When one thinks of famous artworks, it is generally those from – or inspired by the Italian Renaissance that come to mind.
To wit, two of the most famous paintings in the world, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, which were both painted by the same artist: Leonardo da Vinci.
Art has always been since time immemorial, and many people continue to appreciate the beauty of different artworks that have come to be over the years. However, behind every amazing art piece is an artist who gave so much attention to it.
When people think about an art piece, they sometimes get so carried away with the excellence of the artwork that they forget the person behind it. Also, there is this notion around artworks that tries to trace their origin to Italy.
No doubt, the Italian Renaissance is difficult to deny. However, there is more to artwork than those that emanated from Italy. Yes, we have two of the world's most famous paintings coming from the shores of Italy and credited to Leonardo Da Vinci, but how about others?
How about the excellent piece of expressionism by Edvard Munch and that of impressionism by Vincent van Gogh? Art is always about the viewer's opinion, which, sometimes, may be different from the artist's opinion.
For many years, the art industry has mostly been about men, with little to nothing said about women. Are women not making waves, or is it just society that attempts to relegate them to the sidelines? The latter, talking about women being relegated, appears to be the best explanation for why not so many women are heard in the art industry.
Do you know that not until recently women were not allowed to participate in art? In some regions, women were not allowed to attend art school, while others stopped them from doing certain paintings. Restrictions over the last 100 years have prevented women from operating at their optimal level as artists.
However, despite these restrictions, some women have surmounted the challenges of standing out as artists. These women took it upon themselves to make art history through their excellent artworks that continue to speak volumes of them. While it may be difficult to identify these women, Superprof examines five of them and why they stand out from the lot.
Going through the art movements: expressionism – The Scream, painted by Edvard Munch. Impressionism: that one has to go to Vincent van Gogh, even though Claude Monet ‘fathered’ the movement.
Picasso and his cubism; Matisse, who brought on Fauvism. Dali, whose name is synonymous with surrealism... do you notice a trend, here?
Where are all of the women???
It is true that, save for the last 100 years or so, women have mostly been relegated to the sidelines where painting is concerned.
In fact, until a little over 100 years ago, women were not allowed to attend art school. If they were admitted, they were barred from any life painting involving a nude male – the classic artistic exercise.
Women were barred from all of the artists’ hangouts – the bistros and the pubs that their male counterparts frequented to discuss painting techniques and talk about upcoming exhibitions.
In spite of these restrictions, there have been a few female artists who have made their mark on art history.
We’ve chosen only five... five remarkable women, some who have struggled against all odds for their art.
Superprof now presents women who pioneered new ways of expressing themselves on canvas, who made heritage central to their art and who wielded a brush long before anyone thought to officially ban women from painting.
Thank goodness that never happened!
It might seem that we’re drawing on chronology to inform the order in which we present each remarkable female artist but we were actually going for how much they struggled...
And, if you want to talk about struggles, this painter had a few bags full!
Born in Rome in 1593, little Artemisia had an early introduction to painting because her father, Orazio, was himself a painter.
Her mother died when she was just 12 years old, so she and her brothers spent a lot of time in their father’s workshop. Naturally, Dad gave them all lessons in painting but, to his surprise, it was his daughter who far outshone her siblings.
The Italian Renaissance era had passed; Italy was now wholly steeped into the Baroque era and Caravaggio-influenced paintings were all the rage. Artemisia was more than happy to oblige.
Her trademark was biblical scenes, specifically those involving strong female protagonists. Some of her works depicting such scenes include:
- Judith Slaying Holofernes
- Judith and her Maidservant
- Penitent Magdalene
- Susannah and the Elders
Artemisia was known as one of the few artists of the day who could paint a credible female figure – whether nude, draped or fully clothed, a talent she demonstrated more than once, including in her self-portrait.
Artemisia Gentileschi tops the list when it comes to a female artist who is outstanding for her many artworks despite the many restrictions to get to where she is today. Known as a painter who performed excellently at depicting female figures, Artemisia was born in 1593 in Rome to a painter's father. Her father's many different expressions through painting spurred her interest in art from an earlier age. Many of the art techniques she employed later on in life were those she learned from her father.
While she was 12, she lost her mother to a brief illness, leaving her and her brothers in the care of her father alone. At that time, they spent hours in her father's painting shop, watching how he made them. Although her brothers showed interest in painting, she was the one who developed a strong passion for it.
