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Women in Art: The Trailblazers

Updated: May 6

From AD 900 to the mid 20th century

The Numbers Don’t Lie

A recent data analysis of 18 major art museums revealed that 87% of the artists in their collections are male and 87% are white.  

So while we strive to improve women’s position in the workplace, we are far from achieving it in the world of art.

Coming on the heels of Women’s Month, this blog seeks to trace the trailblazers from 899 AD to the mid 30th century.

"Get thee to a Nunnery!"

While the Church was responsible for the idea that women’s place was beside (or behind) her husband, the easiest way to fulfill creativity as an artist in the middle ages was to become a nun.

The amazing work done on illuminating manuscripts was indeed done by monks.  However nuns also played a major role. Recent scientific evidence shows that Nuns were involved in painting illuminations as early as 900 AD. Chemical analysis of plaque in the teeth of skeletons of Nuns from that period show the presence of expensive Lapis Lazuli powder used in these illuminations -- the nuns would suck their brushes between use and the powder can still be found in the plaque over a millennium layer.

Had I been born way back then I might have retreated to a nunnery just so I could follow my passion for drawing and painting as I would have had no chance to do so as the wife of a medieval or even a renaissance husband.

Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588)

Born Pulisena Margherita Nelli, Suor Plautilla was a nun in Florence. She taught herself to paint by copying other artists, notably Fra Bartolomeo. Her paintings—which include large-scale devotional works, wood lunettes, and miniatures—inspired the founding of Advancing Women Artists, AWA, which has ensured the restoration of some of her work. 

The restoration of Nelli’s 22-foot canvas depicting a Last Supper is now completed. It is the only Last Supper known to be created by a Renaissance woman artist.

Two 17th Century Trailblazers

Judith Leyster (1609–1660)

Leyster, one of the first women to be admitted to the Saint Luke’s Guild of Haarlem, was a Dutch Golden Age painter of still lifes, portraits, and genre scenes. For almost 200 years after her death, experts falsely attributed her works either to Frans Hals or to her husband, artist Jan Miense Molenaer.

Mary Beale (c. 1633–1699)

Mary Beale, née Cradock, was one of the first professional female artists in England. She supported her family with her commissions and as an art teacher. Primarily a portrait artist, Beale painted many of the courtiers of Charles II. Her husband acted as her business partner. Beale herself is author of ‘Observations’, an unpublished piece of instructional writing on painting.

Fighting 18th century prejudice

The hardship for women artists in the 18th century was to find a way to train.  Artistic instruction at the time was done within an academic setting with life drawing classes, often with nude subjects.  In Great Britain's newly formed Royal Academy, two women were allowed to join but were barred from attending the life drawing classes because of their sex.

Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, supported female artists and gave them commissions.  However they were not allowed to use the same materials as men and thus could only paint  still lifes and portraits using watercolor and pastels which could be used outside a formal art studio environment.

Similarly in France, women were barred from life drawing classes and their membership of the prestigious Academy was capped.  However, many did manage to overcome these problems and rise to popularity, often due to the support of female members of the royal households. Much like Queen Charlotte in England, they issued their favorite women artists commissions to paint their children or themselves.

Marie Antoinette played an important role in the admission of Vigée Le Brun, one of her favorite portraitists, she became well known as a result with paintings such as this one.

19th century Trailblazers

Berthe Morisot(1841–1895) Morisot was the only woman to exhibit in the first Impressionist Exhibition of 1874. Many of the men in the group of impressionists painted life in the city as well as landscapes. Because of people’s attitude towards women at the time, it was thought improper to allow them to go out alone and paint scenes in bars and cafes, or even in parks. When Morisot became a professional artist she would hide her paintings and materials away when people came to visit! Even though she was successful in her lifetime, it was still frowned upon for a woman to be a painter.

Thus many of her paintings as with others of her time featured scenes of everyday life in the home and garden, and of their family and friends. These subjects made it possible for them to paint and draw without attracting unwanted attention in a male dominated, raucous cafe society. And so, rather than dismiss their work as too pretty ot charming, it is necessary to understand what they had to do in order to paint at all.

Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) Born in Pittsburg, Cassatt lived most of her life in France.  She often drew and painted  the social and private lives of women, with particular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children. She was close friends with Degas and, like his work,  her paintings depict movement, light, and design in the most modern sense.

Marie Bracquemond (1840–1916)

A talented youngster she married noted printmaker Félix Bracquemond (1833–1914), who helped popularize Japanese art in France. Felix was jealous of her talent, belittled her ambition, and refused to show her paintings to visitors. Thus her only two solo exhibitions were held after her death. But in spite of him she continued to paint. Between 1887 and 1890, under the influence of the artists she met, Bracquemond's style began to change. Her canvases grew larger and her colors intensified. She moved outdoors to her husband's disgust as he disliked the impressionist movement, Monet and Degas became her mentors

Eva Gonsales

Not strictly part of the Impressionist movement as such, Gonsales was yet one more of the major women in art in the 19th century.

The daughter of a well known French writer, Eva received early art instruction in drawing which led her to become the  pupil and friend of the artist Édouard Manet at a time when he was suffering as a result of poor reviews of his work by the Salon. Although her work is frequently linked to the Impressionist movement, like Manet she did not join or exhibit with them.  Her work was characterized by the Paris Salon jury as having "masculine vigor," which led them to reject it with questions as to her painting's authenticity -- in other words it must have been done by a man!

20th Century Forerunners

The 20th century heralded in many different and new art forms as painters delved into their dreams and use their art to express themselves politically as well as purely visually,

Mostly unrecognized at the time, there were many female artists who contributed to the seismic changes that became known as modern art.

Here are a few that changed the way we look at the world, starting with those leading the way at the end of the 19th century, into the 20th and up to World War II.


Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) holds the distinction of being the only woman artist to make it into Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art. - the main texbook studied at art schools. In 1920, she became the first female member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. While much of her work preceded the Expressionst movement of German artists it nevertheless heralds it with her strong black and white prints and images and politically motivated art.

Abstract Geometry

The Mysticism of Hilma af Klint (1962-1944)

Widely credited (recently) as being the first purely abstract painters, Hilma af Klint’s work is now receiving the recognition it deserved back at the turn of the 20th century when she began painting.   Her large canvases were a visual representation of complex spiritual ideas.  In spite of her attempts to get her work taken seriously it was seldom exhibited and even them mostly at spiritualist conferences.  It was only recently recognized with exhibitions now appearing the world over.  

Contrary to the rumor that she did not want her work seen there is no evidence to support this and it appears to be simply an excuse for the poor treatment she received from the established art world.

The Synthetic Cubism of Sonia Delaunay 1885 -1979

Born in the Ukraine, Sonia’s family moved to Paris where she co-founded the Orphism art movement  with her husband Robert Delaunay and others.

Orphism, a branch of Cubism noted for its use of strong colors and geometric shapes, She was the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre in 1964.  

Modern Sculpture

To find the trailblazers in late 19th and early 20th century sculpture we turn to the USA and the emergence of three amazing African American women.

Edmonia Lewis (1844 – 1907) 

Born in Upstate New York of mixed African-American and Native American (Mississauga Ojibwe) heritage, she worked for most of her career in Rome, Italy. She was the first African-American and Native American sculptor to achieve national and then international fame.She began to gain prominence in the United States during the Civil War; at the end of the 19th century, she remained the only Black woman artist who had participated in and been recognized to any extent by the American artistic mainstream.Her work is known for incorporating themes relating to Black people and indigenous peoples of the Americas into Neoclassical-style sculpture.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877 –1968) 

Born in Philadelphia, she received her art education there in the late 19th century, traveling to Paris in the early 20th century where her work became the talk of the Parisian art world and admired for its raw power by Auguste Rodin.  She returned to the USA and used her platform to address the societal traumas of African Americans.

Augusta Savage 1892-1962

was an American sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance...

Born in Florida to a poor family, she began clay modeling as a young child and her talent was spotted in High school and her art teacher encouraged her to continue despite the protests of her pastor father who would beat her regularly when found with clay in her hands.  She finally moved to New York in 1921 and began her career as a sculptor, renowned for her portraits of many African Americans in Harlem where she lived.

