Open a coffee table book titled something like “50 Famous Artists” or “50 Famous Paintings” and you will see that ownership of a uterus is usually grounds for exclusion. Likewise visit the world’s great art galleries and in most of them there are very few paintings by women, but lots of painting of women. Obviously in an age of “equality” and “social justice” this is the cause of much debate.
To find the reason we have to question whether this extreme gender imbalance is the result of social pressure or is it the result of gender differences, such as we see in maths and in top level chess playing? Obviously feminists blame the patriarchy, but the effect has been across countless cultures over at least a thousand years, so their arguments wear thin. There are a lot of initiatives to favour and promote contemporary female artists, but equality of outcome is an evil to be avoided, it is equality of opportunity that is essential.
Rather than engage in a tedious debate let’s take a look at some of the truly great female artists that, perhaps, should be better recognised:
Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532 – 16 November 1625). Leading Italian High Renaissance portrait painter. Moved to Spain and became an official court painter to the king. Her paintings have a gentle beauty and she had a very long career, dying at 93. She knew both Michelangelo and Anthony van Dyck.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1656). Daughter of Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi, raped by her art teacher Agostino Tassi, she painted strong women. As first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence she is recognised as one of the greatest painters of the Italian Baroque.
Judith Jans Leyster (July 28, 1609– February 10, 1660). One of the great Dutch Golden Age painters who was written out of history after her death, with her work being attributed to Frans Hals or her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer. Nearly all her work is from before her 1636 marriage. She was a genre painter who also produced portraits and still lifes.
Rachel Ruysch (3 June 1664 – 12 August 1750). Her mother’s father was Pieter Post, a painter. Her father was the botanical scientist and professor Frederik Ruysch. She combined these to become one of the greatest artists of still lives of flowers of the Dutch Golden Age. Famous in her lifetime she had a long and highly successful career that lasted into her 80s.
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (16 April 1755 – 30 March 1842). Daughter of artist Louis Vigée, her style bridged the Rococo to Neoclassical schools. Mainly a painter of people, portraying beauty and grace she became the portrait artist to Marie Antoinette. Her output is very highly regarded and can be found in many of the world’s art museums.
Berthe Morisot ( January 14, 1841 – March 2, 1895). One of the core members of the Impressionist movement in Paris, she showed 12 works at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Remained true to the group’s ethos, techniques, working methods and subject material. Distinctive warm palette which she used to capture light with charm and elegance. When in Paris go to the Marmottan to see her works upstairs and Monet’s work downstairs.
Mary Cassatt (May 22, 1844 – June 14, 1926). American who lived mostly in Paris from 1866 and was at the centre of the Impressionist movement. With extensive formal art training she first exhibited with the Impressionists in 1879. Much of her work was mother and child.
Teresa Feoderovna Ries (January 30, 1874–1950) Russian sculptor and painter who was a star, a famous part of the Vienna Secession, whose reputation just disappeared off the face of the map. Being Jewish at a time of Nazism did that.
Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887 – March 6, 1986). Leading American Modernist abstract and floral painter. A legend in her own lifetime she became very wealthy and lived to 98, receiving many awards along the way.
Tamara de Lempicka (16 May 1898 – 18 March 1980). From wealthy Russian/Polish stock she was an outrageous libertine who escaped the 1917 revolution. One of the greatest Art Deco painters her work was collected by museums in her own lifetime. Her life story is one of endless adventure and artistic enterprise. The singer Madonna is a great fan, collects her works and uses them for inspiration.
Barbara Hepworth (10 January 1903 – 20 May 1975). English abstract sculptor and painter, member of the St Ives school. She was a friend and rival of Henry Moore, both of them achieving widespread international acclaim.
Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907 – July 13, 1954). Surrealist self portraitist with a very distinctive style. Married the famous muralist Diego Riviera and became a global cultural icon within her own lifetime.
Paula Rego (January 26, 1935- ). Portuguese living in London. A very long and very illustrious career with many exhibitions, many books written about her and with her work in many public collections. She has several honorary doctorships and is a Dame of the British Empire.
Jenny Saville (May 17, 1970- ). Part of the Young British Artist movement and currently rated one of the top living artists in the world. Famous as a painter of flesh she paints large pictures, often of nude women.
Also a book called Memory Factory tries to write back into history the women of the Vienna Secession who have been written out. See it on Amazon here.
As you can clearly see it is indisputable that women can be among the very greatest artists, across both history and across genres. There are, obviously, many more who deserved inclusion. If there are any you want to add, or if you have an opinion on this debate then please add a message below.