When you hear the term ‘one of the masters’ or ‘one of the greats’ within the visual arts, it’s safe to say that names such as Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Cézanne and so on come to mind first. These artists are undeniably great, with unique styles, but they do have something in common – they are all men. While it’s a great thing that visual artists are celebrated, it’s a shame that the main focus is placed upon the male artists.
Of course there are great women artists, who are accomplished and celebrated – we know of Tracey Emin, Barbara Kruger, etc. They’re celebrated in the same way that the masters are, and this is a wonderful thing, but there’s more space for other great female artists that should be mentioned amongst Michelangelo and the other respective ‘greats’.
I would like to take the opportunity to introduce you to ten female artists, historical and contemporary that you may not have previously known:
10. When we think of The Renaissance, we often think of Tintoretto, or other male painters. We’re used to seeing women as the subject, but not as the creator, we’re not as well informed on women artists of The Renaissance. Still life paintings of fruit and flowers, etc. were and still are popular subjects, and it’s thanks to Fede Galizia- a female Renaissance painter who was a pioneer of still life paintings.
Galizia was the daughter of a miniature painter; by a young age she had shown a talent for painting and had even commissioned portraits to various families. Because of the influence of her father, she proved herself to be particularly talented at painting intricate details. Through this attention to detail she was the ideal person to really make still life the genre it is today.
9. The Baroque period came soon after The Renaissance. The Renaissance bought a new understanding of human anatomy, and paintings became more realistic than previously – although in a lot of cases The Renaissance idealized the human body due to its emulation of Ancient Greek and Roman depictions of the human form. The Baroque took the new understanding of the human body and made it more dramatic with a darker and more impactful content. One of the most respected and accomplished painters of The Baroque period was Artemisia Gentileschi – likened in style to Caravaggio.
Gentileschi’s style was high in contrast and highly dramatic. Gentileschi’s main subject matter would have been biblical scenes, but it is said that some of her works also depict moments that had happened to her. This did not come without criticism, but despite this she became the first female member of De Accademia Di Arte Del Disegno in Florence. Gentileschi is now considered to be one of the most important painters of all time.
8. Skipping a few movements and years (okay, maybe more than just a few), comes The Impressionists. The term impressionists comes from Monet’s famed painting ‘Impression, Sunrise’. The Impressionists weren’t concerned with accurate depictions of subject and content matter, but more so with light and movement.
A key member of The Impressionists was the American painter, Mary Cassatt. Cassatt moved from Pennsylvania to France. It was in France that she became friends with Edgar Degas (famous for his ballerina paintings). She would often paint the private, domestic lives of women. She had briefly gone back to live in the U.S with her family, but after feeling disillusioned with the art scene there, she returned to Europe. It was when she returned to Europe she became more associated with The Impressionists. Her inclusion within The Impressionists however was not as smooth is it could have been, as she was openly critical of the politics that went within, and also refused to suck up to those in charge. Her bluntness and openness of criticism made the transition into respected artist and painter slightly harder.
Despite a few struggles, Cassatt became a key figure of The Impressionists and became a highly respected artist in all the practices that she took on.
7. Suzanne Valadon was a painter around the same time Mary Cassatt was painting. You may have come across Valadon if you’ve ever seen a Renoir, or Toulouse-Lautrec painting, as she was not only a painter but also a model (she modeled under the name Mary, so if you don’t recognize the name, I’m sure you’d be forgiven).
As a model she was described to be a passionate, daring, rebellious and determined woman. Of course this would help her establish herself as not just subject but also as painter. Like Cassatt, Valadon befriended Degas, who was so impressed with her style that he purchased a few drawings and paintings, and encouraged her to create more.
Valadon’s style was bold, and masterful, and like so many great female artists, she shocked the art world. Her contribution to shocking the art world was painting female nudes – something unheard of at the time for a woman to do. Later on Valadon would paint nudes of her husband, and would become one of the first females to turn around the male gaze, and depict female sexuality.
Considering all her achievements and the advancements she made for female artist’s it’s no wonder Valadon is one of the most influential artists of the time.
6. Everyone has heard of Marcel Duchamp – the father of Dada and arguably the Godfather of Conceptualism (think of ‘Fountain’). But often overlooked is Duchamp’s younger sister- Suzanne Duchamp.
Like her brother, Suzanne Duchamp showed a keen interest, and talent in art from a young age. At only 16, she studied at the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts and took on a style somewhere between Impressionism and Cubism. As she matured, so did her work and like M. Duchamp she was a pioneer of Dadaism, her catalogue includes ready-mades and paintings.
As well as an artist, she was muse to her husband Jean Crotti. Despite it still being difficult for women to breakthrough as artists, S. Duchamp managed to create a prolific and respected career away from the name of her brother.
