Despite the fact that women were involved in the process of creating art from the dawn of humanity, the conversation on their true input started not so long ago. Feminist art historians of the 1970s began uncovering the forgotten or overlooked names in the history of art. Here are 10 fascinating women artists who left a lasting mark on history that you should definitely know.
10. Remedios Varo (1908 – 1963): The Almost Forgotten Woman Artist
The name of the great Surrealist Remedios Varo has been known in Mexico for years, but it was ignored by the rest of the world until recent years. Varo worked in Spain and France, surrounded by the most influential Surrealists, but she struggled to make a living as an artist. She was a close friend of artists Leonora Carrington and Kati Horna. The trio made works in Surrealist fashion. They were commonly referred to as the three witches by their colleagues.
Success found her when she left Europe for Mexico when World War II started. Unlike other Surrealists who fled to Mexico, she never directly referenced Mexican art in her works but she was nonetheless interested in it. Varo had a deep interest in alchemy and witchcraft, which helped her create magical compositions. However, her works are not only spiritual, they also make a place for irony and for political issues, mostly those concerning women.
9. Meret Oppenheim (1913 – 1985)
The legendary artist Meret Oppenheim was a prominent member of the Surrealist movement. Surrealists relied heavily upon psychoanalysis, but Oppenheim was one of the few who had real knowledge of the matter. Her father, an analyst, taught her Jung’s theories. Throughout her whole life, she kept a diary of her dreams and nightmares which fueled her artistic progress.
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The oeuvre of Meret Oppenheim explores the concepts of femininity, class, and fetishism, as well as the depths of the human psyche. Oppenheim used materials and elements which were markers of high class and refinement for women of the time. These include fur, manicure, and tea in exquisite porcelain. However, combined together, manicured animal paws or teacups covered in fur evoke feelings of disgust and nausea.
8. Suzanne Valadon (1865 – 1938)
The legendary artist Suzanne Valadon was the daughter of a single mother who worked as a laundress. She grew up in poverty on the streets of Montmartre. She had to earn a living as a circus performer and model. Valadon modeled for the greatest artists of her generation like Puvis de Chavannes and Renoir. But what really made her different from other models was the fact that she wasn’t just posing, she was watching and learning.
Suzanne Valadon started to paint in her late thirties but she quickly gained recognition for her unique works. She mostly painted female nudes, yet her nudes were drastically different from those of her colleagues. Her past occupation as a model allowed her to relate to women on the canvas. She was focusing on real people and not idealized symbols. Valadon’s artistic gaze was uncompromising and honest. Her painted bodies showed traces of hard work, childbirth, and age.
7. Hannah Höch (1889 – 1978)
The great artist Hannah Höch was a part of the Berlin Dada movement. Dada was a male-dominated movement with a lot of prejudice and sexism ingrained. Höch wasn’t always comfortable with the provocative behavior of other Dadaists. Their beliefs and manners alienated Höch from her peers, yet this did not stop her from creating groundbreaking work.
Höch’s favorite topic was the evolution of social expectations aimed at the German women in the Weimar Republic. She used newspaper clippings and cut photographs to create her collages. Höch was equally critical of patriarchy and new standards of femininity of her age. As a Dadaist, she was prohibited from exhibiting in Nazi Germany but, unlike most of her colleagues, she refused to leave Berlin and kept creating art in secrecy.
6. Berthe Morisot (1841 – 1895)
The legendary Impressionist Berthe Morisot was an underappreciated innovator and one of the founders of the revolutionary art movement. She was a close friend of Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Morisot shared their devotion to this new kind of art suitable for the modern era. They also rejected conservative academic standards.
Despite the hardships that stood in the way of women artists at the time, Berthe Morisot’s work was relatively well-received. The main reason for that might be her choice of subjects. Although the Impressionists often depicted urban scenes and modern life in public spaces, Morisot preferred to paint women, children, and domestic scenes. This type of subject matter was seen as appropriate for women, especially given Morisot’s upper-class background. For Morisot, painting domestic scenes was one of the few options available. At the time, access to public spaces was limited and reserved mostly for men.
