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Female artists

women who shaped the artworld

At auction, only two works by women have ever broken into the top 100 auction sales for paintings, despite women being the subject matter for approximately half of the top 25.*

It is commonly-known that works by female artists comprise only a small share of major permanent museum collections all over the world. Women in the arts have been discriminated against for centuries, and major institutions have typically failed to support the careers of female artists. Until the 1870s, women were even largely barred from artistic professions and training.

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The imbalance is systemic and exists not just in the enormous gaps that are evident in the collections of publicly funded institutions. It is also perpetuated by some of the biggest commercial galleries. The behavioral patterns of gatekeepers and tastemakers (critics, curators, and dealers) have continuously perpetuated a preference for works by male artists. For example: at the Art Basel fairs (Basel, Miami, and Hong Kong), women made up less than a quarter of the artists on view from 2015 - 2019.*

It is important to understand the impact this bias has on the art world. Not only do these galleries champion the artists, but they fund their work and introduce them to the world’s wealthiest collectors. To this day, the art that we consider to be the most valuable, in monetary but also cultural terms, is still almost all produced by men. For comparison: The most expensive work sold by a woman artist at auction was Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932, sold in 2014 for $44.4 million—more than $400 million less than the auction record for a male artist: Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, sold in 2017 for $450.3 million.*

Professionals cite many reasons why the market for work by women remains disproportionately small. For example, that women, due to the social constructs surrounding their gender, tend to produce art that is less easily commodified than art made by men. But there is also ample evidence of an even simpler explanation. Academic studies have found larger price gaps between male and female artists in countries in which there is more gender inequality. The correlation “suggests that it’s not the quality of the art that matters,” says Renée Adams, a professor of finance at Oxford University. “It’s discrimination.”**

Part of the origin of this bias can be traced back to art history, or at least, to art history as we know it. The fact is, art history itself is strongly biased if you consider that The History of Art by H.W. Janson, first published in 1962, contained neither the name nor the work of a single woman artist. Another popular art history textbook The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich (1950 Phaidon), had no women until the inclusion of Kathe Kollwitz in the German edition.*** However, even though women were historically discouraged from pursuing a career in the arts, there was no shortage of women visual artists. Women have been an active part of every artistic movement, from the Italian Renaissance to American Modernism and beyond, but for the most part, they remained invisible.

Their influence on their male counterparts and on the entire history of art, however, cannot be underestimated. Allan Schwartzman, chairman of Sotheby’s Fine Art Division, notes that the work of female artists, particularly those active during the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s, changed the language of art. “Before the women’s movement,” he says, postwar American art “couldn’t be psychologically vulnerable, personal, diaristic, fragile, tender, self-revealing, small, colorful, eccentric, handmade. Since then, much of the most valued contemporary art is many of these things.”**

The women who persevered in the face of discrimination were trailblazers, who broke barriers in their professional as well as their personal lives. These are 6 women who shaped art history:

Born in Haarlem, Judith Leyster was a leading artist during the Dutch Golden Age. Like most Dutch artists during this period, Leyster specialized in genre paintings, still life, and portraits. She was one of the first women admitted to the painter's guild in Haarlem and later ran a successful workshop with several male apprentices. Though she was quite successful during her lifetime, her reputation suffered after her death; her entire oeuvre was passed off as work either by her contemporary Frans Hals or by her husband. In many cases, her signature was covered by collectors looking to make a profit due to the high market value of Frans Hals' work. Only in the late 19th century were these errors discovered.

French Realist painter Rosa Bonheur is considered one of the most famous female artists of the 19th century, known for her large-format paintings that often featured animals in motion. She exhibited regularly at the acclaimed Paris salon and achieved both national and international fame. Bonheur is also celebrated for breaking gender stereotypes. From the mid-1850s onward she wore men's dress and even obtained police authorization to do so. She was also an open lesbian in an era when lesbianism was disparaged by the government, making her a trailblazer both in her career and her personal life.

One of the most famous female Impressionists, Berthe Morisot, was the great-niece of celebrated Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Initially, she too exhibited her work at the Paris Salon before joining the first Impressionist exhibit with Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, and Degas. Morisot has a particularly close relationship with Édouard Manet, who painted several portraits of her, and she eventually married his brother. Her art often focused on domestic scenes and she preferred working with pastels, watercolor, and charcoal. Working mainly on a small scale, her light colored work was often criticized as being too “feminine.” Morisot wrote about her struggles:

I don't think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal and that's all I would have asked for, for I know I'm worth as much as they.

American painter Mary Cassatt spent her adult life in France, where she became an integral part of the Impressionist group. She had left art school after being frustrated by the unequal treatment of female students - they couldn't use live models, as it was considered vulgar for women to do so. Upon moving to Paris, she joined the impressionists and forged a lifelong friendship with Degas. At the same time, she was outspoken about her frustration with the fact that she felt that female artists were required to befriend male patrons in order to move ahead. Throughout her life, Cassatt continued to support equality for women, even participating in an exhibition in support of women's suffrage.

American Modernist Georgia O'Keeffe is one of the most celebrated women in art history. Her paintings were revolutionary experiments in abstraction, but her career was intertwined with that of her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. While he supported the idea that female painters could create art just as powerful as men, he also pushed forward the idea that her close-up paintings of flowers were metaphors for female genitalia - a concept that the artist has always denied. O'Keeffe spent much of her career combatting her art's interpretation solely as a reflection of her gender. She refused to participate in all-female art exhibitions, wishing to be defined simply as an artist.

There's no 20th-century female artist whose name is as recognizable as Frida Kahlo’s. While the drama of her tragic accident as a young woman and her tumultuous relationship with husband Diego Rivera have often overshadowed her artistic abilities, she is has achieved post-humous world fame for her self-portraits, which deal with themes of identity, suffering, and the human body. Her works are part of important museum collections around the world, while she personally has gained recognition as a champion of feminists, Chicanos, and the LGBT community.****

There are many more women that have shaped the course of art history and it remains imperative that we continue to champion their work, providing them with equal visibility and opportunity as their male counterparts. There is still a long way to go, but online galleries have opened up other avenues for women artists to get their work out there, providing them with a platform to reach a new audience and highlighting the potential of their work as a worthwhile investment.


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Sources: *National Museum of Women in the Arts, ** Artnet, *** the Gender Avenger, **** My Modern Met, the Guardian, Artsy