What better way to get ready for Navaratri (a festival dedicated to strong women) than celebrating some truly incredible female artists and their achievements.
Really, this list should be much longer than it is. It should include the likes of Pauline Powell Burns, the first African American artist to exhibit in California, and Arpita Singh, whose paintings showcased daily turmoil, war, the anti-Sikh riots and the assassination of Indira Gandhi. It should include Fede Galizia, who created altarpieces for Milanese churches throughout the Italian Renaissance, and Hannah Höch, the German Dada artist who was one of the first people to use photomontage. It should include Amrita Sher-Gill, who blended western and traditional art forms in her work, and Harriet Powers, a freed slave who created quilts in rural Georgia to record local legends, astronomical events and well-known stories. It should also include Tamara Natalie Madden, who sought to create allegorical works about the African diaspora, and Cui Xiuwen, who uses images of girls dressed as young pioneers, dwarfed by Chinese tradition.
Picking only ten artists was the most difficult task I’ve had so far with Stories from the Art. I wanted you to join me down the myriad rabbit holes into which I’ve fallen, but have limited myself to ten incredible artists who, hopefully, you’ll be able to find in a gallery near you. To learn more about the other artists mentioned today, follow me on Instagram and Threads at @StoriesFromTheArt, and on Facebook at @GKSihat, for a full month of celebrating female artists in November.
So, for now, here are ten trailblazers to keep an eye out for:
Gentileschi was one of the most sought-after painters of the Baroque Period. The daughter of an accomplished painter, she was producing professional works by the age of 15 in an era where women had so few opportunities. She became the first woman accepted into the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, and enjoyed patronage at the Medici Court in Florence, where she became friends with Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo Buonarotti, the Papacy under Urban VIII, and King Charles I of England.
Élisabeth Vigée le Brun
Madame Le Brun specialised in portrait painting, her style generally considered to blend the aftermath of the Rococo with the Neoclassical. She served as the painter of Marie Antoinette, who helped have her admitted into the French Academy as one of only four female members. She was 28 at the time, and this was the first of ten academies which accepted her. She fled Paris during the revolution and took to travelling through Europe, obtaining commissions from patrons in Florence, Naples, Berlin, Vienna and St. Petersburg.
O’Keeffe was the first American artist to produce a purely abstract work of art. She began her studies learning watercolour from a local artist aged ten, and continued to both learn and teach throughout her life, even becoming the head of the art department at West Texas State Normal College. When she learnt her father had been bankrupted and her mother had become seriously ill with tuberculosis, O’Keeffe took a hiatus from the art world, returning as a student once more four years later. She continued to explore and grow as an artist, helping to establish the American modernism movement, and was finally exhibited in 1916.
Savage was associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She was an influential teacher, a community art program director, and an activist. Her father, a poor Methodist minister, was strongly opposed to his daughter’s interest in art, but Savage didn’t give up. In 1919, she sculpted figures from clay which won a special prize and ribbon of honour at the West Palm Beach County Fair. Finally feeling encouraged, she left her daughter in the care of her parents and moved to New York City with $4.60 in her pocket. She found a job as a caretaker, enrolled in an art course, and earned a reputation as a portrait sculptor dealing with black physiognomy. Her career was constantly up and down, with funds being cut off, rejection based on the colour of her skin, and her works being demolished. Still, she fought her entire life to equalise the arts. She never gave up.
Anguissola was afforded a well-rounded education, including apprentices with well-respected local artists though she was still not allowed to study anatomy or draw from live models. Her talent caught the eye of the giant that was Michelangelo who carried on an informal mentorship with her through the exchange of drawings throughout her life. She was brought to Madrid by the Spanish queen, Elizabeth of Valois, to teach her art while acting as her lady-in-waiting, and later became an official court painter to the king, Philip II. After the death of the Queen, King Philip arranged an aristocratic marriage for Anguissola and her career continued as a portrait painter. She is one of four female artists in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists.
Cassatt was one of three female artists connected with Impressionism. Despite protests from her family, she began to study painting at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at 15. Cassatt grew tired of the patronising attitude of the men in the room – both student and teacher alike – and when female students were forced to draw from casts and not live models, she dropped out. She moved to Paris where she studied privately and was allowed to learn from Jean-Léon Gérôme, known for his depiction of exotic subjects. Returning to America, Cassatt helped introduce European art to major collectors across the US and participated in an exhibition in support of women’s suffrage. She continued to support equality for women until her death.
Leyster should be a name we all know. She was a leading artist in the Dutch Golden Age and was one of the first women admitted to the painter’s guild in Haarlem. She even ran an extremely successful workshop. Sadly, like a lot of women, her work has been misattributed. While some of these misattributions were to her husband, most of her paintings can be found under the name of her contemporary, Frans Hals – who she sued for accepting a student who left her workshop for his without first obtaining the guild’s permission. Her signature has even been covered by art collectors looking to make a profit on Hals’ work.
Kauffman was a Swiss Neoclassical portraitist, landscape and decoration painter. When given the choice between opera and art, Kauffman chose the latter as a Catholic priest told her the former was filled with dangerous, seedy people. After her mother’s death, she moved to Italy with her family, becoming a member of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze and being introduced to the British community there. She and Mary Moser are the two female founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and she was brought in by the Academy to decorate St. Paul’s Cathedral (though this was never carried out) and the ceiling of their old lecture room in Somerset House. When she died, the entire Academy of St. Luke followed her to her tomb in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, her best paintings carried in the procession.
Bonheur is widely considered the most famous female painter of the 19th century. Known for her paintings of animals, she was exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon, and found great success across the west. She is most celebrated, however, for breaking gender stereotypes. She applied to wear trousers and shirts rather than skirts and dresses, cutting her hair short and even chain-smoked! While she never explicitly said she was a lesbian, her lifestyle and the way she talks about her female partners has made her an LGBTQ+ icon, breaking all the rules in a time where lesbianism was considered deranged by French officials and gender expression was policed. Ground-breaking – both professionally and personally.
Kahlo’s artwork merges the folk-art style of her native Mexico with questions of identity, gender, race, postcolonialism, chronic pain, and episodes in her own life. Of her 143 paintings, 55 are the subject she knows best: herself. She is considered by many as Mexico’s greatest artist, a household name, but today there is no other female artist as recognisable as Kahlo. She is a feminist icon, an advocate of the LGBTQ+ community, and a political activist. She also received the National Prize of Arts and Scientists in 1946!