Bauhaus women

The highly influential school was established in 1919 by Walter Gropius and its manifesto stated that it welcomed “any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex”. However, a gender bias still exited: female students, for instance, were encouraged to pursue weaving rather than male-dominated mediums like painting, carving, and architecture. Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius encouraged this distinction through his vocal belief that men thought in three dimensions, while women could only handle two.

Nevertheless there were great strides made as women began to excel in different media not usually encouraged outside of this school: photography, metal work and industrial design as well as others. One of the notable painters in the school was Anni Albers (shown here).

The Surrealists

From its inception, this artistic movement attracted many women to its ranks, many daring to break the rules and leading avant garde lives.

Kay Sage 1898 - 1963

Born in Upstate New York, she moved to Italy with her mother and married royalty there, but tired of a purposeless life with him she divorced and moved to Paris where she was moved by the work of the Surrealists. She met her future husband, celebrated Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy,  at a show where her work was exhibited. He was attending with the leader of the movement, Andre Breton, and both admired her work.  Reportedly Breton was sure it was by a man! 

Leonor Fini 1907 - 1996 was an Argentine-Italian surrealist painter, designer, illustrator, and author, known for her depictions of powerful and erotic women. She led an unconventional life in Italy and Paris and exhibited with members of the Surrealist movement although she did not consider herself specifically a part of it. Here you can see her portrait of a similarly avant garge woman artist, Merit Oppenheim

Meret Oppenheim  1915-85

Born in Munich, she moved to Switzerland where she was impressed by the work of Paul Klee.  At age 19 she moved to Paris.  She exhibited with other Surreaulist artists and was  noticed by Giacometti and Arp who championed her unusual work.  

Leonora Carrington 1907-2011

Born in England to a wealthy family, Carrington rebelled against conformity from an early age.  Her career as an artist really began when she met Max Ernst, a surrealist artist, and returned to Paris with him.  They lived and worked together until World War II when he had to flee Paris from the Nazis to New York where he married Peggy Guggenheim, a major supporter of modern art.  Devastated by the loss of Ernst, she moved to Spain, was institutionalized after a breakdown and eventually managed to escape to Mexico where she lived, married and worked until her death.  She is known for work that championed the role of women in art after a lifetime or rebelling against the norms of English society into which she was born.

Frida Kahlo 1907-1954

In addition to belonging to the post-revolutionary Mexicayotl movement, which sought to define a Mexican identity, Kahlo has been described as a surrealist or magical realist. The Louvre in Paris purchased one of her paintings in 1938 making her the first Latino woman artist to be added to their collection.  Overshadowed in life by her flamboyant husband Diego Rivera, Kahlo's work as an artist remained relatively unknown until the late 1970swhen she was rediscovered by art historians and political activists. By the early 1990s, not only had she become a recognized figure in art history, but she was also regarded as an icon for Chicanos, the feminism movement, and the LGBTQ+ community.


These women artists were just a few who paved the way for others like them to express themselves. After World War II the role of women in art gradually began to improve and so we pay homage to those who followed them and carried the torch that was lit by the early trailblazers:

Helen Frankenthaler |Bridget Riley | Georgia O'Keeffe | Emily Carr | Louis Bourgeoise | Lee Krasner |Joan Mitchell | Agnes Martin |Yayol Kusama | Barbara Hepworth | Dorothea Tanning | Alice Neel | Paula Rego | Eva Hesse | Faith Ringgold | Kara Walker | Michelena Thomas | Betye Saar to name only a few artists painting from the mid 20th century onwards and opening the floodgates for more women to join the army who will change the canvas from old dead white men to vibrant female artists of all ethnicities. 

57 views4 comments

4 commenti

Thank you

Enjoyed reading

Mi piace

It seems remarkable to imagine the challenges of being a professional woman; in ANY endeavor. Someone once quipped, “ANONYMOUS” was a woman.

Mi piace

29 apr

Very interesting. Actually amazing! Most of these women I have not heard of. I think I will pick a few names and look for examples of their art. I love the work you have done to commemorate

these artists!

Mi piace

Thank you for sharing, Caroline. A very well written blog! These are amazing role models and artists and am inspired to study their work.

Mi piace
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