A short history of Women & Art


•63% of undergraduates studying creative arts and design in 2016 were female, according to UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services).

•29% of artists represented by London’s major galleries were female

•2% of auction were by women artists in 2019 (Sotheby’s Mei Moses Indices )

•Modern art galleries tend to show 30 per cent female artists; collections covering 1900-65 it’s 19 per cent, and if you look back prior to that, it’s 1 per cent

(Report by the Freelands Foundation; for US data: https://nmwa.org/advocate/get-facts)


•Women’s work is going to be about themselves, and expresses their own experiences

•Women’s art is small in scale; lightweight; delicate

•Women’s art is more often a craft (sewing etc)

•The myth of the painter (in the West) as one of a lonely, tortured white man

•Impulsiveness, individuality, autonomy, originality seen as qualities of artists, but not as feminine trades

•All art was commissioned by men, for male audiences

Female Artist America Art Historical London

The number of women artists in history is proportionally inverse

to the number of representations of women

Woman & Art at Art Historical London
Woman & Art at Art Historical London
Woman & Art at Art Historical London

and they tend to be one of two mythical female types: the virgin or the femme fatale

the productive & destructive forces of female sexuality

The History of Female Artists

•Women tended to help in their fathers' and husbands workshop

•Noble women would often be educated to read and write, learn and practice the arts, and play musical instruments

•Convents were also places where women could learn how to read and paint

•Home crafts like needle crafts, pottery, weaving, etc was another opportunity for female artistic expression

In general: Art forms that do no require becoming part of a guild or academy, or studying life drawing

Female Artist Ancient Greece Art Historical London

Athenian Red-Figured Hydria shows women working alongside men in a workshop where both painted vases

Female Artists Ancient Greece Art Historical London

In Ancient Greece, women would be involved in weaving, working in the household and in shops, and we know there were celebrated painters and sculptors, because of Roman writer Pliny the Elder (although none of their works survive)

Classical Times

Female Artist Egypt Art Historical London

One of the named female painters of the Greek era, Helena of Egypt, is believed to be the author of an important lost painting,
Alexander the Great and Darius III in the battle of Issus (A floor mosaic that would appear to be a later version of her painting was discovered in Pompeii during nineteenth century excavations at the House of the Faun and is now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples)

Woman Artist Italy Art Historical London

A female artist paints a statue of the phallic god Priapus on a fresco in Pompeii

Middle Ages - Early Renaissance

Women Artists England Art Historical London

Manuscript illuminations, embroideries, and carved capitals from the Middle Ages clearly demonstrate examples of women at work in these arts, although few are signed

At Nuremberg, an artist reported in c. 1520 that he [Glockendon] "had sons and daughters whom he required to work hard at illuminating and painting cardstock pictures every day"

These manuscripts and other art forms were often produced for and owned by women. In a history of the Dominican convent of Oetenbach, Zurich, written ca. 1340, it relates that when the wealthy widow Ita von Hohenfels entered the community – having spent most of her life at court – she brought with her two women: one who could paint and the other illuminate.

Female Patrons tended to be:

•Widows of the well to do (on the husbands death the dowry was returned to the woman)

•Daughters of wealthy families living in monasteries

•Wives of powerful rulers

•Rulers themselves


Female Artist Germany Art Historical London

Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1070s, embroidered in wool yarn on tabby-woven linen ground, 68.38 x 0.5 m, Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, Bayeux, Normandy.

Guda, a twelfth century nun and illuminator

Full-page miniature of Joanna the Mad praying, accompanied by John the Evangelist, from the Hours of Joanna of Castile, Bruges, between 1496 and 1506, British Library

Female patrons at Art Historical London

Portrait of Isabella d'Este – the most important female patron in 16th century Italy,

Titian, circa 1534-1536,

oil on canvas, 102 × 64 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Female Art Patrons at Art Historical London
Female artist Italy Art Historical London

One of the earliest-known female artists of the Renaissance was a nun known as Saint Catherine of Bologna, or Caterina de' Vigri (1413-1463) - Patron Saint of Artists

After her death, her body was exhumed and preserved for display. To this day, Saint Catherine sits on a chair in a chapel in Bologna, surrounded by her creations.

