Accessible Art History
Five Amazing Female Artists
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog. For September’s theme week, I decided to focus on women in art history. For centuries, women were forced to take a back seat to their male counterparts, so I thought it was important to elevate them. I did my best to choose women from different eras and cultures for this post.
Today, Artemisia Gentileschi is known as one of the finest painters of the Baroque era. But, for centuries, many of her works were overshadowed or misidentified by her male counterparts (including her father and Caravaggio). She was born between 1590-93 to artist Orazio Gentileschi and his wife Prudenzia di Ottaviano Montoni. Although she had brothers, her father recognized her talent and affinity for painting and allowed her to train in the workshop. In fact, Artemisia became the first woman elected to the prestigious Accademia di Arte del Disegno.
Artemisia's life took a horrific turn when she was around 20 years old. A fellow artist, Agostino Tassi, raped her. When it became clear that he would not marry her, Artemisia's father pressed charges. She was forced to relive her assault in front of the courts and was humiliated. In order to cope, Artemisia poured herself into her art. She became known for her works featuring strong female figures, especially those from the Bible. Images such as Judith Slaying Holofernes, Susanna and the Elders, and Salome with the Head of John the Baptists are some of her best known.
Mary Cassatt is, perhaps, the most famous female Impressionist painter. She was born in 1844 in Pennsylvania, to an upper class family. Due to her family's wealth, Mary was provided with a top tier education, including five years abroad in Europe. Although it was clear that she was talented, her family did not support her dreams of becoming a professional artist. Despite this, she moved to France and began to pursue a career!
Mary's work tended to focus on simple domestic scenes of either females or families. She tended to work in soft, pastel tones with traditional Impressionist lighting and brushstrokes. Later in her career, Mary was inspired by Japanese woodblock prints that had been imported to Europe. Some of her most famous works include La Coiffure, Young Mother Sewing, and the Child's Bath.
Harriet Powers was born in 1837 as a slave in rural Georgia. Sadly, because of this, little is known about her early life. It is known that she was emancipated after the Civil War and she, her husband, and their nine children moved onto their own plot of land. Census records indicate that she worked as a housekeeper for the majority of her life. In her downtime, Harriet would create quilts.
Although only two of these quilts survive, art historians are able to tell a lot about Harriet’s artistic style. Her quilts were made for story-telling, especially stories from the Bible. From surviving letters, we know that Harriet was illiterate. But, she memorized the stories after hearing them and they had a profound effect on her life. There are some elements that are similar to West African art, which could speak to her heritage. Today, they are considered some of the finest examples of 19th century American quilt work.
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun is perhaps most famous for her portraits of the disgraced French queen Marie Antoinette. She was born in 1755 and her artistic talents were discovered at a young age. As a teenager, she married a fellow artist and art dealer, who helped her to establish herself in the French artistic community. Eventually, her talent caught the eye of Marie Antoinette which caused Élisabeth’s fame to skyrocket! In fact, in 1783, she was admitted to the prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, one of only 15 women who received that honor in the past century and a half.
Élisabeth’s works (of which there are many: 660 portraits and 200 landscapes) are known for their mix of both Neoclassical and Rococo elements. She focused on bright, jovial colors, more relaxed poses, and infusing the subjects personalities in the paint. Élisabeth was exiled from France for 12 years, due to her close relationship with the ousted royal family. During that time, she painted throughout Europe for many of the most illustrious families in Italy, Russia, and England. Three of her most famous works are: Marie Antoinette and Her Children, Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante, and Self Portrait with her Daughter, Julie.
When one thinks of Mexican art, Frida Kahlo is likely the artist that comes to mind. She was born in 1907 and didn’t intend to become an artist. Highly intelligent and interested in the world around her, Frida intended to study science and become a doctor. This could have been because she suffered from polio at a young age. However, when she was 18, she was involved in a horrific bus accident. It left her in the hospital for months and disabled for the rest of her life. While she was recovering, Frida turned to art to help her process the incident and cope with its lasting effects.
Frida drew much of her inspiration from Mexican folk culture. She explored stories through self portraiture and symbolism. Her works are known for their bright colors coupled with emotional elements. Although she wasn’t super famous during her lifetime, her works were rediscovered in the 1970’s. It wasn’t long before she became an icon for feminism and Mexican heritage. Some of her most famous works include: The Two Fridas, The Broken Column, and Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.
These are only five of the thousands of talented female artists in art history. I hoped you learned something new about them! Who is your favorite female artist? Let me know in the comments below!