Giulia Lama was said to have been born in 1681 in the parish of Santa Maria Formosa in Venice. She was not only a painter, she was also a poetess. She was trained by her father Agostino Lama.

There is some debate as to whether she was a student of Giovanni Battista Piazzetta or a student who painted alongside Piazzetta at the Scuola di Antonio Molinari in Venice. However, records show that they were fellow painters, not teacher and student.  That fact that they were friends is evident in a portrait of Giulia painted by Piazzetta.

Influenced by one of Venice's most eccentric painters, Lama pushed Piazzetta's style of using dramatic lighting and shading  in his unusual interpretations of familiar earthy subjects even further. Not content to pursue an easy path to success by painting in the lighter and more pleasing Rococo style, she successfully embarked on a career in the prestigious and lucrative field of private and public figure painting. She was clearly having some public success in a style that was typically a position held by men, apparently giving rise to opposition from her male counterparts who were not prepared to tolerate such competition. That she was able to compete at all is amazing because painting human subjects required study of the human figure and particularly the nude figure, and most women of her era did not have access to study nudes. Giulia Lama appears to have been the first woman to break the barrier against women studying and drawing the nude figure from life. Over 200 drawings that were recently discovered clearly show that she indeed studied both male and female nude figures during her training.

The life and career of Giulia Lama is so poorly documented that it is not known for certain when she was born or when she died, only that she was still alive in 1753. A letter that was discovered after her death gives an idea of the extent of her accomplishments and reveals several social attitudes that are relevant to Lama's career as well as the career of other women artists.

Since the 18th century, art critics have compared Lama’s physical unattractiveness and plainness, with her artistic talents. They made statements such as the one in a letter dated March 1728 from the Abbé Conti to Madame de Caylus:

"I have just discovered a woman here who paints better than Rosalba Carriera when it comes to large compositions. I was much taken by one of her works in miniature, but she is presently engaged on a large work. The subject of the picture is the rape of Europa, but the bull is still in a wood far from the sea: the companions of Europa crowd round the bull on which the laughing Europa is mounting. This group of figures is full of poetry because this woman excels as much in that art as in painting, and I find in her poems all the virtues of Petrarch; her name is Giulia Lama. In her youth she studied mathematics under the celebrated Father Maffei. The poor woman is persecuted by other painters, but her virtue triumphs over her enemies. It is true that she is as ugly as she is witty, but she speaks with grace and polish, so that one easily pardons her face. She works in lace and has thought much about the machine that Clelia Borromea has thought up for making lace mechanically as one makes stockings and materials. I believe that this machine is not impossible to realize, and the one who invents it will earn a lot of money, and will halve the time now needed by women lace makers. Suggest this idea to your son; perhaps he saw Lama when he was in Venice. She lives, however, a very retired life."

This letter has been very important in determining Lama's background and character. It reveals that in addition to being a great painter she was gifted in mathematics, a wonderfully skilled poet, a lace maker, and an inventor. It also brings to light the opposition of male artists to the career of a woman and the prejudices regarding physical beauty, this was an issue that also confronted Rosalba Carriera.

As an obviously highly trained professional, she was just as capable of painting a sensitive portrait such as, Young Man with a Turban, as she was of carrying out large, original commissions, such as altarpieces, with self-confidence. It is through the identification of three such altarpieces in a Venetian guidebook of 1733 that Lama's artistic personality began to be reconstructed. That she was as fully competent as the male artists with whom she competed is demonstrated by the names to which her work has been attributed. Recovery of Lama's oeuvre has required reattribution of works by not only Piazzetta, but also artists such as Federico Bencovich, Domenico Maggiotto, Francesco Capella, and Zurbarán, among others. Once again we see the problem of appropriate attribution that certainly occurs with male artists, but is prevalent with female artists, and is a reflection of the historical attitudes regarding the ability of women to be great artists. Hopefully, as research reveals more information, Giulia will take her rightful place in art history.

The exact date of her death shall always be a mystery. It is known that she was still alive in 1753, but there is nothing that suggests she was alive after that year.

I could not find many examples of her work on the internet, here are the few I was able to find:

  • http://www.wga.hu/art/l/lama/judith.jpg
  • http://tinyurl.com/6qvmv

More information on other lesser known female artists can be found here


Sources:
Artists You Should Know. 1st ed. Danville: Redwood Publishers, 1971.
Women Artists. 1st ed. : Ruggio Publishing, 1977.

Image Sources:
http://www.wga.hu
http://www.mallams.co.uk

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