Throughout the centuries, women have been involved in making art, whether as creators and innovators of new forms of artistic expression, patrons, collectors, sources of inspiration, or significant contributors as art historians and critics.
Women have been and continue to be integral to the institution of art, but despite being engaged with the art world in every way, many women artists have found opposition in the traditional narrative of art history. They have faced challenges due to gender biases, from finding difficulty in training to selling their work and gaining recognition. So how have women come forward as such strong voices in art and art history today, and how do we go about telling the stories of those who were forgotten by history?
How have women been represented, underrepresented, and misrepresented in art history?
According to a story by Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer from the first century C.E., the first drawing ever made was by a woman named Dibutades, who traced the silhouette of her lover on a wall. Whether you choose to believe this account or not, it is worth noting that although Western mythology tells us that a woman was the first artist, her female successors received little attention until the end of the 20th century. From antiquity onwards, only a small sample of women found their way into the tales of the greatest artists. Even then, they were often described as unusually talented women who overcame the limitations of their gender in order to excel in what was believed to be a masculine field. British artist Mary Beale (who you can learn more about in this video) was a successful portraitist in the late 1600s, but much of her success was attributed to the fact that her husband oversaw their studio and presented her works as experiments in the painting methods he developed. Gwen John, whose self portrait appears isolated and scrutinising, struggled for recognition in a field dominated by men, including her accomplished brother Augustus.
For centuries, women were systematically excluded from the records of art history. This was due to a number of factors: art forms like textiles and what we call the “decorative arts” were often dismissed as craft and not “fine art”; many women were kept from pursuing a general education, let alone arts training; and finally the men who dominated the discipline both in practice and history often believed women to be inferior artists. As artist and instructor Hans Hoffmann once said in a “compliment” to the influential abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner in the mid-20th century: “This is so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.”
But beginning in the 1960s, with equal rights and feminist movements in full swing, there was a boom of women teaching and studying in art schools in the United States and Europe. These became sites of feminist activity, encouraging the representation of women in museums and galleries. This movement of women in the arts fostered a large body of theory and diverse artistic practice, redefining what was possible in the studio and beyond and paving the way for many women artists practicing today.
Women artists in the 20th century: a changing landscape
Women have always been artists, and there always have been glimpses of women’s art within male-driven societies. Even when it comes to the earliest works of art known to us, like the voluptuous Venus of Willendorf from 25000 B.C.E. and other small stone carvings, no one is certain if these works of art were created by women or men. On the other hand, objects like weavings and clothing have always been associated with women’s craft, from the story of Penelope’s courageous weaving in Homer’s epic tale The Odyssey, from 800 B.C.E., to the 11th century Bayeaux Tapestry, a 270-foot long fabric document telling the story of medieval Britain, likely woven and embroidered by women. Still, women artists faced difficulty in the centuries that followed when trying to engage with the art world and canon.
But beginning in the 20th century, things began to change not only for women artists, but for women across the domestic and public spheres. A new women's movement, with an emphasis on the advocacy of equal rights, organisations devoted to women's interests, and a new generation of female professionals and artists transformed the traditionally male-driving social structure around the world. These social shifts, which began to emerge at the beginning of the century, developed further with the advent of World War I and expanding global unrest, propelling more women into the workforce and exposing them to social, professional, and political situations that had previously been limited to men.
Despite being marginalised and sidelined by the male members of the group, artists like Helen Saunders and Jessica Dismorr pushed to be card-carrying members of the Vorticist movement. French painter Francoise Gilot forged a visual style and identity entirely her own despite being known mainly as Pablo Picasso’s lover and working in close proximity to major artists like Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger in the 1940s. Surrealist women painters and sculptors like Eileen Agar and Louise Bourgeois were iconoclasts in their explorations of mind and body, developing fluid, intimate, and openly sexual subject matter.
With a renewed sense of agency and confidence through their art, what issues have women artists chosen to address? Because of the different societal and developmental contexts since the 1960s, building upon those from the early 20th century, many women artists currently address personal and transnational issues of identity, exploring global and diasporic politics. The works of exile artists such as Mona Hatoum and Shirin Neshat tell stories of loss and insight through conflicting countries, cultures, and gender roles. Meanwhile artist Sonia Boyce’s film, photographs, and paintings bring racist stereotypes to light. (For an in-depth look at Boyce's work, commentary from the artist and curators, and suggested discussion activities, click here.)
