Artists, Women

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Artists, Women

There are far fewer well-known women artists than there are male artists throughout history. This is partly because women artists were often overlooked or their works were attributed to male teachers or relatives. It is also because, women have, for various reasons, been prevented from pursuing and developing the sustained careers by which artists gain reputation. Most women lacked the financial and social independence to develop artistic skills. They rarely had access to training either because training was considered to be inappropriate for females, or they had neither the money nor the freedom to take advantage of opportunities to work with and learn from established painters and sculptors. Marriage and childbearing often interrupted artistic careers, preventing women from spending time producing works of art. Women were also not educated in math and science, areas deemed necessary for successful careers in art.

Many women who did have careers as artists were often the relatives of male artists and thus could learn artistic skills in the household. When women did have the opportunity to produce art, their work was often fragile and portable—miniatures and manuscript illuminations—and did not survive or was not considered to be the substance of truly fine artistic expression. Because female artists could not paint from nude male models, the subject matter of women's paintings was often portraits and still lives instead of the more admired historical or religious painting by which fine art was defined. Even with great skill and mastery, women's art simply did not comply with what the art world deemed important. Only since the mid-1990s have women been popularly recognized for their work, a shift enabled by liberalized attitudes about women as well as changes in ideas about what art is.


There have always been women artists, though few from ancient history are remembered. Women artists are described working in ancient Greece, and a few women are noted through the Middle Ages. The first women to emerge as artists with reputations and works that have survived came from renaissance Italy in the sixteenth century. The increased emphasis on the individual produced by renaissance ideas about art and education shifted the focus of painting from religious scenes to portraiture, where women excelled. Baldassare Castiglione's influential book, The Courtier (1528), which argued for the more complete education of upper-class women, made it socially acceptable, if not necessary, to train such women in drawing. Several female portraitists emerged from the Italian Renaissance, including Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532–1625), Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), and Fede Galizia (c. 1578–1630). There was also a women sculptor, Properzia de' Rossi (c. 1490–1530). Fontana became an official painter in the papal court of Pope Clement VIII and was elected to the Roman Academy of Arts. Following the Italians, the northern center of the Renaissance, Hol-land, also yielded a few women painters, including Caterina van Hemessen (1528–c. 1587) and miniaturist Lavina Teerlinc (c. 1520–1576).

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, women artists benefited from the increased interest in still life painting and portraits. Italy and Holland still dominated artistic production during the baroque era. In Italy painters Artemesia Gentileschi (1593–c. 1652), a follower of Michelangelo Merisi (known as Caravaggio), painted large-scale religious scenes, and Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665) painted large portraits and historical scenes. Several women specialized in paintings of natural history, including the Italian painter Giovanna Garzoni (1600–1670) and Swiss watercolorist Sibylla Merian (1647–1717). In France Louise Moillon (1610–1696) was renowned for still lives of fruit; in the Netherlands Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) and Maria van Oosterwyck (1630–1693) painted still lives of food and flowers and Judith Leyster (1609–1660) painted portraits. In the eighteenth century, the policies of art academies became more restrictive, limiting the number of female members. Nonetheless women artists persisted as renowned portraitists, including Italian Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757) and Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) from Switzerland, and French artists Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755–1842), famous for her portraits of Marie Antoinette; Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803); Françoise Duparc (1726–1778); and painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard's sister-in law, Marguerite Gérard (1761–1837).


Women's increasing independence and education in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries allowed more women to pursue careers as artists, though the gender biases of European and North American culture still did not deem such art to be sophisticated or important. Although the genres of painting—the kinds of topics seen as acceptable subjects for painting—expanded, permitting more women to be taken seriously as artists, they still lacked access to studios and art education in general. Women were barred from membership in the British Academy of Arts. English and American art became more prominent in the nineteenth century and the advent of Impressionism in the 1870s spurred some women artists to experiment with new painting styles. However, as before, most women who pursued careers in art were the daughters of wealthy families who often had connections with male artists. The expansion of acceptable painting subjects facilitated recognition of such English painters as Sophie Anderson (1823–c. 1898) and Emily Marie Osborn (1834–c. 1893), as well as American painters Lilly Martin Spencer (1822–1902) and Margaretta Angelica Peale (1795–1882), and French painters Marie-Eléonore Godefroid (1778–1849) and Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899). There were more women sculptors in the nineteenth century as well, including Americans Anne Whitney (1821–1915), Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908), Edmonia Lewis (c. 1844–c. 1911), and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942); French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864–1943); and German sculptor Elisabet Ney (1833–1907).

Impressionism, a style of painting interested in conveying the impression of light and atmosphere, moved painting away from photographic realism to brighter, more dynamic scenes of figures and landscapes. French painter Berthe Morisot (1841–1895) and American Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) were both part of the core group of painters who formulated and developed Impressionism. Another French painter, Eva Gonzalez (1849–1883), a close friend of Edouard Manet, also participated in the move away from a more somber realistic style. Impressionism influenced other painters, especially American painters Lilla Cabot Perry (1848–1933), Helen Turner (1858–1958), and Cecilia Beaux (1855–1942).

