10 Women Who Changed Art History Forever, Pt. 1

Self portrait, Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Matthews Gallery blog
Self portrait, Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun

Click here to read the second part of this blog post.

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.

Sphinx of Hatshepsut, Matthews Gallery blog
Sphinx of Hatshepsut

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.

Self portrait, Artemisia Gentileschi, Matthews Gallery blog
Self portrait, Artemisia Gentileschi

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.

Self portrait, Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Matthews Gallery
Self portrait, Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun

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.

Self portrait, Mary Cassatt, Matthews Gallery blog
Self portrait, Mary Cassatt

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.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Matthews Gallery blog
Portrait of Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso

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.

Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter for more insight on the women who changed art history forever, and click here to read the second part of this blog post.

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The 10 Artists Who Changed Art History Forever, Pt. 2

To top off our list of art history’s most influential players (click here for part 1), we had to make some tough decisions. Would Monet still be known today if not for a fateful trip to the seashore with Boudin? Who had a greater influence on abstract expressionism: Pollock or De Kooning? Browse our choices and let us know if you agree or disagree in comments below or on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Eugene Boudin, click the image to read the Matthews Gallery blog
Trouville, Eugene Boudin

 6. Eugene Boudin (1824-1898)

French painter Eugene Boudin grew up riding across the English Channel on his father’s steamboat between his home village of Honfleur and the city of Le Havre. Boudin’s mother put an end to the voyages when the young boy nearly drowned, and the family moved to Le Havre to open a picture frame shop. Perhaps it was these early years at sea—and that terrifying dip in the tumbling waves—that drove Boudin to create the small but dynamic compositions that would directly inspire Impressionism.

As a young man Boudin opened his own framing shop and showed work by artists such as Constant Troyon and Jean-Francois Millet. At 22 he started painting full-time, capturing coastal scenes with an impeccable eye for light and a keen interest in the social interactions of beach-goers. He was greatly influenced by the 16th century Dutch masters, and was one of the first French painters to work in the outdoors.

Boudin moved to Paris on a scholarship when he was 23 and soon met the teenage Claude Monet. Monet was working as a caricaturist on the streets of Paris, but Boudin convinced him to travel to Normandy and paint en plein air. In 1874 Boudin showed work in the first Impressionist exhibition alongside Monet’s pivotal Impression, Sunrise, which was painted in Le Havre and inspired the name of the new movement. Without Boudin’s encouragement, Monet may never have moved past charcoal.

Pissarro, click the image to read the Matthews Gallery blog
Two Women Chatting by the Sea”, Camille Pissarro

 7. Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) 

Picasso and Matisse called Paul Cezanne “the father of us all”, but there’s always a mentor behind a master. Cezanne was heavily influenced by Danish-French Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. “He was a father for me,” Cezanne said. “A man to consult and a little like the good Lord.”

Pissarro grew up on the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies and attended a boarding school near Paris. In school he studied the French masters and excelled at drawing and painting. He moved to Paris in 1855 to apprentice with Anton Melbye and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. While Corot worked on his paintings in the studio, Pissarro insisted on painting en plein air and often finished works in one sitting.

The artist was criticized for his technique, which often exposed the rougher, less picturesque side of the French landscape, but his quick, intuitive methods attracted a small group of artists who would soon be known as the Impressionists. Pissarro became their patriarch, and was the only artist to participate in all eight Impressionist exhibitions. However, it was his switch to Neo-Impressionism at 54 and his great influence on Post Impressionism that landed him on this list. Pissarro’s impulse to look deeper into the landscape and trace every rough edge would inspire Seurat, van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne in their revolutionary explorations of perspective that would fracture (and eventually completely dissolve) the classical picture plane.

Pablo Picasso, click the image to read the Matthews Gallery blog
Dora Maar au Chat, Pablo Picasso

 8. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) 

Pablo Picasso is arguably the most famous—and prolific—artist of the 20th century. He created roughly 13,500 paintings and hundreds of thousands more prints, engravings, illustrations and sculptures over the course of his 75-year career. Though he’s famous for co-developing Cubism, it was his explorations into all corners of the plastic arts that made him so influential. No matter the medium or style, Picasso had a hand in radically changing it all.

The artist was born in Malaga, Spain. His father was a professor of art who began formally training his son from a very young age. By 16, Picasso had gained entrance to the prestigious Royal Academy of San Fernando. In the early 1900s he moved to Paris, where he met art collector Gertrude Stein and many of the most famous artists of the time. He started working with Georges Braque in 1909, and the close friends developed a style that pushed Cezanne’s explorations of multiple perspectives to new extremes.

Cubism encouraged artists to analyze objects and break them into thousands of pieces, and similarly shattered the art world into myriad Modernist movements from Futurism to Constructivism.

Pollock, click the image to read the Matthews Gallery blog
No. 5, 1948, Jackson Pollock

9. Jackson Pollock (1912- 1956) 

Jackson Pollock was called “Jack the Dripper” and “The Worst Living Artist in America” by the media, and a large slice of the public saw him as a reclusive drunkard who dealt the killing blow to order and sense in art. Sometimes when you’re drumming up an art revolution, things have to get messy.

Pollock grew up the youngest of five brothers in Arizona and California. He and his brother Charles moved to New York City in 1930, where he studied at the Art Students League and worked for the WPA Federal Art Project. In 1936 he took an experimental workshop on liquid paint that would later influence his famous drip paintings. Under the watchful eyes of collector Peggy Guggenheim, art critic Clement Greenberg and his wife Lee Krasner, who he married in 1947, Pollock would become the figurehead of the Abstract Expressionist movement and radically change the world’s definition of art.

Greenberg saw Abstract Expressionism as the final step in painting’s inevitable reduction to its most essential elements. There was an unmatched purity to Pollock’s atmospheric, gravity free color fields that only the eye could traverse. “Jackson was the greatest painter this country has produced,” Greenberg mused. Whether you agree with the critic or not, Pollock undoubtedly subverted figurative painting in an unprecedented way, and changed art history in the process.

Andy Warhol, click here to read the Matthews Gallery blog
Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol

10. Andy Warhol (1928-1987) 

Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Austro-Hungarian immigrants. In third grade he developed Sydenham’s Cholera, a disorder of the nervous system that left him bedridden for months at a time. Isolated from his peers, the shy child became a voracious student of pop culture. Just a few years later he would build his own towering pedestal using the very figures and symbols that he pinned on his bedroom walls.

Warhol graduated from high school in 1945 and attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology for commercial art. In 1949 he moved to New York City, where he worked in the publishing and advertising industries and got his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in pictorial design. In the 1950’s RCA records hired Warhol as a designer, where he pioneered innovations in various image-making techniques, most notably in screen printing. At the same time he was using similar processes—and subject matter—in his fine art, which he showed in galleries around New York. It was an approach to art that offended many critics at the time, who accused Warhol of succumbing to the homogenizing forces of consumerism.

This was Warhol’s true impact on art history: to show contemporary artists that they couldn’t avoid or ignore the foundational social changes affected by the mass media. Whether he was exploring identity, vanity, sexuality, fame or nothing at all, Warhol was molding the mercurial landscapes of Modern and Postmodern art.

Don’t forget to read part 1 of this series, and connect with us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest to let us know who you would choose!