Women, Art and Gender: A History

Women, Art and Gender: A History

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Women, Art and Gender: A History

An old New Yorker cartoon depicts a group of prehistoric women painting images on the wall of a cave. One of the women suddenly pauses in her work and asks: “Does it strike anyone as weird that none of the great painters have ever been men?” (Heller, 1987) This, of course is a parody of the long-held assumption that all prehistoric art was created by men. Why should we assume this, when we don’t even know why this art was created, much less by whom? It is because for many centuries, we have been taught that all great art was the product of men, and that art created by women was merely an attempt to copy the masters that came before. For many, many hundreds of years, women struggled to gain recognition as artists, and for the greater number of these years, they remained obscured due to the constraints of patriarchal society. Recently, however, in the feminist movement of the seventies, women have found a voice and a face and recognition in the world of the arts followed. Yet women today are finding that they have yet another battle to fight, one that demands that they be looked at as more than merely women artists in the light of feminism. They are individuals who create art in the context of their identities, which include “ethnicity, personality, life stage, religion, class, and politics” (Norwood, 1987 p. 4), as well as gender.

Since antiquity, women have created art and not received recognition for doing so. It is difficult to obtain a proper history of women in art because many records have been manipulated, and a great number of works by women have been credited to their male teachers or relatives, as it was believed that no truly great art could be created by a woman. (Heller, 1987) A large number of artists from antiquity remain unknown, and many are of the opinion that perhaps “anonymous was a woman” (NMWA, 1998, p. 1). We know that women were creating art during this period through discoveries of unaltered records and images of women artists working, yet there are relatively few known female artists of this time. Hypothetically, if not in truth, we may conclude that works were better received with artist unknown, rather than to be attached to the name of a woman.

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Clearly it was an unacceptable notion that a woman was capable of creating great art.

The Renaissance (1450 – 1600 A.D.), was dominated by an aristocratic society that recognized women artists, but did so in rare cases and always as having significantly less stature as artists than men. It was no longer believed that women were incapable of creating great art, yet the rarity of the event was made evident by the lack of noted women artists of the time. And, if they were noted, their work was considered a “lesser” form of art. Sofonisba Anguissola, for example, was one of the finest portrait painters of the Renaissance and considered the first woman artist of the time. (NMWA, 1998) Society considered her a novelty and a child prodigy, a fact that likely contributed more to her success than did her talent.

During this time, art developed into “greater” and “lesser” categories. The greater categories included religious and historical themes, while still-life, portraits and landscapes were considered of the “lesser” type. As one might predict, all types of art considered appropriate for women were entirely of the lesser category, and they were thus denied the proper education to become professional artists. Even into the 20th Century, painted images of flowers and landscape were considered “womanish” and snubbed as being illegitimate. (NMWA, 1998) Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750), a well-known Dutch painter of fruit and flowers (see image 1), pursued a scientific realism in her painting, and strove to achieve a symbolism of “the brevity and transience of life” (Martin, 1997, p. 24). The actual depth of her paintings, however, is realized only in contemporary criticism, as in her time it was “generally believed that females were incapable of genius on moral grounds” (NMWA, 1998, p. 2). It seemed inconceivable that a woman was capable of more than a superficial comprehension of art.

The 18th Century brought about a change in society’s value of women. Beauty was held in highest regard in this time, and those who possessed it or the power to create it were highly valued. Feminine beauty was power (even if only for its entertainment value), and women took advantage of this. Elisabeth
Vigee-Lebrun (1755 – 1842) became a very successful court painter because of her ability to “render all who came before her in a highly complimentary manner” (NMWA, 1998, p. 5). Even so, Vigee-Lebrun too was asked to refute accusations that she employed a man to paint the pictures she submitted for acceptance into the Academie Royale. Women were not taken seriously as artists but had become acceptable entertainment, but were not taken seriously as artists.

