Women of Art

Le donne nell'arte. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Autoritratto (particolare)

Women of Art

Women of art. Not just muses and models but above all artists.

Anyone who is passionate about modern and contemporary art certainly knows some names of female artists in art. For example, Louise Bourgeois, Tracy Emin, George O’Keeffe, Cindy Sherman or Frida Kahlo.

It is no coincidence, however, that it is so simple to think of names of women in art, mostly in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But this should not lead us to think that women were not protagonists of the art world even in the past.

 

Women of Art. Ancient times

Since ancient times, the representation of women in art has been fundamental. The ancient Greeks were inspired in their compositions by the Muses. And in the Renaissance and Mannerism, the portraits of women and female deities are certainly not lacking.

Cariatidi nell'Eretteo - Acropoli di Atene
Caryatids in the Erechtheion – Acropolis of Athens (Wikipedia ©Harrietta171)

The figure of the woman as an artist, however, in different cultures, among which the Western one was and is sometimes still associated more with the decorative and applied arts than with painting, sculpture or installation.

Well, this is the myth that we debunk today. In fact, in the ‘unconventional’ history of art, there are numerous female artists who have marked their generation. They succeeded by participating in the artistic debate and significantly changing the currents they were part of.

The fact that they are not part of the history of art or they are not exhibited in museums as prevalently as for men does not mean that they have never existed or that they have not realized works that are equal to male colleagues.

For ancient times and the medieval period, it is naturally difficult to trace back to the figures of women who are not tied to the decorative arts. But this does not mean that women who dedicated themselves to the decoration of the manuscripts or to antique tapestry works cannot be considered artists. Their names have not remained in history but the same can be said of the men of the time after all.

 

Women of art. Renaissance and Baroque: Artemisia Gentileschi

After the Renaissance as well as for men, even the first individual female figures begin to emerge and be known by their contemporaries.

The most famous of these artists is certainly Artemisia Gentileschi. Daughter of Horace Gentileschi, a well-known Roman painter at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Autoriratto come suonatore di liuto, (particolare), 1615-1617
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as a lute player, (detail), 1615-1617 (public domain)

Her work is strongly influenced by Caravaggio. But, unlike the contemporary male painters, Artemisia is able to go beyond Caravaggio’s lesson. In fact, it is known that her personal story and the story of violence by a friend of his father, also a painter, have made her, through her works, a champion of justice against violence against women.

Each of her works is full of anger, resentment and expressive force. Contrary to works by male painters of the same period which are sometimes exercises of light and shadows.

The talent of Artemisia led her to be the first woman to be admitted to the Academy of Design Art in Florence. And also led her to work not only in Italy for the Medici family but also for foreign kings, like Charles I of England.

 

Women of art. Renaissance and Baroque: Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana and Fede Galizia

But the fact that she was the first does not mean that later also other women artists have not received recognition. For example, Sofonisba Anguissola, another Italian painter who worked as a portraitist at the court of the King of Spain Philip II and who in Sicily also had relations with Van Dyck.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Autoritratto (particolare), 1556, Museo Lancut, Lancut
Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-portrait (detail), 1556, Lancut Museum, Lancut (public domain)

Or Lavinia Fontana, who worked extensively in Rome at the end of the sixteenth century for Pope Gregory XIII. Or during the Baroque Fede Galizia, who is known for her spectacular still lifes.

 

Women of art in Europe

These Italian painters actually paved the way between the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries for a subsequent generation of female painters. Painters of portraits, like the British Mary Beale and Joan Carlile.

Among other things, Mary Beale is known for being one of the first women to write a treatise on painting. But also for having had pupils like Sarah Hoadley, whose works are kept at the National Gallery in London.

Mary Beale, Autoritratto (particolare), 1675-1680 circa
Mary Beale, Self-portrait (detail), circa 1675-1680 (© St Edmundsbury Borough Council – Moyse’s Hall Museum)

But moving over time in France here too several female artists have participated in the cultural and artistic life of Paris. My absolute favourite for her personal story and her works is Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Known for being the court painter of Marie Antoinette during the French revolution. In fact, she was also a portraitist of many noble women from all over Europe during her exile from Paris.

My favourite works are her portraits with her daughter. It is said that they have long had a morbid relationship that was interrupted when the daughter was married against her will, leading to the final separation of the two. Most of her works are now preserved in the most important public collections in Europe including the Louvre and the National Gallery.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Autoritratto con tavolozza (particolare), 1872, National Gallery, Londra
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Self-portrait with a palette (detail), 1872 (public domain)

But what all these women have in common in art between the end of the 16th century in Italy and the end of the 18th century in France throughout Europe is portraiture. In fact, women could study in the Academies but were not admitted to the lessons of drawing nude from the real so their specializations were always portrayed posing nobles, landscapes and still lifes.

 

Women of art. France in the nineteenth century: Berthe Morisot

With the beginning of the nineteenth century, something changes in Europe. Women are now admitted regularly in schools and academies. Of course, the number remains even lower than men, but some of them also have the opportunity to exhibit their works close to those of male colleagues.

The artist certainly knew of the period in France is Berthe Morisot, who can be considered the most interesting impressionist painter. Indeed she was the great-grandson of Fragonard, the undisputed protagonist of the French rococo and also the wife of Eugene Manet, brother of the painter Edouard Manet.

Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot con un mazzo di violette (particolare), 1872, Museo d'Orsay, Parigi
Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a bouquet of violets (detail), 1872, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (public domain)

Berthe Morisot, although she died young is a longtime friend of Renoir, Zola and Mallarmè to whom she entrusts her daughter just before she dies. And her works are still considered among the most important of Impressionism, so much so that some were sold in auction for high prices.

 

Women of Art in the twentieth century

With the invention of photography also in this field in nations such as Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century, some women become protagonists.

With the passage of time, the prevalence of male figures in art begins to diminish to the figures of women in art that we mentioned at the beginning and which are now known all over the world.

If you also know a contemporary woman artist or of the past that you particularly like, write it in the comments or write the name of the artist that you did not know and that you discovered today.

 

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