What “All the Rapes in the Met Museum” Tell Us About Sexual Violence in Art History

Home / What “All the Rapes in the Met Museum” Tell Us About Sexual Violence in Art History
What “All the Rapes in the Met Museum” Tell Us About Sexual Violence in Art History

When Macushla Robinson, a writer and curator based in New York City, typed the word “rape” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection database, the search yielded 181 results. Among the entries are French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin’s “The Abduction of the Sabine Women” (1633-34) and an Ancient Greek amphora illustrating the moment before Ajax, a mythological hero, rapes the Trojan king’s daughter, Cassandra. There are also images that hint at rape in subtler ways, such as Julia Margaret Cameron’s haunting photograph “Beatrice” (1866), a portrait inspired by the 16th-century Roman noblewoman Beatrice Cenci, who was beheaded for killing her abusive father.

For a project she calls “All the Rapes in the Met Museum,” Robinson went a step further, analyzing each entry to study how institutional cataloguing and wall labels often gloss over or downplay the impact of sexual violence, particularly when it comes to female victims.

“What struck me was how little it figures in the ways the work is talked about,” Robinson told Hyperallergic. “I don’t think of it as curators deliberately avoiding discussing it, but I think the point is to look at the ways in which we use language, and how the momentum of the sacred, hallowed halls of museums create a hierarchy and structure that normalizes this and romanticizes it.”

Julia Margaret Cameron, “Beatrice” (1866), albumen silver print from glass negative (via the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Before starting her PhD in political theory at the New School, Macushla worked in the curatorial departments of museums, including the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where she wrote “god knows how many” wall labels. Now, she’s interested in scrutinizing the cataloguing process itself. 

“I wanted to deconstruct all of the information that goes into a collection database. You have a form, you fill it in, it asks you for certain types of data,” she said. “And something that’s incredibly violent and difficult as a story suddenly becomes sort of ordinary, you don’t talk about it as violence. I started to see a pattern about what matters and what doesn’t.”

Without editing or adding to the Met’s cataloguing data, which includes basic details like title, medium, and dimensions as well as provenance details and contextual essays, she parsed and rearranged the texts in poem-like stanzas to be printed in 181 individual books, one for each artwork. A gilded bronze boss from the Netherlands, which originally decorated one side of a horse bit, cites the brutal origin story of the European continent: infatuated with Princess Europa, the god Jupiter disguised as a bull abducted and raped her on the island of Crete. Robinson has parsed and reshuffled the museum’s cataloguing text to highlight the precedence of stylistic and formal aspects over discussions of the violation invoked by the work.

“Why have we watched so many fantastic artists over the centuries remake this one scene over and over? There’s something about the drama of the scene that allows for these artists to perform,” Robinson said. “The female body becomes a conceptual site to demonstrate the material mastery of the world around the artist.”

A work in progress from Macushla’s forthcoming book project, “All the Rapes in the Met Museum.” (courtesy of Macushla Robinson)

The Met’s collection database is available to the public for free, and images of many of the works Robinson examines are in the public domain. “A principle reason we have digitized our collection, which reflects over 5,000 years of art, is to strongly encourage its study, and to generate new critiques and responses,” a Met spokesperson told Hyperallergic.

Robinson plans on distributing her books to visitors at the entrance of the Met as “alternative guides of the museum”; a Kickstarter fundraiser has reached its goal, but she hopes to secure more donations to expand the project further.

The number of entries she analyzed, Robinson notes, is “not a reliable tally.” Many of the paintings that come up on the Met’s website are recreations of the classics, such as scenes from Ovid’s poems; historical accounts from that time vary in their interpretation of the word “rape,” which in some cases could mean abduction. And some artworks that depict or suggest rape and gender-based violence don’t necessarily reference it explicitly or in their titles.

“Marriage chest (cassone)” (ca. 1480–95) (via the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A Quattrocento-era cassone, or marriage chest, depicts the earth goddess Ceres searching for her kidnapped daughter Proserpina. Upper-class women, the Met essay says, would “proudly display” these chests in the main bedchamber, usually located at the center of a household to discourage them from socializing or spending time outdoors.

But “there’s an intimation that this is a romantic story,” Robinson told Hyperallergic. “It’s complicated, because you’re asking questions about what consent is. What does it mean when a woman can’t advocate for herself, when consent rests with her father or parents?”

“I think we have to complicate how we talk about sexual violence,” she said. “There’s all this ambiguity. History has taught us, has taught me, from when I was a little girl, that to be loved looked like that.”

Honoré Sharrer, “Susanna and the Elder” (1982-1983), oil on canvas (© Honoré Sharrer, used with permission)

Robinson’s search also turned up works by contemporary artists such as American painter Honoré Sharrer, whose canvases often critiqued sexist tales of mythology from a feminist perspective. Her painting “Susanna and the Elder” (1982-1983), the Met’s catalogue essay explains, reimagines a Biblical narrative in which a bathing woman is spied on by a man, shifting the agency back to its female protagonist. The composition recalls a 1938–39 painting by Thomas Hart Benton, “Rape of Persephone,” but Sharrer “decenters the male gaze.”

“There are works [in the collection] that do acknowledge rape, and for me the goal was to open the lens, take the exposure, and see what’s there,” Robinson said. “When you’re writing a wall label, when you’re writing with adulation about an artwork and its incredible virtuosity, you may not be asking these questions.”

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