The 19th Century brought more women artists into the light of recognition, but they were still greatly limited in the larger world of art. The home and café society became subjects for contemporary art. As they composed the woman’s world as dictated by a patriarchal society, the female perspective on these subjects was acceptable to society. Even so, women artists were not readily accepted into the world of professional and great art. Rosa Bonheur (1822 – 1899), one of the greatest animal painters of the 19th Century, had to pose as a man in order to accomplish this feat. (NMWA, 1998) Later in the century, Impressionism deviated from the confines of academic art, enabling artists such as Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926), a painter made famous by her tender depictions of mother and child (see image 2), to make a name for themselves by drawing on their experiences as women for their art and expressing them freely. They were now able to create art from talent and imagination, no longer restricted by their lack of academic knowledge. (NMWA, 1998) Still, they were not taken seriously as artists. Though Mary Cassatt’s work was recognized, “at the same time it has been devalued and isolated for being either too much concerned with the female experience (‘all those mother and child images’) or too limited by it (‘her models are confined to the family circle’) (Vogel, 1988, p. 49). Women were in a no-win situation. When they created art with the focus of family or society, they were criticized for their limited subject matter, yet the confines of society allowed their lives to include little else

The first half of the 20th Century brought about a great change in the world, and ultimately its perception of women artists. Innovation was the theme of the times, and with such advances as the automobile, Einstein’s theory of relativity and Freud’s psychological discoveries, came a questioning of all traditional values and norms of society. (NMWA, 1998) World Wars I and II brought men to the battlefields and women were stepping forward to take care of businesses as well as family, and women were demanding political rights with Women’s Suffrage. The art world simulateously experienced a drastic overhaul – the academies that had, for so long, defined the value of art became out-dated, and a myriad of new styles emerged. Women artists abandoned the limiting images of home and family, and, for the first time, used the image of the nude in their art. This was a great accomplishment for not only women artists, but for women in general. They did not paint the traditional, patriarchal-designed image of a woman lounging languidly, as though in wait of a man to seduce her. Instead, they claimed their own image, and depicted women who were not necessarily beautiful, but that were real, such as Lottie Laserstein’s image of an older, athletic woman at work (see image 3) and Suzanne Valadon’s image of a pubescent girl (see image 4). Neither carries the sensual overtones found in the traditional nudes. Another manipulation of the nude is found in the work of Alice Neel, who portrays a man suffering from tuberculosis – quite a role reversal in the depiction of the vulnerable nude. (NMWA, 1998) These works, however, were unappreciated for much of their lives – they were seen as unattractive and unnecessary contributions to the art world. Again, women were not afforded the recognition they deserve.

Toward the second half of the 20th Century, men were back from the wars, and after gaining a place, however small, for themselves in the art world as well as the business world, women were again relegated to the households and family. Abstract Expressionism emerged at this time, and true to history, men were at the forefront of the movement. (Heller, 163) Though women were great contributors to the genre, their male contemporaries again obscured them. For example, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning and Dorothy Dehner, perhaps the most prominent of the female abstract expressionists, were never treated with the same honor and respect as artists as their “master” husbands, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and David Smith, respectively. (NMWA, 1998) Women, tired of being chastised and patronized when a man’s artwork was praised for its brilliance and ingenuity, were beginning to chaff restlessly at being overlooked and unappreciated. A change was imminent.

That change was manifested in the form of the Seventies, a decade which brought the women’s movement and a demand for change. Women decided that if society as a whole would not support their art, they would support each other’s. Associations like the Women’s Caucus for Art provided venues for women’s art, allowing them the visibility that they for so long have been denied (art museums present an average of 15% women in curated exhibits, and a mere 4% of museum acquisitions are works by women artists). This organization and those like it were a major proponent in “bringing women out of their studios” (Brodsky, 1997, p. 1) and giving them a voice in the art world at large.