Artemisia has major paintings credited to her name, and they include those of Penitent Magdalene, Cleopatra, Judith Slaying Holofernes, and Susannah and the Elders, to mention a few.
Asides from the different expressions Artemisia gave to female figures, she is also known for her attention to the details of light and shadow that contributed to the appealing nature of her painting.
Furthermore, her command of colour, of light and of shadow makes Artemisia's work some of the most visually appealing of all the baroque painters.
Fast-forward about 250 years, to a small town outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to witness the arrival of one Mary, into a large, well-to-do family.
Mary’s mother was instrumental in developing her artistic sensibilities; she believed that a good education entailed acquaintanceship with the arts, with travel and with exploring beyond one’s immediate surroundings.
Mary Cassatt was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to rich parents who provided her with everything she needed. Despite showing interest in art, her father wanted her to do something different. On the other hand, her mother encouraged her to thread the path she wanted and assured her she'd always be available to provide her with anything she needed.
Mary's education and exposure through travel contributed to her not being conventional. Outside this, Mary believed that she didn't need anything - a husband or children in her life. All she wanted to do was paint and become excellent at it.
Even though she was prevented from working with male models, Mary enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Her time here was helpful to her long-term career, and that's why she always keeps referencing the school when recounting her early days. She, however, didn't stay long in Pennsylvania after her studies as she left for Paris to sort a brighter platform for her art future. On getting there, she met other amazing painters who contributed immensely to her impressionist career.
Mary stands out as one of the globe's renowned female painters because of her dedication and passion for painting. To her, every other thing was secondary except painting.
Had she not bustled her children to the major European capitals and seen to their education in art, there is a chance that Mary might have been thoroughly conventional: well-married, a mother in her own right...
Mary never wanted to marry and she didn’t want children. She wanted to paint.
Her mother may have been secretly delighted but her father was furious! He refused to support her in her folly; she nevertheless enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
She was barred from working with male models. She endured instruction that was far more patronising than what her male classmates were subjected to and, while there were other girls in her classes, they were not contemplating a career in art.
Painting was considered a great social skill; often, girls were encouraged to develop any talent at art that they might have.
But Mary wanted to be taken seriously. That’s why she set off for Paris, only to encounter the same discrimination. Luckily she formed close friendships with other impressionist painters, and with Edgar Degas.
Mary’s attitude about life could be summed up as ‘paint or die’. For our next artist, the opposite might have been true.
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Mary Cassatt was a notable painter but was forced to quit when she lost her sight. Then, the painting world thought that's all they would get of women, but Frida Kahlo came into the scene to raise the bar. Like other female painters, Frida didn't have so much of a bright start to life.
When she was six, she suffered polio, and that affected her bones and stunted her growth. Her stature, coupled with how she was treated in school, made her father withdraw from the conventional school and enrolled her in a vocational school because he thought that would help him keep an eye on her. He wasn't entirely right because, based on her account, she was sexually abused during her time at the vocational school.
After her time at the vocational school, she enrolled in a college. While on a bus with her boyfriend, she suffered an accident that affected her ribs and fractured her legs. For her, this was the lowest point of her life as she spent months recuperating.
Despite this rough part of life, Frida picked up an interest in painting. Instead of continuing to complain about how unfair life was to her, she decided to make the most of her experience.
What appeared to be a fatal accident for Frida turned out to be a rebirth into the art world - one she made a mark in.
Three years before Mary was forced to quit painting because she couldn’t see, Frida made her entrance, in a small town just outside of Mexico City. By her own account, her childhood was not happy... but then, Frida had a habit of exaggerating.
For instance, her small stature permitted her to claim her birthdate as July 7th, 1910, the year of the Mexican Revolution, so that she would be more readily accepted by the revolutionaries on her college campus. Her actual birthday was the 6th of July, 1907.
Of all of the women painters on our list, Frida is probably the one who suffered the most.
A bout of polio when she was six left her small and weak, a prime target for school bullies. Booted out of the exclusive school her father had selected for her, she was then enroled in a vocational school where she was sexually abused.
Now in college, she and her boyfriend were out and about when the bus they were riding collided with a tram. Frida suffered broken ribs, fractured legs and was impaled through her pelvis by an iron handrail.
It took months to recuperate, only to discover that the accident also displaced three of her vertebrae. The plaster corset she had to wear left her bedbound. That is when she got serious about painting.
You see, she hadn’t planned on being an artist; she was studying to become a doctor. She might have been an excellent physician had she not been in that accident.
