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Let’s be honest, the art establishment has always been a boy’s club, and women are most often honored in art history for overcoming gender-related cultural and societal obstacles. It’s easy to look past the artistic innovations of female artists when we’re sorting their work into a different category from that of their male contemporaries, or focusing solely on the glass ceilings they broke.
Of course, ignoring the gargantuan efforts of female creatives to gain respect and recognition in a male dominated world is a mistake as well, as is looking at innovation as a competition between artists of different genders.
Art history is an elaborate web of influence, and analyzing any artist’s place in it is a balancing act. One thing’s for sure: many women have formed vital links in the chain. Here’s why 5 female artists deserve recognition.
1. Queen Hatshepsut (1508-1458 BC)
The fifth pharaoh of Ancient Egypt’s 18th dynasty probably wasn’t an artist herself, but as one of the most successful Egyptian rulers ever, she had a huge influence on art history. In her 22-year reign Hatshepsut brought great wealth to the empire through new trade networks and expeditions, and she was very good at promoting her accomplishments through art. Her many building projects were the envy of her successors, and statuary from her reign abounds.
Statues representing Hatshepsut sometimes sport the ceremonial attire of a pharaoh (including a traditional false beard), but she’s most often depicted in the feminine clothing that she probably wore at court. As a skilled warrior, she took the lioness deity Sekhmet as a symbol of the throne.
After Hatshepsut’s death many statues of the ruler were defaced, and later pharaohs tried to take credit for her building projects, but her influence on subsequent Egyptian styles is undeniable. Work from her reign is in nearly every major museum collection, and has helped shape modern interpretations of Ancient Egyptian art.
2. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656)
For years Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi was mostly known for the events surrounding her rape as a teenager. She was assaulted by her private painting tutor Tassi, who said he would marry her but later reneged on the promise. Gentileschi’s father successfully sued Tassi for taking his daughter’s virginity in a publicly humiliating trial during which Gentileschi was tortured with thumbscrews and given a gynecological examination.
Soon after the court case Gentileschi married another painter and moved from Rome to Florence. It was the beginning of a stellar career, with coveted commissions from the Medici family and a spot as the first female in the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno.
Simplistic interpretations that relate Gentileschi’s work to her rape have dominated the attention of scholars, but the artist’s bold painting style and compositions make her one of the most innovative Baroque painters after Caravaggio. She took new angles on Bible stories to explore the complex emotional experiences of her subjects, and would often place a central figure in the extreme foreground to heighten the drama of her scenes and pull her viewers into the middle of the action.
3. Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842)
The French Neoclassical and Rococo painter was born in Paris and opened her own portrait studio in her early teens, scoring commissions from high profile nobles and rubbing elbows with masters of the day. When she lost her studio for lack of a license, she tricked the Academie de Saint Luc into showing her work and eventually gained official membership.
Vigee Le Brun is best known for her work as the portraitist of Marie Antoinette, who commissioned more than two dozen works from the artist. Her vivid, rosy depictions of the doomed queen in the Rococo style made Louise the most famous female painter of the 18th century. She’d ceded the title of royal court painter by the time of the French Revolution, but she still fled France during the conflict and took portrait commissions from nobles across Europe. However, the canvas that landed her on this list is a painting of the artist herself.
The self portrait, painted in 1787, was an image of Vigee Le Brun sporting a full, toothy grin. It was such a divergence from painting conventions thus far that it caused an uproar in the art world. “An affectation which artists, art-lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning, and which finds no precedent among the Ancients, is that in smiling,” spewed one gossip columnist. “[Vigee Le Brun] shows her teeth.” The painting briefly made Louise’s smile as notorious as the Mona Lisa’s, and shattered a tradition that stretched back to the Greeks.
4. Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)
Mary Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania and attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where most of the female students saw art not as a profession but as a privilege of high society. She left the Academy for Paris in 1866, frustrated with her teachers’ attitudes toward female artists and determined to study the masters on her own.
In France, Cassatt enlisted various private tutors and copied works in the Louvre to develop her skill. Impressionism was just beginning to rock the foundations of the Parisian art world, but it didn’t catch Cassatt’s fancy until after an unsuccessful stint in Chicago and a return to Paris in 1871. That’s when she met Edgar Degas, who introduced her to Impressionists and offered to show her work in one of their exhibitions.
Cassatt would become a hugely influential figure in the fledgling movement, and would later be named one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism by art critic Gustave Geffroy.
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
“I always wanted to be historical from almost a baby on, I felt that way about it,” Gertrude Stein once declared. If anyone called into doubt the American modernist writer’s genius, Stein was the first to speak up about it.
Stein’s influence on the history of visual art is partly tied to her radical writing style, which helped define modernism and was crafted in close dialogue with the visual arts. Her significance also rests in her expansive art collection, which populated the walls of her Parisian home where influential modernists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald often congregated.
As the often stern den mother of the “Lost Generation” carefully curated her collection and cultivated close friendships with the artists she liked, she was shaping a radical revolution that would forever change the history of art.