There were also specific artists who brought women’s art into visibility. Judy Chicago (1939 - ) took advantage of the voice women had found with the emergence of the feminist movement, honoring women artists of the past who, for so long, had gone without recognition. One of her most famous, and controversial works was a large, multi-artist project called “The Dinner Party (see image 5). This was a triangular table with thirty-nine place settings, each for a woman that history had forgotten, from Earth Mother Gaia to Georgia O’Keeffe. Each place setting had an intricately embroidered place mat, with china place settings, to honor the “unsigned” art that women have created for centuries. Each plate was fashioned into a stylized image of the female genitalia, introducing controversy into this landmark piece. The tiles at the center of the table and those at the base bore the names of 999 women artists who have been overlooked by history. (“The Dinner Party,” 1998)

A close friend and colleague of Chicago’s, Miriam Schapiro (1923 - ) also had a great impact on the world of women and art. Schapiro proposed a feminist art program (Chicago co-founded the program) to the administrators at a California art institute, and the final result was one of the finest representations of feminist art in history - Womanhouse. This was the project of Schapiro, the twenty students enrolled in her class, and many other female artists, including Chicago. The project, created by Schapiro, the twenty students enrolled in her class and many other female artists, including Chicago, was a response to a question Schapiro posed to her class: “If women were to reject the male styles of the past and create a new art, what would it look like?” (Brodsky, 1997, p. 1) Created in an abandoned Hollywood house, the project took control of bedrooms, kitchen, bathrooms, closets, the staircase and even walls to realize the home as the woman’s space. (Regan, 1999) The kitchen was a fleshy pink, the walls covered with breasts, thus recognizing the nurturing aspect of both a woman and her kitchen. A “menstruation bathroom” (see image 6), a dining room full of inedible plaster food, and a bedroom in which a performance artist repeatedly applied make-up to her face, among other creations, also responded to Schapiro’s question. (Brodsky, 1997) This house became an icon of sorts, proving to women that there is art yet to be discovered that they can claim as their own, and not be compared to the men who created it before them. As a visitor to one of her exhibitions stated, “In those rooms I discovered that women’s experience could be the stuff of art, and vice versa” (Regan, 1999, p. 5). Schapiro’s individual work, like Womanhouse, was created greatly by using things that were inherently feminine, such as embroidery, doilies, aprons and such things, again proving that a woman’s life experience could be the subject of art, just as men’s. (Regan, 1999)

Finally, women had gained the recognition that they had so long pursued. They had finally broken free of the confines of “man’s” art, and created art that was wholly their own, one that spoke with the female voice - A voice that had for so long been silenced. Sadly, this has ultimately proved to be hampering to women artists of recent years, as it seems now that all art created by women is regarded only in the light of her gender identity, and society is failing to see that what creates a woman’s identity encompasses far more than simply her gender. She has an ethnic history, spiritual beliefs, a political stature and a personality that act as the foundation of her person. She is the sum of her experiences, and we can not ignore this fact any more than we can ignore her gender. So – The evaluation of the feminine artist is far from complete and there are new frontiers of issues to be addressed and resolved. Women will always be valuable contributors to the art world. They need to be honored for what they bring to the world due to their individual experiences, rather than be criticized for their inability to conform.


Anderson, E. (1998). The Dinner Party. [Online] Available. http://iml.jou.ufl.edu/projects/Students/EAnderson/Dinner.htm, 1998.

Brodsky, J. Women, Art, and Pedagogy: 1972-1992. [Online] Available. http://www.wilpaterson.edu/wpcpages/icip/njp/wap.htm, 1997.

Heller, N. Women Artists: An Illustrated History. New York, NY: Cross River Press, 1987.

Martin, E. Female Gazes: Seventy-Five Women Artists. Toronto, Canada: Second Story Press, 1997.

National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA). Permanent Collection Tour: Establishing the Legacy. [Online] Available. http://www.nmwa.org/legacy/tour/legacy.htm,1998.

Norwood, V., Monk, J. The Desert is No Lady. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Regan, M. Daughter of the Revolution: Miriam Schapiro Brought Feminist Art Into the Mainstream. [Online] Available. http://weeklywire.com/WW/01-25-99/tw_review1.htm, 1999.

Vogel, L. Fine Arts and Feminism: The Awakening Consciousness. In Raven, A., Langer, C.L. and Frueh, J. (Eds.), Feminist Art Criticism: An Anthology Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press 1988.

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