Where are women in the history of art?

In most conversations about the under representation of women artists in major art collections or exhibitions, someone will pipe up with the opinion that had there been great women artists in previous eras, their work would be hanging there alongside Picasso’s.

This assertion sounds straightforward, but it’s anything but. Feminist theorists, artists and art historians have been grappling with the question “why have there been no great women artists?” for decades.

Practical problems

Before tackling the assumptions hidden in the question, it’s worth looking at the different conditions in which men and women were producing art in previous eras. Was it a level playing field?

HELL NO is the short and unsurprising answer. Tangible social and economic barriers have held women back, barriers that many artistic men have never had to negotiate, whatever other obstacles may have been thrown in their path.

For many centuries marriage got in between women and their ambitions. For example, in the UK until 1882 when the Married Property Act was passed a woman’s husband effectively owned her property and he would automatically have custody of any children. There was also little redress for women whose husbands were cruel or violent. A power imbalance like that means that for married women pursuing an interest in art would have been dependent on the permission of their husband.

If that had been granted, there was the burden of wifely work to consider – whether that was bearing and raising children, keeping the house, supporting the husband’s work, or maintaining the family’s social status and respectability. And of course – though this has been conveniently forgotten by the people who think women’s ‘traditional’ place is in the home – poor women would have needed to work along with men in the mines and fields, factories and great houses. Creative work would have to be subsumed to these duties, and fitted in around them.

I think it is disingenuous to suggest that these burdens have had no impact on the number or success of historical female artists. As Virginia Woolf says of the creative work of writing in A Room Of One’s Own:

“…fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners… these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

Even if a woman had the income and independence necessary to pursue a career as an artist she might find the doors barred against her as the great academies and institutions of art refused to admit women, often on the grounds of morality.

The idea that women would be allowed to paint nudes – especially male nudes – from life was shockingly improper. Drawing from life is key to learning how to paint realistic human bodies, and you’ll notice that most of the ‘Great’ works from before advent of modernism feature full-length figures, particularly in religious scenes. The fact that women weren’t allowed to study human anatomy alongside men effectively restricted female artists to portraits, still lifes and landscapes and thus excluded them from the most prestigious and lucrative commissions.

Art > craft

Sometime between the Renaissance and the end of the 18thC (opinions differ) the idea of the ‘fine arts’ or ‘beaux arts’ emerged, as distinct from decorative arts, applied arts or ‘crafts’, such as pottery, jewellery, illuminated manuscripts or tapestry. This was tied to a conceptual move away from ‘mimesis’ as the purpose and highest value of art to a more romantic idea of art as creative self-expression. As Carolyn Korsmeyer puts it:

“Artistic creativity increasingly came to be regarded as a kind of personal expression that externalizes the vision of the individual artist in a work of autonomous value; craft, by contrast, aims at some practical use.”

One of the consequences of this new definition of art as something existing purely for aesthetic enjoyment was that traditional decorative and applied arts, and works that possessed any kind of domestic or functional aspect, were sidelined and dismissed as amateur and irrelevant. These works were produced largely, though not exclusively, by women.

During the 18th and 19th centuries the ‘fine arts’ became an increasingly respectable public and professional activity, with the training and production of art moving from the guild and workshop to the academy and the salon. There was an explosion of new public places for the consumption of art by the leisured classes: museums, galleries, theatres, concert halls. These changes consolidated the gendered hierarchy of masculine arts and feminine crafts, as Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock explain in their essay: “Crafty women and the hierarchy of the arts”:

“…women often perform tasks similar to those of men, but their work is awarded a secondary status because of the different place the tasks are performed. The structures of difference are between public and private activities, domestic and professional work… It is out of these different conditions that the hierarchical division between art and craft has been constructed; it has nothing to do with the inherent qualities of the object or the gender of the maker.”

Domestic arts and crafts were essentially dropped from art history, and with them much of the record and the status of women’s creative output.

Golden nuggets of Genius

History is written by the winners, and art history is no different. To say that there have been no ‘great’ women artists is to take art history at face value, as a fully transparent, fair and equal process.