In the early twentieth century rapid advances in science and technology permitted more women to travel, gain educations, and work in studio settings. As with Impressionism, the various avant-garde art movements of the twentieth century included women as members of their founding coterie. In the first part of the twentieth century, Paris was still the center of artistic activity, and women as well as men traveled to Paris to explore the most innovative ideas about art. Painting and sculpture had begun to move away from realistic representations to the more abstract styles of Fauvism (a short-lived painting movement whose adherents used bright, violent colors, simple direct lines, and dramatic energy) and Expressionism (the expression of emotions through the use of color and line). French painter Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938) was influenced by both Fauvism and Expressionism, using a wide and brilliant palette as well as more abstracted figures in her paintings. Sonia Terk Delaunay (1885–1979) developed her own form of abstract painting as did another Russian émigré, Natalya Goncharova (1881–1962). Swiss multimedia abstractionist Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889–1943) was a member of the Dada movement (an anti-art art movement that ridiculed bourgeois art production); the Surrealists (artists who depicted dreamlike irrational, but often realistically painted, images) included American Kay Sage (1898–1963) and Spanish painter Remedios Varo (1913–1963). German painter and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945) produced sociopolitical commentaries on the human condition, while Vanessa Bell (1879–1961), English writer Virginia Woolf's sister, and Romaine Brooks (1874–1970) painted portraits and scenes influenced by post-Impressionist simplicity.

In the United States Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986) set out to discern her own style of painting, producing stark, simple, yet striking minimalist or abstract images. Lois Mailou Jones (1905–1998) pursued an abstract painting style that included images familiar to African-American populations. Irene Rice Pereira (1907–1971) produced abstract paintings; Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) developed her own style of painting that reflected the colors and images of Mexico.


Since the middle of the twentieth century, women artists have become increasingly prominent, not only because the means of artistic production has become more universally available, but also because feminist movements encouraged women's art and provided a market for it. Abstract expressionism (painting as an assertion of the individual through abstract images) had several accomplished American female practitioners, including Helen Frankenthaler (b. 1928) and Lee Krasner (1908–1984). Other women artists sought to define their own styles. Portraitist Alice Neel (1900–1984) painted frank, unromanticized portraits; Elaine de Kooning (1918–1989) and Joan Mitchell (1926–1992) developed their own abstract styles. British painter Bridget Riley (b. 1931) developed a form of Op (or Optical) Art, and Judy Chicago (b. 1939) worked through paint, ceramics, and embroidery to create group projects on feminist themes.

Women sculptors also flourished in the twentieth century, adopting the abstract and simple forms of painting. Becoming as interested in pure form in sculpture as they were in abstract painting such sculptors as the Russian expatriate Louise Nevelson (1899–1988), British sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975), and French sculptor Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911) began the move toward less representational sculpture using a wide variety of materials. The evolution of sculpture continued with American Dorothy Dehner (1901–1994), the French Venezuelan Marisol (b. 1930), Chryssa (b. 1931), and the French Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002), whose work moved toward installation art, which became prominent in the 1970s.

In the early twenty-first century women are recognized as prominent installation artists as well as photographers and multimedia specialists. Much of this art involves social commentary and invites viewer involvement. Installation artists set up multimedia displays in a variety of spaces. Using photography, sculpture, painting, text, and everyday objects, these installations typically render wry commentary on commodities, gender roles, social class, commercialization, power and oppression, and art itself. Installation artists include Americans Eleanor Antin (b. 1935), Jenny Holzer (b. 1950), Barbara Kruger (b. 1945), French artist Annette Messager (b. 1943), the Germans Rebecca Horn (b. 1944) and Kiki Smith (b. 1954), Palestinian Mouna Hatoum (b. 1952), and Brazilian sculptor Jac Leirner (b. 1961). Performance art, related to installation art, includes live performance, sound effects, text, and other multimedia components. Prominent American performance artists are Laurie Anderson (b. 1947) and Kathy Rose (b. 1949).

Other women artists continue to work in more traditional media, including still life painters Americans Audrey Flack (b. 1931) and Janet Fish (b. 1938), and abstract painters Elizabeth Murray (b. 1940), Susan Rothenberg (b. 1945), and Mandy Martin (b. 1952). Catalan Sculptor Susana Solano (b. 1946) creates art out of everyday objects. American photographers Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) and Sandy Skogland (b. 1946) produce staged photographic portraits and events that comment both on the art of photography and the political and gendered slant of images. Other women artists, such as American Howardena Pindell (b. 1943), concentrate on collage.

Although women artists in the early twenty-first century are still not considered innovators by many in the hierarchy of art criticism, their work is gaining attention and critical acclaim. Observers recognize their work not only as expert and insightful, but as an entirely new expression of the human experience, important in its vision.


Broude, Norma, and Mary Garrard, eds. 1994. The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact. New York: H. N. Abrams.

Chadwick, Whitney. 2002. Women, Art, and Society. 3rd edition. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Grosenick, Uta. 2003. Women Artists (Icons). New York: Taschen.

Heller, Nancy G. 2003. Women Artists: An Illustrated History. 4th edition. New York: Abbeville Press.

Slatkin, Wendy. 2001. Women Artists in History: From Antiquity to the Present. 4th edition. New York: Prentice Hall.

                                                     Judith Roof