Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Short Lesson in the History of Women as Art-Makers

Caputi Hydria
ca. 460 BCE
Red Figure Vase depicting woman painting a volute krater
Women have been makers of art throughout history, in every culture. Often certain media such the textile arts, weaving, embroidery, quilting, and jewelry making are associated with women, however, gender roles in art vary with different cultures and communities. Many art forms dominated by women have been dismissed from the art historical canon as craft as opposed to fine art which lessened the importance, or relevance of their contributions to art.

Herrad von Landsburg
Self-Portrait from Hortus deliciarum
ca. 1180
 Original copied in 1818 by Christian Moritz (or Maurice) Engelha
 During the early Medieval period, women worked alongside men to create illustrated manuscripts and ornately carved capitals that clearly demonstrate examples of women at work in these arts, sometimes featuring women within the illustration. Women who were artists, often were of two literate classes, either wealthy aristocratic women or nuns. Women in the former category often created embroideries and textiles; those in the later category often produced illustrations.

The Renaissance and Baroque eras were the first periods in Western history in which secular (non-religious) female artists gained international reputations. The rise in the number of women artists during this period may be attributed to major cultural shifts, including a move toward humanism, a philosophy affirming the dignity of all people which was central to Renaissance thinking, and helped to raise the status of women. In addition, the identity of the individual artist in general was regarded as an important component of artwork beginning from that point in history. Art moved from that of craftsmen. Artists, unlike earlier craftsmen, were now expected to have knowledge of perspective, mathematics, ancient art, and to study of human body.

Knowledge of the body, considered essential for creating realistic human figures and group scenes, required working from male nudes and corpses. Women were typically barred from training from the nude, and were therefore precluded from creating such scenes, required for the large-scale religious compositions that received the most prestigious commissions during this time.

Women did sculpt and paint, however, but an apprenticeship period required quite a commitement. It involved living and training with an older artist for 4 to 5 years, which, of course meant that women who did train in painting were typically taught by a close male relative such as an uncle or father. Female sculptors such as Properzia de’ Rossi and Luisa Ignacia Roldán were awarded public commissions, and painters such as Lavinia Fontana, Catharina van Hemessen, and Judith Leyester began to depict themselves in self-portraits, not just as painters but also as musicians and scholars, which served to highlight their well-rounded education.

Catharina von Hemessen
ca. 1548
Mixed media: tempera on oak panel
Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland
Judith Leyster
ca. 1630
Oil on Canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Women artists in the Baroque period began to change the ways in which women were depicted in art. As they were not able to train from nude models who were always male, they were certainly familiar with the female body and began to create images of women as conscious beings rather than detached muses. One of the premier examples of this presentation is Judith beheading Holofernes by Artemesia Gentileschi (seen below), in which Judith is depicted as a strong woman determining her own destiny.

Artemesia Gentileschi
Judith Slaying Holofernes
ca.  1620
Oil on canvas
78 x 63 inches
Uffizi, Florence, Italy
During the Eighteenth century in Europe, Academies became primarily responsible for training artists, exhibiting their work, and, inadvertently or not, promoting the sale of art. Most Academies were not open to the acceptance of women as students or as artists. In France, for example, the powerful Academy in Paris had 450 members between the Seventeenth century and the French Revolution, with only fifteen of its members female. Of those fifteen, most were daughters or wives of members. By the late 18th century, the French Academy resolved not to admit any women.  History painting, especially large scale compositions with groups of figures depicting historical or mythical situations was in vogue. In preparation to create such paintings, artists studied casts of antique sculptures and drew from male nudes which, of course, excluded female artists. With limited, or no access to this genre of Academic learning, are no existing large-scale history paintings by women from this time. Women artists made their reputations in other genres such as portraiture.

Angelica Kauffmann
Allegory of Poetry and Music
ca. 1782
Oil on canvas
Kenwood House, London, UK
In 1768, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser, were founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Kauffmann backed Maria Cosway, an Italian-English artist who also worked in France, as a candidate to enter the Academy. Although Cosway went on to attain success as a painter of mythological scenes, both women remained in a somewhat ambivalent position at the Royal Academy. A group portrait of The Academicians of the Royal Academy by Johan Zoffany which is in The Royal Collection, includes the men of the Academy, assembled in a large artist studio, together with nude male models. For reasons of decorum, given the presence of the nude models, Kauffmann and Cosway are not shown as part of the group, instead, they are present as portraits on the wall.