In England Henry VII employed the female court painter Levina Teerlinc, she painted portrait miniatures for Henry VII, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I. (Teerlinc was Flemish, lived ca.1510-1576, and was the daughter of renowned illuminator of the Ghent-Bruges school)

It was not until the mid 16th century that the 1st women artists with major international reputations emerged. Partly due to the publication of ‘The Courtier’

by Baldassare Castiglione in 1528, which stated that all aristocrats, male and female,

should be educated in the arts.

During the Renaissance & the Baroque the number of successful women artists increased significantly, as did the number of options open to them. Women artists started to work in a wide range of subjects, styles and scales, from meticulously detailed portrait miniatures to painterly large scale altarpieces. 

Female Artist Italy Art Historical London
Female Artist Holland Art Historical London

Still life with cheeses, almonds and pretzels, by Maria van Oosterwijck (1630–1693), ca. 1615, oil on canvas, Mauritshuis, The Hague

Female Artist Netherlands Art Historical London

Still-Life with Flowers,

by Rachael Ruysch,


oil on canvas,

75x: 58.5 cm,

Hallwyl Museum, Stockholm

Female Artists at Art Historical London

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1630s, Royal Collection

Female artists Holland Art Historical London

Merry Company, by Judith Leyster, 1629-31, oil on canvas, 

Private collection

Female artist England Art Historical London

Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, Theologian and Historian c.1675

by Mary Beale (1633–1699)

St Edmundsbury Museums

The 18th Century

the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason

•Private salons hosted by wealthy and powerful women, reached the height of their influence

•Voices were raised in favour of women’s rights

•However the power of the Art Academy meant that arts education was still beyond the

reach of most women (there was a quota on membership, and less privileges than men when


Female Artist Italian Art Historcal London

Portrait of Louis XV as Dauphin, by Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757, 1720-21, pioneering the exclusive use of pastel, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Self-portrait by Angelica Kauffmann  (1741 –1807), 


oil on canvas, 73.7 × 61 cm,

National Portrait Gallery, UK

Female Artist Swiss Art Historical London

The Academicians of the Royal Academy, Johann Zoffany, 1771, Oil on canvas, 101.1 x 147.5 cm, Royal Collection

Women in Art Art Historical London

In the portraits on the wall: Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser, the two female members of the London Royal Academy!

Female Artist UK Art Historical London

Portrait of flower painter Mary Moser
(1744 –1819), Painted by George Romney, oil on canvas, c. 1770-71, the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755 –1842) 

Self-portrait in a Straw Hat, after 1782,

oil on canvas, 97.8 × 70.5 cm, National Gallery

Female Artist Spain Art Hstorical London
Female Artist France Art Historical London

Le Brun:

•French portrait painter

•daughter of a portraitist and fan painter

•1774, she was made a member of the Académie (her admission was initially opposed, but eventually they were overruled by an order from Louis XVI because her patron Marie Antoinette put considerable pressure on her husband)

•1776 she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter and art dealer

•After the French revolution she fled to Rome, where she became a member of Accademia di San Luca

•While in Saint Petersburg, she was made a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg. (and her only daughter Julie married a Russian nobleman!)

•Trained other artists, like the female painter Marie-Guillemine Benoist

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait of Madeleine (formerly known as Portrait of a Negress), 1800, oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, Louvre 

NB Six years previously, slavery had been abolished, and this image became a symbol for women's emancipation and black people's rights

Female Artis France Art Historical London

However, most women were largely banned from formal academic training and exhibiting venues. They relied on personal connections and informal networks of patronage, support, and training.

Because a lot of women were married to other artists, people assumed they were helped by their husbands. But, actually, many of these women were artists before they were married; indeed, that's often how they met their husbands


Nameless and Friendless, Emily Mary Osborn, 1857, Oil paint on canvas,

82.5 x 103.8cm, Tate

Female Artist UK Art Historical London

The 19th Century

Not until the second half of the 19th century did women artists make significant progress, especially in France.

•access to academies and formal art training expanded (mostly "Female only Schools" with life classes consisting of completely dressed men)

•The Society of Female Artists (now called The Society of Women Artists) was established in 1855 in London and has staged annual exhibitions since 1857, when 358 works were shown by 149 women, some using a pseudonym

•the new medium of photography, where there were no traditional restrictions, and no established training, offered new opportunities for women

Women’s art class, by Louis Lang, 1868, Met, NY

art school women Art Historical London

NB While the founders of the London Royal Academy had accepted two women into their fold, the issue of women’s exclusion from arts education was not addressed at the Royal Academy until 1860, when Laura Herford was admitted by accident to the RA Schools after submitting drawings with only her initials, L.H.