Other female artists use their art to speak to the particular issues that they face as women. In the 1970s, Margaret Harrison used playful and ironic drawings to point out the objectification women faced in their day-to-day lives. In the same decade, artist Linder drew on the spirit of punk and the anti-establishment politics of Dada to create photomontages that subverted traditional media images into unsettling statements. Filmmaker Barbara Hammer used footage of her own body to advocate for more open depictions of lesbian sexuality, while today artists like Cornelia Parker are encouraging us to think about how idealised images of the female body measure up against the figures of real, living women.
By calling attention to identity, sexuality, politics, and history, women artists have dominated the art debates for the last several decades. But how do we go about talking about the women who art history forgot?
How should we tell the stories of forgotten women artists today?
Do you think that courses, books, and museums dedicated solely to women artists might be somehow exclusive? Do they somehow sideline cultural production by women by declaring them something separate from traditional art historical canons? On the other hand, would simply adding women’s names to the canons only enforce a traditional approach to art history without challenging it? Might labelling “women artists” unwittingly establish misleading links between gender, biography, and creative output?
These are questions that artists and historians continue to tackle today. Groups like the Guerrilla Girls, a collective of women artists and art professionals, work to fight discrimination and raise awareness of the issues that women face in the art world. They do this through staging interventions and protests, wearing gorilla masks to take the focus away from their identities. They reframe the question “Why haven’t there been more great women artists in Western history?” asking instead “Why haven’t more women been considered great artists throughout Western history?”
The project of seeking out women artists excluded from the canon has also encouraged a redefinition of art practices themselves, inviting us to rethink what we call the “decorative arts,” installation art, and performance art revolving around artists’ bodies. By encouraging scholars to seek out these forgotten women, the project continues on today. It is opening up beyond the Western canon to include women of colour from around the world, women who help us understand that there is no one “female art” but rather that art shapes and is shaped by culture, that it conveys cultural ideas about beauty, gender, and power, and that it can be a powerful tool to question issues of race, class, and identity.
Essay by Camille Gajewski
Want to join the conversation?
- We read, "But beginning in the 1960s, with equal rights and feminist movements in full swing, there was a boom of women teaching and studying in art schools in the United States and Europe."
What are the names of some female pioneers that opened these artistic doors for other women to follow? I would like to do more research about them and see some examples of their work!(46 votes)
- A good place to start is with Judy Chicago and her masterpiece, "The Dinner Party". Also google women artists in SOHO in Manhattan in the 1970's.(30 votes)
- Why is the group called "guerrilla girls", wouldn't "gorilla girls" be more appropriate?(4 votes)
- Also an english mispronunciation of the word guerilla which is in spanish and sounds like gorilla in english.(4 votes)
- How ironic is the title of this lecture, "A Brief history of women in art"! This write up could hardly have been any briefer! While the smattering of examples is appreciated, this brief 'faint' summary is typical of the miniscule examples of women that are in textbooks, etc. much more effort and progress needs to be made. The name of the woman artist who painted alongside Michael Angelo on the scaffold really should be taught. It's not unlike not giving sherpas recognition by name for their incredible climbing feats.(11 votes)
- This article is very brief indeed, and there is a lot of work to be done to make sure that women artists achieve the historical recognition which hasn't always been afforded to them. We hope that this short article might alert those who aren't familiar with art or art history to the issue, offer an intro for exploration and discussion, and be a start for more content we'll be adding that showcases women artists past and present.
That being said, if you have any artists you would like to see more about or any particular direction you would like to see these tutorials take, please share your thoughts! It will help us to shape what comes next.(34 votes)
- It's so sad to not be able to see all of the art that was (or might have been) created because of our own ignorance, it makes us more ignorant in a way. What sort of things have been tried to try and correct for the biases we've been landed with?
One thought I have had is that, as a way of acknowledging, reminding and mourning the loss of the incredible creations that might have been, exhibitions and articles could include blank canvases, empty pedestals and pitch black rooms to represent those losses.(10 votes)
- I think that the best way to mourn the loss of women artists in the past is to make it more possible for women to be recognized as great artists in the present and future.(10 votes)
- How do we know that the Bayeaux Tapestry was "...woven and embroidered by women alone..."?