5. Plautilla Nelli (1524 – 1588)
Plautila Nelli is one of the rarely mentioned names of Italian art. Nonetheless, she is the earliest woman artist of the Florentine Renaissance that is known today. A nun in a Dominican convent in Florence, she was a completely self-taught artist. She never had any proper art lessons, so she learned to paint by copying the works of other masters. Her only artistic weak spot was the male figure. Being a nun, she had little to no contact with men and had to base her paintings on her knowledge of the female body.
Plautilla Nelli had tremendous financial success since she was supported by many art patrons, most of whom were women. Giorgio Vasari mentioned her in his 1568 book Lives of The Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, stating that the houses of Florentine nobles were filled with paintings made by the gifted nun. Nelli was a true innovator, hardly limited by the boundaries of her gender. She even created a monumental panel showing The Last Supper, the first that we know was made by a woman.
4. Kara Walker (1969 – present)
American artist Kara Walker is one of the most famous and influential contemporary artists. Her works are bold and sometimes shocking. She comments on racism, inequality, and the difficult history of the West. At the beginning of her artistic career, Walker avoided addressing racism, afraid of being seen as a typical African American artist. Yet, her political stance and bold artistic expression soon brought her fame.
Many of Walker’s works mimic traditional types of art that were popular during the era of colonialism and slavery. Her monumental fountain Fons Americanus looks similar to Victorian-era monuments, but the figures on it refer to The Atlantic slave trade and the resources that were stolen from Africa. The sculpture is full of references to nineteenth-century art. Walker made her fountain from recyclable materials and disassembled it in 2020.
3. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842)
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, also known as Madame Le Brun, was a French portraitist, well-known for her connections with Marie Antoinette. In terms of style, Le Brun mixed Rococo with Neoclassicism, mostly painting portraits of women. Like many other women artists of her era, Le Brun was the daughter of a painter who provided her with training. However, when her father died, she received artistic guidance from family friends, some of which were famous artists at the time.
Although Le Brun was known for portraiture, she never limited herself to that genre. She was one of the rare women artists who made history paintings. Critics considered this type of art exclusively masculine but nonetheless admitted her work to the prestigious Salon. As the French Revolution unfolded, she had to flee France to save her life. She traveled to Italy, Austria, Russia, and Prussia, painting everywhere she went.
2. Hilma af Klint (1863 – 1944)
The icon of modern art and the pioneer of abstraction, Hilma af Klint was almost completely erased from art history until the late 1980s. Unknown to the whole world, she was the first Western artist to completely depart from realistic depictions of the world in favor of geometric and organic abstraction. According to af Klint, these ideas came to her through High Masters and otherworldly beings who contacted her during a spiritual seance in 1896.
Before her abstract period, she worked as a botanical illustrator. This type of illustration was essentially closer to science than to art. It required concentration, scientific knowledge, and artistic impartiality. Hilma af Klint later applied these principles to her abstract works, eliminating her artistic ambition to focus on recording messages from otherworldly realms. She never tried to make a groundbreaking invention as an artist since she regarded herself as a researcher of the invisible.
1. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1653): The Queen of Women Artists
The world-famous Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the rare lucky women of her time who had the chance to study art. Her father Orazio Gentileschi was a well-known painter from Rome who was inspired by the work of Caravaggio. For years, Artemisia Gentileschi’s work was attributed to her father, even though Orazio openly admitted the extraordinary talent of his daughter.
Her works show a remarkable point of view on Renaissance culture, dramatically different from that of her male contemporaries. Many popular subjects of the era were centered around rape and revenge, with women portrayed as damaged property and not as victims of assault. Gentileschi, herself a survivor of sexual assault, painted women who were in control of their lives, often avenging their trauma and fighting back against their abusers. Artemisia Gentileschi was retelling many well-known stories like the ones about Susanna and the Elders, or Judith and Holofernes, but her point of view was different.