10 Women Who Changed Art History Forever, Pt. 2

Marina Abramovic- 10 Women Who Changed Art History- Matthews Gallery blog

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

How do you measure influence? It’s easy to focus on art’s brightest stars and most famous imagery, but zoom in on the tapestry of art history and you’ll see that its fibers are often woven from close personal relationships and direct channels of inspiration. We tend to remember names like Caravaggio, Picasso and Pollock and overlook the other fish in their schools. The following women might not have received as much attention as their male contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean they had a lesser hand in directing the grand flow of things. Check out our picks, and let us know who would be on your list in the comments.

Georgia O'Keeffe- Ten Women Who Changed Art History- Matthews Gallery blog

6. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

It was 1908, and a young O’Keeffe had just won a prize from the Art Students League for her still life Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot when she gave up painting all together. The artist was worried that she’d never truly distinguish herself in the realm of realism. Three years later she started fresh, enrolling in an art class taught by Arthur Wesley Down, who encouraged his students to let their emotions guide them.

“I found that I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things I had no words for,” O’Keeffe said. The artist created a series of innovative abstract charcoal drawings that caught the eye of her future husband, New York photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz. She would continue throughout her career to build an emotional vocabulary of abstracted forms, strongly influencing her modernist contemporaries and later inspiring feminist artists like Judy Chicago. She’s now considered the Mother of American Modernism.

Peggy Guggenheim- Ten Women Who Changed Art History Forever- Matthews Gallery blog

7. Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979)

Guggenheim was born with the promise of a healthy inheritance. Her father died on the Titanic when she was a teenager, and at 21 she inherited more than $30 million in today’s currency. What to do with so much money? Guggenheim’s passion was art. Her first job was at the Sunwise Turn bookstore in New York, a bohemian hotspot that inspired her to move to Paris in 1920. There she met Man Ray, Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp and other influential modernists. By 1938 she’d opened a modernist gallery in London, where she showed the likes of Kandinsky, Calder, Ernst and Picasso.

The gallery got lots of attention from the public but lost money in its first year, so Guggenheim decided to open a museum instead. When World War II forced her to delay her plans, she focused on a buying “one picture a day” for her future museum collection. Ten Picassos, forty Ernsts, eight Miros, four Magrittes, three Dalis and one Chagall later, Guggenheim had one of the most important collections of 20th century art in existence. Her influence endures in the rich archives of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Frida Kahlo- Ten Women Who Changed Art History- Matthews Gallery blog

8. Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

Kahlo was born to a German father and Amerindian and Spanish mother in 1907, but she always claimed she was born in 1910 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. That might have been a slight distortion of the truth, but her life and art certainly mirrored the pain and the passion of Mexico’s modern rebirth. When she was a teenager, Kahlo was involved in a bus crash that left her in a full body cast. In the months afterward she took up painting to combat loneliness and boredom.

“I am the subject I know best,” Kahlo said. She drew influences from traditional Mexican folk art and American and European modernism in her colorful self portraits and still lifes, building new links between cultures and art movements but tightly focusing her subject matter on her own health and relationship struggles. During her lifetime, Kahlo was mostly known in Mexico as the on-again, off-again wife of muralist Diego Rivera, but in 1938 she had a solo show in the United States and a year later she exhibited in Paris, where the Louvre acquired one of her paintings.

Andre Breton called Kahlo a surrealist and others saw her work as Naive Art, but the artist defied labels. “I never painted dreams,” she said. “I painted my own reality.” Kahlo opened the door for women artists to openly explore their most personal experiences in their work, something that surely influenced the next artist on our list.

Louise Bourgeois- 10 Women Who Changed Art History- Matthews Gallery

9. Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)

Bourgeois’ artistic journey began in 1924 when she discovered that her father and her English tutor were having an affair. Her mother turned a blind eye, but Bourgeois spent the rest of her life staring the betrayal full in the face. A born and raised Parisian, she started studying art after her mother’s death in 1932 and met Fernand Leger soon after, who told her she was more of a sculptor than a painter.