5. Georgia O’Keeffe was another American painter. From a very young age O’Keeffe knew that she was going to be an artist, and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then the Art Students League in New York. Though showing promising signs of great talent, O’Keeffe gave up the pursuit of being a painter as she was feeling disillusioned by her prospects and at her own capabilities. This didn’t last long and she began to take on new practices that included early abstraction.
O’Keeffe’s style evolved over many years, but she is perhaps best known for her mature, signature style of bright, almost acid coloured close-ups of flowers, and New Mexico landscapes. Her consistent back-catalogue of work with varying styles and development has made O’Keeffe not only one of the most important female artists but one of the backbones of American art.
4. It’s definitely no secret that the visual arts are pretty well entwined with one another. Most people are familiar with Man Ray’s work, even if they are oblivious to this fact. It’s also very likely that they have seen a photograph of Lee Miller – Man Ray’s lover and muse.
It’s less known, though, that Miller was a well established and respected journalistic and fine art photographer too. Miller started off as a model for Vogue and she became one of the most sought-after models in fashion – though a scandal soon ended her career as a model. After the scandal, Miller decided to move to Paris to try and work under Man Ray who would have initially declined her, but after persistence she soon became his student, as well as being romantically linked with him.
While Man Ray pursued painting over photography, Miller would begin to take over his photography studio and begin taking her own photos- some of these would be credited wrongly to Duchamp. Miller was part of the Surrealism movement up until she returned to New York where she would set up a commercial photography studio. She also spent a few years in Cairo, Egypt where she would take photographs of the Egyptian railway. Whilst in Egypt she didn’t work as a photographer, she did produce some of her most impressive fine art photographs.
After living in Egypt, she went to live in London, and at the outbreak of WWII she became a journalistic photographer. She became Vogue’s official war photographer and during her time as a war correspondent, Miller captured the first use of napalm, as well as the horrors of concentration camps. After the war, Miller continued to work for Vogue as a fashion photographer.
Miller created some of the most iconic photographs in both fine art and photojournalism, which are still celebrated even now.
3. When we think of Pop Art, we tend to think of America and Andy Warhol. Pop Art actually originated in London. We know of Peter Blake, and Richard Hamilton and largely consider them as the founders of the ‘anti-fine art’ movement.
There’s a crucial person that is often left out of books on Pop Art: Pauline Boty. Boty was one of the only female Pop Artists in the whole of the movement. Boty was a pioneer of Pop Art, but gave her own twist to it. She studied at both Wimbledon and The Royal College of art, and excelled in both school in every endeavor she had. Even before her mature style came in, she had shown an early interest in pop culture.
At both schools, Boty was acclaimed not just for her talent, but also for being very beautiful. It was this beauty that she decided she would exploit and then use for her own work. Her work is a celebration of pop, but it also goes much deeper than other Pop Art works, as she explores the celebration of the female form, and female sexuality, in a way that was for her and for women.
2. Abstract Expressionism is one of the movements almost entirely dominated by men. But it’s not to say that there weren’t a handful of fantastic female Abstract Expressionists. I may be biased when I write this – as Abstract Expressionism is my favourite movement in art – but it’s difficult to pick a female painter of the movement that stands out more so than another.
However, one who does stand out is Elaine De Kooning, rather than simply being married to Willem De Kooning, she herself was a painter, and the essayist of the movement.
Elaine De Kooning was already an established landscape painter at the time that Abstract Expressionism was beginning to flourish. She was part of a group called the Eighth Street Club, a position that was rare for women to be in. E. D Kooning notably signed all her work with just her initials- in order to not appear feminine and be able to break through within the highly male dominated movement.
De Kooning has a huge range of works, all mastered and great. Her most impressive works however, are the abstracted figurative works that are charged with movement and master colouring.
1. The Young British Artists is perhaps one of the most infamous movements within the visual arts. Its members boast some of the most notorious, and most daring artists to ever have come out of both Britain and the arts.
Keeping this in mind, it’s no surprise that a YBA is representing Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale. Who? Sarah Lucas.
Sarah Lucas graduated from Goldsmith’s College, and was one of the artist’s that featured in Damien Hirst’s Freeze exhibition. It was this exhibition that gained the YBAs huge attention, and patronage from the likes of Charles Saatchi. Lucas – a friend of and collaborator with Tracey Emin – is one of the most diverse members of the group. Her work is often made up of ready-mades and creates visually interesting, but also funny works, that can often touch upon quite serious subjects. Her portfolio also consists of very raw, honest and candid self-portraits.
Lucas’ extensive and intriguing portfolio makes her the perfect candidate to represent Britain for the Biennale and also a current, and future great.
While there were perhaps other, more obvious choices such as Frida Kahlo, or Tracey Emin, there are a huge number of female visual artists that deserve to be held in the same esteem as their male counterparts.
Words By Selene Mortimore