Instead art history has tended to focus on individual superstars such as Michelangelo, Titian, Monet, Picasso, Dali… Sometimes they are part of broader ‘movements’, often they are leading them. They are often monumental characters, with charismatic, personalities. What else do they have in common? I mean, as well as the obvious… As Linda Nochlin puts it in her essay ‘Why have there been no great women artists?‘, “the Great Artist is, of course, conceived of as one who has ‘Genius’; Genius, in turn, is thought of as an atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded in the person of the Great Artist.”

This is the “golden nugget” theory of artistic genius. You’ve either got it, or you haven’t. If you have, it will rise to the surface and astonish everyone, regardless of your circumstances, and often in ways that make a great story, especially after being repeated and embellished over a few decades.

So the ‘fact’ that there are no great woman artists can only mean they just don’t have what it takes. Funny there’s this whole bunch of other people that don’t have it either. Here’s Nochlin’s example – why have there been no great artists from the aristocracy? There were hardly any before the 19th C.

“Could it be that the little golden nugget-genius-is missing from the aristocratic makeup in the same way that it is from the feminine psyche? Or rather, is it not that the kinds of demands and expectations placed before both aristocrats and women – the amount of time necessarily devoted to social functions, the very kinds of activities demanded – simply made total devotion to professional art production out of the question, indeed unthinkable, both for upper-class males and for women generally, rather than its being a question of genius and talent?”

The myth of the Great Artist as a free creative agent, an individual not shaped by their history or situation, and possessing an inherent Genius excludes not only women artists but poor men, Black men, and until relatively recently even the aristocracy. It does this by insisting on the power of individual Genius to overcome the very tangible obstacles to the production or art and the development as an artist that these groups have historically faced. Nochlin again:

“…art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, ‘influenced’ by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by ‘social forces,’ but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast.”

The story of art

Despite these problems, there have been women artists. Why have they been forgotten?

We’re back to the problem of narrative history. The project of art history has not been the creation of an objective record but a coherent narrative. That is, the grand Story of Art, in which the baton of greatness is passed from hand to hand through the ages, in what Griselda Pollock calls the “celebration of heroic individual creativity, art history’s brand of bourgeois individualism.”

In telling this story they have not only excluded women directly, but indirectly too, by peddling a tale of masculine creativity and feminine passivity which has come to shape our understanding of what it means to be an artist, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman.  Pollock’s classic example in her book Vision and Difference, is the way that the historical woman Elizabeth Siddall has been obscured by the mythic Pre-Raphaelite muse ‘Lizzie Siddal’ in art history.

Muse and object is the ‘proper place’ of women in art, and it is not only art history which says so. The message reverberates through Western art down the ages:

“Representing creativity as masculine and Woman as the beautiful image for the desiring masculine gaze, High Culture systematically denies knowledge of women as producers of culture and meanings.”

This aspect of the art historical process is circular: decisions to focus on one work, one painter, one group over another are informed by existing ideas of Greatness and Genius, and in turn shape what is understood by those terms. History is no innocent record of events and ideas, history shapes those ideas, and art history is just as guilty:

“Art history itself is to be understood as a series of representational practices which actively produce definitions of sexual difference and contribute to the present configuration of sexual politics and power relations. Art history is not just indifferent to women; it is a masculinist discourse, party to the social construction of sexual difference.”

Who were they?

Some historical female artists you will probably have heard of – Artemisia Gentileschi, Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keefe – but others are harder to find. Wikipedia has a very comprehensive list, divided by era, but here are links to info on some of my personal favourites:

Sofonisba Anguissola (1527 – 1625)

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1652)

Kathe Kollewitz  (1867 – 1945)

Vanessa Bell (1897 – 1961)

Remedios Varo  (1908 – 1963) http://curiouscrow.typepad.com/curious-crow/2009/10/remedios-varo.html

Further reading

In addition to the books and articles quoted above I really recommend checking out n.paradoxa:



Copyright: Sarah Jackson, March 2011

2 Responses to Where are women in the history of art?

  1. Thanks everyone for your interest in the article! Here’s the missing link to some more info and work by Vanessa Bell and here’s the live link to Remedios Varo – don’t miss her, she’s amazing! Gives Frida Kahlo a run for her money I reckon.

  2. Pingback: In Which I Crap Out on You Once Again…(sorry) | In Which…

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