruler who built the Pantheon, among other famous Roman buildings. (note 24) .

In her Untitled # 224 (1990), does it matter that Sherman, as a woman, is masquerading as a young boy? It is one of the relatively rare images in her career of her depicted as a man. Does this inversion somewhat negate the popular Feminist readings of her photographs? And, what does it matter that Sherman’s work apparently alludes to a work of a homosexual artist of the Baroque period who, in-turn, used an antique homosexual portrait as his model? What would compel Sherman to focus on gay culture in 1990?

Again, as in the Spring, late in 1989 and early in 1990 there was an upsurge of controversy in the U.S. Senate with Jesse Helms lambasting the N.E.A. for supporting another provocative artist—this time the openly gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. (Mapplethorpe had recently died of AIDS on the 9th of March 1989.) In September of 1989, Helms waved around images of Mapplethorpe photos, ones in which explicit sexual and homosexual imagery was often displayed. From the transcripts, North Carolina-Senator Jesse Helms is quoted as saying,

If artists want to go in a men’s room and write dirty words on the wall, let them furnish their own crayon. Let them furnish their own wall. But don’t ask the taxpayers to support it.

Later, in 1990, the CincinnatiContemporaryArtsCenter and curator Dennis Barrie fell victim to this hysteria. Both were charged with obscenity over an exhibit of 175 Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. Prudently, on the fifth of October that year, after a ten-day trial a jury acquitted the Center of obscenity charges resulting from the exhibition.

Again, as with Andres Serrano and Sherman, it is noteworthy that Mapplethorpe was also part of the New York scene. He was born in Queens in 1946, and raised on Long Island. Again, he died of AIDS in 1989, a short three years after he was diagnosed with the disease.

Knowing this background, it seems important that Sherman chooses Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus (1593), rather than his later Florentine version of Bacchus (c. 1597) as her prototype. Chosen not just because it conveniently hangs in Rome (where she was living and working), considering the referential nature of her work her choice of the Roman canvas more likely points to her interest in the rising AIDS epidemic, or even to Mapplethorpe’s own sickness and death. Interestingly, the luscious peaches found in the original Caravaggio have gone missing in the Sherman. Peaches are traditionally the iconographic symbol of veracity or truth—a telling omission on Sherman’s part.


We’ll end our brief tour of Sherman’s homage to the Italian Old Masters with a Botticelli, his painting of Simonetta Vespucci. (c. 1490, Tempera on panel. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.) Though surely Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” of nine years later—known in some circles as “Venus on the Halfshell”—is probably his most well-known subject, for Americans Simonetta’s famous last name may ring a bell. Born Simonetta Cattaneo, Simonetta later married Marco Vespucci, a cousin of eponym Amerigo Vespucci, that famous Florentine explorer who gave America its name.

As we saw in the contemporary France of Jean Fouquet, the Renaissance was the era of Petrarchan love poetry and Platonic love-affairs. It was probably inevitable that eventually Simonetta’s captivating beauty (like Agnès Sorel’s) attracted a smitten herd of admirers—like so many moths to a flame. Indeed, Simonetta became the love interest of the celebrated brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici, two of the most powerful men in Florence. Accordingly, she also became the muse for many of the artists and poets in the Medici-court circle. She was immortalized by Poliziano (he called her a “nymph”—in the polite antique sense, of course), and limned by both Piero de Cosimo and Botticelli.

By all accounts Botticelli, in particular, became uncontrollably fond of her looks. Some maintain that almost all of his images of women—whether Madonnas, Venuses or Classical goddesses—are based on her arresting face. Of all Florentine belladonnas, perhaps she was particularly appealing because her face fit a specific “type” written about by Petrarch. Simonetta’s look recalls the poet’s verses that describe his own true love, Laura,

Breeze that surrounds those blond and curling locks, that makes them move…and scatters sweet the gold, then gathers it in lovely knots recurling…. (note 25).

Tragically, also like Petrarch’s Laura, Simonetta died at a tender age, just 23, probably from Tuberculosis; this untimely loss may have served to crystallize her aura in the minds of her admirers.

Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #225 (1990) seems to be partially based on Botticelli’s arresting portrait of Simonetta. For Sherman, she’s yet another example of a Platonic mistress in the tradition of Agnès Sorel. Repeating the conceit of Fouquet’s Melun Diptych, Sherman includes a Renaissance period combination of a Petrarchan court beauty with the Virgo Lactans. Does Sherman simply repeat this combination once again because, like her Untitled #216, it unsettles contemporary viewers? Or is there more at stake?