Johan Zoffany
The Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-71
ca. 1773
Oil on Canvas
Royal Collection, London
The emphasis on studies of the nude during training in the Academy remained a barrier for women until the 20th century, both in access to the classes and in terms of family and social attitudes to middle-class women becoming artists. After Kauffmann, Moser, and Cosway, no woman became a full member of the Academy until Laura Knight was admitted in 1936.
During the nineteenth century, access to academies and formal art training became more accessable for women in both Europe and North America. The Society of Female Artists (The Society of Women Artists) was established in 1855 in London, and has staged annual exhibitions since 1857, when three hundred fifty-eight works were shown by one hundred forty-nine women. Julia Margaret Cameron and Gertrude Käsebier became well known in the new medium of photography, where there were no traditional restrictions nor established training to prevent them from exploring the field equally with men.

Julia Margaret Cameron
Sadness (Ellen Terry)
ca. 1864
Carbon print
In the late 19th century, Edmonia Lewis, an African-Ojibwe-Haitian American artist from New York began her art studies at Oberlin College. She established a studio in Rome and exhibited her marble sculptures throughout Europe and the United States. In 1894, Suzanne Valadon became the first woman to be admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in France. Laura Muntz Lyall, a post-impressionist painter, exhibited at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, and then in 1894, as part of the Société des artistes français in Paris.

The Twentieth century saw the art world shift from Paris to New York with the armory show in 1913. Post-Impressionism (Les Nabis), Art Nouveau, and Symbolism occured in the late nineteenth century and led to the first twentieth-century art movements: Fauvism in France and Die Brücke ("The Bridge") in Germany. Fauvism introduced heightened non-representational colour into figurative painting. Alice Bailey, a Swiss painter attended separate classes for women at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where she became interested in Fauvism, and showed some paintings in the style at the Salon d'Automne alongside principal painters of the movement.
Alice Bailey
ca. 1917
Oil on canvas, 32 × 23½ inches
  National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.

Helen Lundeberg
Microcosm and Macrocosm
ca. 1937
Oil on masonite
37 x 19 1/2 x 1 5/8 inches
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Dadaism rejected conventional art styles altogether by exhibiting found objects. was an west coast American artist and studio potter, Beatrice Wood who was dubbed the "Mama of Dada, worked in the 1910s with Marcel Duchamp and Henri Pierre Roché to create The Blind Man, a magazine that was one of the earliest manifestations of the Dada art movement in New York City. Surrealism embraced the theories of Freudian psychology led to the depiction of the dream and the unconscious in art by such women as Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, and one of my thesis artists, Helen Lundeberg.

Throughout the rest of the twentieth century and into the new millenium, women have continued to be innovators in art. 1950s American Abstract Expressionists included Elaine de Kooning, an Abstract Expressionist, Figurative Expressionist painter in the post-World War II era and editorial associate for Art News magazine. She married William de Kooning, a leading artist in the movement. Detachment from the world of imagery was reversed in the 1960s by the Pop Art movement, notably Andy Warhol, where brash commercial imagery became a Fine Art staple. One of the few women recognized as a Pop artist is Marisol Escobar. She began to be influenced by Warhol and Lichtenstein. One of her best-known works from this period is The Cocktail Party, a life-size group installation of figures at the Toledo Museum of Art. All the figures, gathered together in various guises of the social elite, sported Marisol’s face. Marisol dropped her family surname of Escobar in order to divest herself of a patrilineal identity and to "stand out from the crowd."

The Cocktail Party
ca. 1965/1966
Sculpture: wood and mixed media
Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio
Modernism evolved to Post-Modernism. Photorealism evolved from Pop Art and as a counter to Abstract Expressionists. Subsequent initiatives towards the end of the century involved a paring down of the material of art through Minimalism and a shift toward non-visual components with Conceptual art, where the idea, not necessarily the made object, was seen as the art. Maya Ying Lin is an American architectural designer and artist who is known for her work in sculpture and landscape art. She is best known as the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. an excellent example of minimalism.

Maya Ying Lin
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Two walls of black granite approximately 500 feet long
58,132 names inscribed of the men and women who died in the war
Art of the twenty-first century is a time in which artists are free to explore any type of art in any medium- gone are the dictums of the Academy and strict guidelines with regards to content or materials. It is a wonderful time in which to be an artist, but also a challenging period. Who gets to define what art "is" and whether it is worthy of the designation? Cynthia Freeland's But is it Art? addresses the issue and explains why innovation and controversy in art matters. She discusses the relationship of art with beauty, culture, money, sex, and new technology. Too many to include in one short article, there are thousands of women who have worked as artists throughout history. I will try, in my own small venture here, to resurrect as many for you as I can.

Cindy Sherman
Untitled Film Still #58
Gelatin Silver Print
approximately 7 x 10 inches
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Further investigation and reading:
Cynthia Freeland, But is it Art?
Nancy Heller, Women Artists: an Illustrated History
Nancy Heller, Women Artists: Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts
Jeannie Shubitz, Women, Art and Gender History,
Wendy Slatkin, Women Artists in History
Susan Fisher Sterling, Women Artists: The National Museum of Women in the Arts
C. Wiedemann, 50 Women Artists You Should Know
Cornelia Butler, Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art


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