After gaining some notoriety in Europe, Bourgeois moved to New York City in 1938 and hit a wall. Though she was respected among artists like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, her work wasn’t well known outside avante-garde circles. She was brutally honest in her explorations of memory, sexuality and family power dynamics, erecting monstrous spiders in sculpture gardens and immersing her viewers in scenes of violent patricide.

In 1982 the 70-year-old artist mounted her first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and finally told the story of her father’s infidelity to the public. She identified her body of work as the genesis of a genre called “confessional art”. Every piece in her oeuvre is autobiographical, a retelling of the trauma she’d experienced as a child and the effect it’d had on her life thereafter. By the time she died in 2010, she’d captured the imagination of a new generation of artists and scholars.

Marina Abramovic- Ten Women Who Changed Art History- Matthews Gallery blog

10. Marina Abramovic (born 1946)

Considering the ephemerality of Abramovic’s work, the performance artist’s rise to become one of the contemporary art world’s most notorious and polarizing figures is a remarkable story. Abramovic was born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia. Her mother kept tight control over her life through her early 20s, and she completed some of her first performance art pieces before her curfew at 10:00 pm. In her early work, she explored consciousness and the limits of the body within the context of performance art, pushing herself to exhaustion in various endurance tests.

Abramovic moved to Amsterdam in 1976, where she began a close relationship and artistic collaboration with performance artist Ulay Laysiepen. The duo continued to test their psychic limits, and also explored the idea of combining their identities into a single entity. They separated in 1988.

In 2005, Abramovic did a series of performances at the Guggenheim, and in 2010 she mounted a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. There she performed a 736-hour piece called The Artist is Present that was the subject of a documentary and received global attention.

Abramovic has been accused of chasing fame and creating a cult of personality. No matter her motives, the artist is a thought-provoking figure who’s impossible to ignore. She’s not a part of art history just yet, but she certainly makes a good future candidate.

Check out the first part of this blog post here, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for more art news.

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.

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Hannah Holliday Stewart (1924 – 2010) A Sculptor Who Forged The Way

Hannah Holliday Stewart (1924 – 2010) had her sculpture exhibited in over 40 venues including The Smithsonian, Washington, DC; the San Francisco Museum of Art; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and others. Her work and her career were instrumental to the increased recognition of women sculptors in the United States. The International Sculpture magazine wrote :

“(She) forged the way for serious women sculptors. Uniting Greek mythology and contemporary energy concepts … (her) work fuses both primitive and futuristic sensibilities.”

At a time when the art world marginalized women artists, she chose to create her own world from metal and stone and helped lead the way for a generation of women sculptors. Though she had achieved a high level of success and recognition, she eventually turned her back on the art establishment and continued to work in isolation for the last twenty years of her life. After her death in 2010, sculptures, consisting of work that spanned her entire career, were discovered in her studio – from pieces that are only a few inches tall to one bronze that is over nine feet.

A written statement discovered in one of her notebooks eloquently records her own thoughts on the origins and principles underlying her art work:

When I was eight years old, I asked my mother what the wind really looked like. I remember spending hours … days … sitting with my hands open wide or running with my lightning-bug jar, hoping to catch the wind. I wanted to SEE the wind, that magical force that could bend the huge oak tree in a summer storm, gently caress me on a hot summer day or sing to me as it played through a tree or around the house.

This early interest in natural forces has sustained me throughout my life as a sculptor. My goal is to render visible the hidden realities of pent-up contained energy. The direct fields of reference are Sacred Geometry, Astronomy, Myth & Physics … Each Sculpture is an energy form, the movement arrested in space, a form sustaining an energy. My work is a response to these patterns and delineations and communicates with viewers through the universality of symbolism and form.

The Matthews Gallery is pleased to show this pioneering artist and reacquaint the world with her work. If you would like to learn more about Hannah Holliday Stewart, we have created a website dedicated to her life and work which includes a 163 page online catalog of her work. Click Here to visit the site.