"...the 11th century Bayeaux Tapestry, a 270-foot long fabric document telling the story of medieval Britain, woven and embroidered by women alone..."(8 votes)
- While there is some dispute as to who exactly created the Bayeaux Tapestry, we do know that highly skilled craftswomen were responsible for this type of weaving and embroidery during the Middle Ages. Such embroidery was among the most prized luxuries in Europe at the time.(15 votes)
- Why wasn't weaving, tapestry, pottery, etc... considered art? Was it because it was women's work or because society didn't realize it was artistic?(6 votes)
- Keep in mind that not even painting and sculpture was considered "art" as we think about it today. Art was considered a craft like any other. During the (then) controversial and provocative modern period the great modern artists changed the meaning of the word art completely.(8 votes)
- Do you think that the attitude to women artists changed over time. In their day some women artists were highly regarded and were employed at the courts in Europe. Sonfonisba Anguissola (1532-1625 ) was employed as a court painter by Philip II of Spain, and was said to have been so highly regarded that Michelangelo gave her some of his sketches to use. She was painted by Van Dyck in the year before her death. There were also other women painters in this period, including Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi, the latter worked for the court in England and her self portrait was bought by Charles I. All of these artists were well regarded in their time and have almost certainly had their work attributed to other people so some of their work is "lost". Women had also been employed as miniature painters including Pieter Brughel the elder's grandmother Mayken Verhulst who probably taught him to paint. Vigee le Brun was an incredibly successful painter. Why do you think that these women have been forgotten and written out of the history of painting? I understand that Thomas Gainsborough hoped that one of his daughters would become a painter but this did not happen. Did the attitude to women artists change or get worse in the 19th Century and if so why?(9 votes)
- It's an important question. One might add more recent women artists such as Elaine de Kooning or Helen Frankenthaler to the list of women artists whose careers were affected by unfortunate attitudes. But one also wonders whether the arts in general, as a partly public, partly private sphere is a place where gender attitudes are less malignant than in society, generally.(2 votes)
- “Why haven’t there been more great women artists in Western history?” asking instead “Why haven’t more women been considered great artists throughout Western history?”
But the article itself tells us that there havent been more great women artists because they were not in a position to become an artist due to societal roles imposed on them.(5 votes)
- But women historically succeeded in becoming artists more often than the oppressive social standards of the times would have preferred.
One of the tools by which women are/have been prevented from becoming artists is the suppression of the very idea of a female having the potential to be an artist. Some of the women who could be successful artists never became, because the very thought that they could do this has never occurred to them.
So history books that don't include the women who did succeed and who could be role models to the next generation are actively participating in the oppression of women.
As are theories of art that define traditionally male art forms and visual mediums (like painting) to be high art and traditionally female art forms and visual mediums, like needle work and fine embroidery to be merely craftwork- or even less than craftwork, since they were traditionally carried out in the home for private consumption, not as businesses or for public sale.(2 votes)
- I don't have a question, but this article of women artists is fantastic! It is correct that I never actually heard of these women until art history course and even then it was sparse. But viewing their work it was just as good or better than the guys and I've thought about ordering a print. This women history is a tragedy, because there is just so much talent and ability is lost due to the male's twisted ego. My mother is one of these casualties, in that she had taught us siblings various art forms and such, which propelled one sibling into art school and on to Hollywood. Worse than unfortunately, the males in her life kept her oppressed and prevented her to achieve greatness, which she would had because of many opportunities. Great question, how would this issue be implemented to allow women artists emerge from the paleolithic past into the 21st Century!! Understand...the...21st Century and forward! Lastly, society needs to shed these horrible archaic folkways and.. it's time to progress to the future!(3 votes)
- A great shift has been made in recent history it seems, because in schools art is now seen as largely a women's field. By that I mean, more women study the arts than men, and yet, men receive more recognition. In aspects like Theater and Illustration, the majority demographic by far is women. But all the great comic book artists and directors today are still men.(2 votes)
- Be careful when using the word, "all", as you did in the sentence, "But all the great comic book artists and directors today are still men." One need merely point out a single "great comic book artist" or "director" to discredit you. I've no doubt that what you say is almost 100% true, but "most" or "almost all" would have been a better way to phrase this.(2 votes)