A fresh look at art – Women and their understated part in history
This post was written for Gender Agenda, the Cambridge University Student’s Union Women’s Campaign termly magazine. Their website (where this and many other great resources and reads for women in particular) can be found here.
Whilst over the centuries it’s a horrible, abhorrent fact that women have had to struggle to be seen and heard in virtually all professional arenas, we are very, very lucky that art can endure. We are lucky that many women (though not as many as might have) dared to push against societal pressures by training in and executing their gifts in various times and places – when it undoubtedly may have been easier (albeit unhappier) to quietly run the home and children, and little else. Likewise it seems to me a further product of patriarchal systems that many female-dominated ‘applied arts’ such as weaving, embroidery, etc. are viewed with considerably less social significance compared to the historically male dominated ‘fine arts’. Embarrassingly, many fans of fine art may find themselves unable to name more than a handful of female artists. In contemporary terms Tracy Emin and Yoko Ono spring to mind though are often callously dismissed as ‘mad’ or ‘talentless’. To go back further chronologically, could I even confidently declare Frieda Kahlo and Barbara Hepworth as household names with the same confidence as Van Gogh or Michaelangelo? I sadly doubt it. The following list of artists was selected to represent a cross-section across different times, cultures, and styles – I really hope you’ll Google these women, as the effort it will have taken to produce their works only heightens their deservedness of an audience.
1. Claricia (13th Century)
One of the few positions in life which provided the freedom for artistic expression in the middle ages was in monasteries and nunneries. Claricia was thought to be a lay student at an Abbey in Augsberg in Germany where she illustrated herself into a psalter – her body swinging as the tail to an ornate capital Q.
2. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1656)
The daughter of a professional painter, Artemisia was trained in her father’s workshop. She was the first woman to be accepted into the Academy of the Arts and Drawing, in Florence. The vast majority of her work displays women in positions of power relative to men. Judith from the Bible in particular, who does some pretty knarly beheading of one Holofernes. Caravaggio painted the same scene, though if you compare the two paintings it’s Gentileschi who really captures a sense of brutal determination. Caravaggio’s Judith (here she is!) lacks this to me, perhaps because Gentileschi could better empathise with and capture such a sense in a woman. Caravaggio’s Judith comes across to me as a dainty flower who isn’t quite sure how she ended up with a sword in a chap’s neck.
3. Louise ÉlisabethVigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842)
Another artist whose access to teaching stemmed from having an artist father, Le Brun was painting portraits professionally by her early teens, progressed to be Marie Antoinette’s official portrait painter, and caused a scandal by breaking convention when she painted herself smiling showing her teeth.
4. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 1879)
Cameron can be regarded as a pioneer in photography, despite taking the art form up at the age of 48, when given a camera by her daughter. Some of her images are unbelievably crisp as a result of her perfectionism, given she was working in the 1860s. Cameron was neighbour and friend to Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the great aunt of Virginia Woolf.
5. Edmonia Lewis (1844 – 1907)
Lewis managed to obtain impressive success in her lifetime as a Neoclassical sculptor despite not only gendered barriers, but the fact that she was mixed race (Haitian, African, and Ojibwe Native American). Orphaned at a young age, Lewis made money with her aunts by selling Ojibwe baskets, and was able to attend college from the financial success of her brother. Through her determination Lewis was able to take herself to study in Rome, and later achieved hugely lucrative commissions and had the President Ulysses S. Grant sit for her. Many of her sculptures contain poignant messages on race.
6. Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926)
A friend of Edgar Degas and a fellow Impressionist, Cassatt, whilst attaining tuition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts after a privileged education around Europe, felt rightly restricted by the attitudes towards women (for example, being forbidden from studying nudes) so left without graduating and pursued her own study. She moved to Paris and applied to study privately with masters due to women being forbidden from the École des Beaux-Arts. Many of her paintings focus on themes of motherhood, and in later life she was committed to the cause of women’s suffrage.
7. Augusta Savage (1892 – 1962)
Beaten by her father who viewed her sculpture as ‘graven images’ until she sculpted a Virgin Mary which changed his mind, Savage was able to make significant money from her clay sculpture in her early life, but did not experience widespread financial success. Upon rejection in 1923 from a French art program due to being black, her civil rights activism was begun. In 1934 she opened a multiracial studio where she taught anyone who wanted to learn how to paint, draw, or sculpt.
8. Claude Cahun (1894 – 1954)
If the term had existed, Claude Cahun may well have accepted the label of Genderqueer. Settling with her partner (also her stepsister) in Paris before later moving to Jersey in 1937, both engaged in resistance during Nazi occupation. They would take English-to-German translations of BBC reports of Nazi atrocities, paste them into poetic formats, dress as German military officers so as to infiltrate military events and leave the poems where they would be read. Whilst arrested and sentenced to death in 1944, both survived the war.
9. Ogura Yuki (1895 – 2000)
Ogura specialised in nihonga painting, which is the utilisation of strictly traditional Japanese methods and styles. She painted much nude portraiture of friends and family throughout the 50s and 60s, in natural, familial settings. Only one other female painter (UemuraShoen) has received the Japanese Order of Culture.
10. Kay Sage (1898 – 1963)
Born in New York, Sage floated around Europe with her mother during her early childhood, exposing her to a variety of culture and also giving her an informal fluency in French and Italian. Whilst she spent 10 years married to an Italian nobleman she found this life deeply unsatisfying, and later obtained a divorce. She was exposed to surrealism in the 1930s and impressed André Breton (the founder of the movement), though he did not believe her paintings could’ve been done by a woman.
11. Rachel Whiteread (1963 – )
Gaining some fame as the first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993, for a cast taken of an entire Victorian terraced house, Whiteread is also one of the artists to have a piece on the empty fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square – an upside down resin cast of the plinth itself, potentially the largest ever object to be made of resin. Her work often explores ‘negative space’ – the space inside an object not actually taken up by the object itself.