Curator Johanna Pomeroy points to several paintings of mythology and literature by Swiss artist Angelika Kauffman. Created in the late 18th century, one canvas shows Abélard bidding a fond farewell to Heloise, while another depicts Venus arguing the virtues of Paris to a reluctant Helen.
In painting both pieces, Kauffman broke through the gender barrier at a time when such historical work was seen as "a bastion of male artists," says Dr. Pomeroy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, D.C. People believed those themes required artists to think rationally and abstractly - qualities they said women lacked.
Kauffman, however, "seems not to have ever expressed any doubts about entering this male club," says Pomeroy, who is standing in the first gallery of "An Imperial Collection: Women Artists" from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The exhibit, at the NMWA until June, recognizes 15 female artists who were famous in their day but have been pushed to the margins of history or forgotten entirely. The show seeks to reclaim their rightful place in the annals of art history.
Kauffman's works are among the most radical in the show, which presents 49 pieces culled from the galleries and basements of The Hermitage by NMWA and Hermitage curators.
The exhibit showcases women artists from countries including France, Germany, and Switzerland. It also offers a window on the world of 18th-century St. Petersburg, where Western artists sold their works, and it highlights a growing scholarly interest in portraiture.
Many of the 49 paintings were collected by Catherine the Great. Most works date from the 18th and 19th centuries and are portraits, a genre deemed suitable for women. Not only was it thought to require an eye for detail - as opposed to a head for abstraction - but it was associated with the world of salons, in which women featured prominently.
In the first gallery is a self-portrait in which a young Dutch woman emerges from a dark background. She has a thin brush in one hand, and the words, "I, Catharina van Hemessen, painted myself in 1548 at the age of 20," mark this as one of the earliest known self-portraits by a female artist.
Nearby hangs a 1788 still life by Carolina Friederika Friedrich, a German, who painted a lifelike fly in the corner for added verisimilitude. Along the next wall we find, in addition to six Kauffman history paintings, a startling self-portrait of Kauffman in which the curly-haired and pink-cheeked artist gazes out with quiet confidence.
Traditionally valued as a visual record of famous sitters, portraits have garnered more scholarly attention over the past 15 years.
They are seen as encapsulating complex dynamics: the sitter chooses a public face, the artist creates a persona, and the two interact in an intimate environment while carefully juggling social norms and expectations.
"It is interesting to see that both sitter and artist in the 18th century are aware" that each portrait captures only one of many roles the sitter can play, says Angela Rosenthal, author of the forthcoming book, "Becoming Pictures: Angelika Kauffman and the Art of Identity."
The style of a portrait signified a family's taste and social status.
"Hung in the dining room or reception room," Dr. Rosenthal says, "it becomes part of the representation of the whole household, a demonstration of its wealth."
Works in the show illustrate this point. In a bust Catherine the Great commissioned as a gift to the French philosopher Denis Diderot, Marie-Anne Collot portrayed the Empress without jewelry, wearing a simple headdress that recalls early depictions of priestesses to the goddess of reason.
Christina Robertson's full-length portraits of Nicholas I and his wife in sumptuous regalia greeted visitors in the rotunda of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and announced the beauty, taste, and status of its owners.
In Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun's self-portrait of 1800, intended for the Imperial Academy of Art, the artist depicts herself sketching the Empress Maria Fedorovna to remind the Academy of the high patronage she enjoyed.
Several of these portraits were created in St. Petersburg, a city to which 18th-century European artists "flocked for its wonderful clientele," says Alison Hilton, a professor of art history at Georgetown University. "The city presented a picture of opportunity that, in the rest of crowded Europe, these artists might not have had."
At the same time, European paintings circulated on the local art market, works by expatriates served as models for Russian students, and many in the nobility traveled west to buy art.
Russian artists could not help but be influenced by foreign painters, including Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Rembrandt. And the show makes clear that women also had an influence. The Kauffman paintings, for instance, were purchased or commissioned by prominent Russian nobleman Count Yusupov when he and his wife visited Kauffman's successful studio in Rome.
The absence of Russian artists in the show highlights another aspect of St. Petersburg society. Women happily posed for portraits, bought artworks, and many - including Catherine and her daughter-in-law Maria Fedorovna - were accomplished artists. But society only allowed Russian women to study and practice privately.
By contrast, foreign women received well-paid commissions and gained recognition from the Imperial Academy of Arts. Collot was accepted as an honorary member in 1767 and Vigée-Lebrun in 1800, a full century before the Academy awarded degrees to women.
Did these foreign women pave the way for their Russian sisters in the way Kauffman helped break the gender barrier? It's hard to say, Pomeroy says as she strolls through the galleries. But, "we like to think so."
• An Imperial Collection is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts until June 18, and at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle July 26 to Nov. 30.