In her noted 1971 essay, art historian Linda Nochlin asks “Why have there been no great women artists?” The point behind this was that women had been systematically excluded from celebrated art institutions and educational systems for centuries. Nochlin famously argues that the white, male, western viewpoint of art criticism has been “unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian.”
While Nochlin did not initially intend for this to be a feminist writing, it became a pivotal artistic feminist study. I read this essay about a year ago, in a college course on second wave feminism and it had a profound effect on me. I couldn’t help but compare myself to the women discussed in this essay, as a female student who does have access to the art education and resources that were denied to women for hundreds of years.
While it was nearly impossible for women to gain the publicity of male artists throughout history, there are notable female figures that have been widely erased by the white, western, male art criticism viewpoint. Therefore, I’m going to spend the rest of this piece shining a light on just a few of these incredible women who have often been excluded from historical art canon.
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755 - 1842)
Although her name is not heard often today, Vigée Le Brun was one of the best-known portraitists of 18th century France. Her impressive clientele included Marie Antoinette, whom she painted 30 times. She achieved a fair level of fame that was nearly unheard of for a female artist of the time. In 1789 during the French Revolution, Vigée Le Brun fled the country. She then was commissioned to paint impressive portraits throughout Italy, Austria, and Russia.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 -1624)
Gentileschi was the only female follower of Caravaggio, a widely renowned, innovative artist of Baroque Italy. She was able to gain an artistic foothold by apprenticing for her father, a celebrated professional painter. She specialized in painting powerful and suffering women from parables, myths, and the Bible. These included both victims and warriors: In Jael and Sisera, featured above, Gentileschi shines a light on Jael, the heroine of the Hebrew Bible who brutally killed Sisera to save Israel from King Jabin’s army.
Caterina van Hemessen (1528 - 1587)
Caterina van Hemessen was the daughter of a notable Flemish artist of her period, which gave her the resources she needed to develop her own artistic skills. She is one of the first female Flemish artists ever documented. She gained recognition from her skills as a religious painter and portraitist; Queen Mary of Hungary one of her biggest admirers. Unfortunately, van Hemessen’s art career ended after she was married at the age of 26, which was unfortunately common for any female artists at the time.
Edmonia Lewis (1844 - 1907)
In the face of unbelievable racism and oppression, Edmonia Lewis became the first professional African American and Native American sculptor. She created many portraits of abolitionist heroes, Biblical scenes, and works addressing the persecution of black people and Native Americans. She was incredibly cognizant of maintaining originality in her works, and refused to hire local workmen to carve her final pieces. Although a large number of her sculptures have not survived, what remains is on display at several major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.
Helen Torr (1886 - 1967)
Helen Torr was an early American Modernist painter. She is rarely discussed apart from her husband Arthur Dove, and friend Georgia O’ Keeffe. Her work was only displayed publicly twice in her lifetime. Torr’s works are incredibly sensory; she was particularly interested in the emergence of images out of shadows. She worked alongside a group of young artists to develop a distinctly American style of modernist painting.
While I wish the problem of female artist erasure only existed in past centuries, female artists today are still dramatically underrepresented in museums, auctions and gallery settings. Of the permanent collections of 18 prominent art museums in the U.S., over 10,000 artists, 87% are male, and 85% are white. (Public Library of Science). Although 51% of visual artists in the United States are women; on average, they earn 81¢ for every dollar made by male artists. (National Endowment for the Arts).
In order to help rectify this inequity, it is important for the wider community to emphasize perspectives of art criticism that fall outside of the white, Western male viewpoint. We need to demonstrate as viewers and consumers that little-known female artists can be shown without damaging the financial health of public museums. So, next time there’s an exhibition on a female artist you haven’t heard of, take the step and go see it! Your visit alone gives her vision the support that was denied to women for hundreds of years.