In order to sort out Sherman’s intentions, it helps to know that, right from the beginning of his career, Botticelli created many examples of the Virgo Lactans and Sherman seems to be rather adroit at recombining them. These include the Virgin and Child of Avignon, and the Bardi Altarpiece (Virgin and Child Enthroned). (Former: Attributed to a young Botticelli. c. 1469-70. Tempera on poplar panel. Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon, France.) (Latter: 1484. Tempera on panel. Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany.) As one might expect, the simpler version is from very early in his career, the other one (of about 15 years later) was patronized by the well-respected, old line of the Bardi family from Florence. It once hung in the private family chapel in Sta. Spirito. In fact, the Virgo Lactans image was very popular in Italy, for one because many chapels and churches claimed to have a relic of the milk of the Virgin.

In relation to Sherman’s series, the most tantalizing example of the nursing Madonna is Botticelli’s work from 1493, The Virgin and Child with Three Angels (Madonna del Padiglione, or “Madonna of the Tent”); it is a virtuosic tondo, or round composition. (Tempera on panel. Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy.) Here, the Madonna squirts milk from her breast in the direction of the Christ Child, just like the squirting breast of Sherman’s image. The wall in the back of the Madonna del Padiglione refers to a long tradition in medieval and Renaissance art which emphasizes the purity and chastity of the Virgin, as echoed in the Bible’s Old Testament Song of Songs 4:12, which refers to a maiden as a “garden close-locked”: a so-called Hortus Conclusus.

Again—as with the Untitled #216 (Melun Diptych)—Sherman’s image lacks the extra details that would clearly mark it as an image of divinity; instead—for a large percentage of modern viewers—it remains a jarring image of a woman lactating without a child. This recalls Sherman’s downplay of the Christ-child in Untitled #216, only in a more blatant, even ironic fashion. Indeed, for the uninitiated, the historical idiom is easily overlooked. For example, in surveying Sherman’s Botticellian photograph, one British writer altogether missed Sherman’s reference to Madonnas and as a result saw the work as a mockery of Renaissance portraiture. She writes:

Sherman mocks the composition, creating a humorous assessment of the original. The seemingly decadent woman (Sherman) with her blond locks and high society gowns has an exposed breast, which squirts milk. Her demure expression makes this gesture all the more provocative. The woman and her nudity no longer act like a vision of beauty, which would have been Botticelli’s original intention. (note 26).

Belying her own claims of art-historical ignorance, clearly Sherman has a secure grasp of the popular Renaissance Madonna-and-Child genre. Again, we should probably see her “Botticelli” photograph (Untitled #225) as referential to her earlier “Fouquet” work (Untitled #216); in both originals we have secular models for the Madonna, in Fouquet’s case Agnès Sorel, and for Botticelli, Simonetta Vespucci. For both men, if they didn’t have traditional love-affairs with these women, they certainly functioned as muses, and they were almost certainly Platonically in love with them. In fact, besting Chevalier’s embroidered love-knots surrounding Agnès, in one deeply romantic account, Botticelli humbly asked to be buried at Simonetta’s feet, a full thirty-four years after her death. (note 27).

We might find another clue in the swagged fabric draped in Sherman’s photograph, for it is purposefully reminiscent of that in Botticelli’s aforementioned Madonna of the Tent. In such Old Master paintings, this type of hanging fabric signifies royalty. This connection is strengthened in that Sherman’s photograph also has the parapet of Botticelli’s Madonna of the Tent, newly combined with the window found in the Simonetta Vespucci portrait.

Like a true Post-Modernist, Sherman blurs the lines of visual, social and sexual stereotypes; we are left asking if the woman in her photograph is emulating a portrait, or a Hortus Conclusus Madonna. In the end, she is, of course, purposefully ambiguous. To give further intrigue, Sherman also includes the iconographic symbols of a sheaf of wheat and a glass vase. In contemporary symbolism, wheat (as found in Botticelli’s Madonna of the Eucharist) refers to the bread of the Eucharist and the metaphorical body of Christ. (Ca. 1470. Tempera on panel. IsabellaStewartGardnerMuseum, Boston, MA.) The glass also makes reference to many pictures of the Annunciation where it represents purity and virginity. For, as light may travel through the glass without breaking it, the Virgin Mary conceived Christ without losing her chastity. (note 28)

We might ask, do the old masters’ depictions of Petrachan beauties as Virgo Lactans display a conflict of interest? Though it might seem sacrilege today, the combination of sacred and profane was common in the Renaissance. In that period there was the deep desire on the part of Humanists to reconcile Classical Antiquity with Christianity—this seemingly impossible task was tackled by one school of thought in particular, the Neo-Platonists. (note 29 ) The Neo-Platonist academy of Lorenzo de Medici was founded in 1469; they met at the Medici villa in Careggi, outside Florence, where they were led by Marsilio Ficino, the translator of all of Plato’s writings into Italian. There, discussions of Plato’s school of philosophy predominated, and a young Botticelli undoubtedly honed his own artistic logic. To the Renaissance mind, so fully steeped in the antique, transcendent beauty was perfection. It was natural for artists to couch the infinite perfection of the divine in the splendor of temporal human beauty. Their union represented a contrapposto of epic nature.