And women were still excluded from:

•free training at state-sponsored art schools (turning for instruction to the studios of established artists or to private academies)

•life drawing classes, female artists could not receive the training necessary for the production of “important” works of art like history paintings

•state commissions and purchases as well as from participation within official competitions

1870s life drawing becomes available to female students in Paris & Amsterdam

1890s London follows suit

Female Artist France Art Historical London

Record numbers of 19th century women now participated in public exhibitions.

Mostly continuing in the (sentimental) genre women were painting the century before:

•Young couples flirting

•Children playing

•Ladies having tea

•Families enjoying outings

A Summers Day, Berthe Morisot, 1879, Oil on canvas,

45.7 cm × 75.2 cm,

National Gallery London

the 20th century

The first time women began to win equality in the world of art.

•Many art schools opened their doors to women students for the first time

•Women felt freer to work from nude models and to paint and sketch in public spaces

•It was only when the idea of guilds and art academies was attacked by a variety of movements (not just Duchamp) in the 20th century that women started to get a look-in > pre-modernist art excluded those without access to its training system

However, still: often overshadowed by their male peers who typically received more critical and commercial attention & reliant on fathers or husbands who were enlightened enough to permit them to pursue their dreams, at least up to WWII

Electric Prisms, Sonia Terk Delaunay1914, oil on canvas, Centre Pompidou, Paris

Man among the redwoods, Marguerite Zorach,  1912, oil on canvas, private coll

st Ukrainian Art historical London
Female Artist America Art Historical London
Female Artist UK Art historical London

Barbara Hepworth, “Pelagos” (1946), Elm and strings on oak,

430x460x385 mm, Tate

Female Artis USA Art Historical London

A Street,

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 - 1986),

1926, oil on canvas,

122.6 by 76.2 cm.

private collection

It was in the 'New World' that chances for women first seem to have been accelerated, not in the least because of a new generation of female art patrons. Between 1929-39 some of New York City’s most iconic museums emerged in Manhattan:

  • the Museum of Modern Art, Co-founded by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874–1948), Lillie P. Bliss (1864–1931), andMary, and Quinn Sullivan (1877–1939) in 1929

  • the Whitney, first started as the Whitney Studio Gallery for contemporary artists  by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942), who was a successfull artist herself, and founded the museum in 1930

  • the Frick Collection, opened by Helen Clay Frick (1888–1984) in 1935

  • the Guggenheim Museum, Hilla Rebay (1890–1967) co-founded the museum of non-objective painting in 1939, later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

  • Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979) founded Art of this Century Gallery in 1942 and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice in 1951

These institutions are now world-famous, and none would have become so without their female founders, gallery directors, collectors, and curators

NB The National Museum of Women in the Arts, located in Washington D.C., is the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements in the visual, performing, and literary arts. At it’s core is the Wilhelmina Cole Holladay Collection

Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998), 

Les Fétiches, 

1938, oil on linen, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Female Artist USA Art Historical London

Louise Bourgeois 

(1911 – 2010)

Female Artist France Art Historical London

second half of the 20th century 

female art about ideas and feelings on women's identity issues:

•Ownership of their body

•Role within society

•Stereotypes and self worth

•Organic transformations, but also: Disturbing metamorphoses, ugliness, deformity and death

•Socio-political Commentary; Questioning many of society’s values and assumptions (Feminism)

Rhythm 0., by Marina Abramović



assorted objects for pleasure & pain

Tracey Emin (1963-) My Bed, 1998, Tate

Female Artist Serbia Art Historical London
Female Artis UK Art Historical London
Female artist UK Art Historical London

Self Portrait with Fried Eggs, Sarah Lucas, 1996, Inkjet print on paper, 74.5 x 51.4 cm,
Tate Britain

Female Artist USA Art Historical London

Untitled A 1975, Cindy Sherman, Tate

Female Artist Netherlands Art Historical London

21st Century

  • women’s experiences and identities

  • but also how those elements relate to larger global and social issues

  • the freedom of women to make the art that they chose (whatever their sex, orientation or identification)

Female Artist France Art Historical London

Princess, Julie Curtiss, 2016, oil on canvas, 45.7 x 35.6 cm, private collection

Female Artist UK Art Historical London
Women contemporary artist Art historical London

Bird in hand by Ellen Gallagher, 2006, Tate

Josephine Pryde, It's Not My Body XII, 2011, MoMA

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