Indeed, Botticelli did create many related beautiful female figures, some of the Virgin Mary, and others representing Antique goddesses. The famous art historian Erwin Panofsky saw these connected women as belonging to a tradition of sacred and profane love, the two attitudes of Venus. (note 30) As we’ve mentioned, most of Botticelli’s women, whether sacred or profane are believed to be modeled directly on Simonetta Vespucci.

Should we therefore see the seemingly gratuitous nudity added to the courtly woman in Sherman’s Untitled #225 as a reference Botticelli’s liberal use of Simonetta as model for Classical nudes? And, because we know that the zealous reformer Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) made a huge impact on Botticelli later in life, causing the artist to have spasms of guilt over his early, sensual works, might Sherman be parodying Botticelli’s conflicted love of the female nude form? Of course. For her part, Sherman seems to revel in the timeless conundrum of artistic process and the search for transcendant beauty, as found in the Old Masters. Perhaps Sherman’s Botticelli-figure (in her Untitled #225) appears as such an earthly woman, to highlight the significance of the still-potent Madonna/fallen Eve dialectic.

What is clear is that Cindy Sherman should not be seen as a naïve, cynical mirror of the grand traditions of European art, nor a knee-jerk feminist. Despite her demurring comments about her interest in art history and feminist theory, she should be seen as an artist of great knowledge, nuance and complexity. She is one who imitates, extends and challenges, all the while combining admiration for her models with true, comic laughter. She is, in short, a new master.

Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph. D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.


1. Calvin Tomkins, “Her Secret Identities; Cindy Sherman’s art is as mysterious as ever. So is Cindy Sherman.” The New Yorker. May 15, 2000: 74. Reprinted online at:

2. Ibid.

3. Michael Kimmelman, “At the Met With: Cindy Sherman; Portraitist in the Halls of Her Artistic Ancestors,” The New York Times (19 May 1995): B16.


5. Arthur C. Danto, Cindy Sherman: History Portraits (NY: Rizzoli, 1991), p. 10.

6. Kimmelman, B16.

7. “Cindy Sherman” in Gerald Marzorati, “Imitation of Life, “ Artnews 82, September 1983. Found in: Lois Fichner-Rathus, Understanding Art (NY: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001), p. 189.

8. Since the 1970’s, Feminists have fought to broaden knowledge of lesser-known women artists and women’s roles in the patriarchal art world as patrons.

9. The classic article on the “Male Gaze” is Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18.

10. Tomkins, p. 74.

11. Ibid., p. 74.


13. Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15. Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany (Ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard. NY: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 7.

16. Ibid., p. 1017.

17. Laurie Schneider Adams, Art Across Time (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2002), p. 1017.


19. Schneider-Adams, p. 1017.

20. Ibid., p. 1017.

21. Accessed July 19, 2007.

22. Walter Friedländer, Caravaggio Studies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1955), p. 146.

23. J.R. Martin, Baroque (NY: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 302, n.17.

24. Hadrian fell in love with the boy in the first decades of the second century. He thereafter accompanied Hadrian on his extended trips through the Empire. At age 20, Antinous drowned himself in the Nile; for the rest of his life Hadrian never ceased mourning him. To memorialize him, the emperor ordered the foundation of a city, Antinoopolis, at the place where Antinous had died. And, at Hadrian’s “Villa” in Tivoli, he populated the grounds with statues and busts of Antinous. A star or constellation was even named after Antinous. Throughout the Roman Empire, cities indebted to Hadrian added the epithet Antinous to their patron deities and put up images of the boy. A widespread cult of the god Antinous arose, and temples were built in his honor. As a result, such are often discovered in the Mediterranean basin. His cult achieved some significance, mainly in the eastern part of the empire, and is attested through the end of the 5th century. This site has an exhaustive selection of Antinoös portraits.


26. Article written by Katherine Williams, BA, History of Modern Art, University of Manchester, England.


28. See: Millard Meiss, “Light as form and symbol in some fifteenth-century paintings,” Art Bulletin (1945), pp. 175-81.

29. Schneider-Adams, p. 546.

30. Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (NY: Harper and Row, 1972), pp. 198-200.

Image (top): Christa Schneider’s book Cindy Sherman: History Portraits, is among the many publications devoted to the artist’s work. It is available from