You might say that Frida Kahlo was born into the art world the day of that fateful bus accident.
Small in stature and unlikely to make waves: those eight words might suffice to describe this pioneering modernist painter but they do not indicate how determined she was to create art and the lengths she went to do so.
Born in a farmhouse in Wisconsin, one may think that a girl who milks cows would be the least likely person to create stirring art – and that would have been true, except for the fact that her mother firmly believing in providing her children with a well-rounded education.
So it came to be that Georgia and her two sisters would spend one afternoon per week with the local artist. By the time she was 10 years old, her feet were irrevocably set on the path of painting.
She really didn’t care if she was destined for landscape painting, still life painting or forced to execute cave paintings!
Georgia met her share of tragedy throughout her long career in painting and sculpture – when she could no longer see to paint, she took up that second means of artistic expression.
Georgia was written off by those who should have motivated her while she was a kid. They said she was small in stature and was not going to succeed. Others said even if she was going to succeed in whatever field she chooses to major in, the chances are slim. However, instead of getting deterred by these statements, it motivated Georgia to become the successful modernist painter she is known for today.
Georgia started life in Wisconsin, where she was born as a little girl whose task was to milk cows. She has her mother to thank for the continuous investment in education she made for them. When she was ten years old, her mother allowed them to spend time with a local artist every week. While her sisters took it casually, Georgia showed a lot of interest as she found painting a fun thing to learn.
Georgia met her fair share of challenges when she lost her sight. She also suffered different episodes of typhoid and was held down with measles when the influenza pandemic of 1918 broke out. The icing on her cake of tragedy came with the continuous betrayal by her husband, who she caught cheating on several occasions.
But like other artists discussed here, all of these challenges gave Georgia the painting inspiration that makes her one of the best. The challenges she faced created a vacuum in her life that she felt could only be filled by paintings.
Several times, her frail constitution betrayed her: first with typhoid fever and then with measles, later during the influenza pandemic of 1918. And then, a cruel betrayal by a faithless husband...
All of these setbacks added depth to every depiction Georgia turned her hand to. Her trademark flowers seemed to hold the secrets of the ages while her still lifes demanded that you investigate their hidden depths.
Georgia created art because she felt there was nothing else she was meant to do.
Even when she took up other work – teaching or, once, in Chicago, as a commercial artist, Georgia's hands would become stained by the nature of her work again and again.
Helen is not renown for extraordinary suffering she might have endured; what puts her on the list of top American artists is her unusual painting technique.
Although Helen Frankenthaler didn't have a challenging start to live like other female artists, her background was a challenge. She was born into a society that kicked against women's involvement in art. Her parents also didn't like the idea of her working with a man. All of these contributed to Helen not finding that balance quickly in life.
However, she was quick to pick herself up and pursue her passion, and she did everything that was within her power to get it. From a young age, she had always been inspired by the work of Jackson Pollock, who is popular for his action paintings.
Jackson Pollock's style of painting influenced her painting philosophy and contributed to her many good works.
Even though the world sometimes tries to relegate the place of women in the art industry, there is no denying that we have women who have walked through the brambles of life to come up with remarkable paintings.
For students, especially females who want to take up a career in painting, studying these women is vital. You can glean inspiration and motivation from the experiences of these women that will shape your art philosophy.
Note that these are not all there are to women who have and continue to do well in the arts industry; there are more. To learn about these other women and their many contributions, you can either register for art lessons or hire a private tutor in Canada. Superprof offers quality lessons and experienced tutors everywhere in Canada; as such, you won't have a challenge choosing one.
She was relatively young when she came face to face with a major work by another American artist named Jackson Pollock, whose ‘action painting’ involved laying a large canvas on the floor and assaulting it with slashes, splashes and drizzles of paint.
She wanted to 'enter his world, learn its language and get to know the people' – that’s what she saw in his paintings titled Autumn Rhythm and Lavender Mist.
The more she learned about his style of painting, the more it crystallized her philosophy of creating art:
A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once – Helen Frankenthaler
Emulating Pollock, she too placed a large, unprimed canvas on her studio floor. However, before applying the first speck of paint, she experimented with paint and turpentine, trying to find the optimal ratio of thinner to colour.
Once she found that perfect balance, she poured the mixture on the canvas, allowing it to soak into the fibres.
Diluting the paint with the slightly oily turpentine gave a pleasing halo to the poured mixture; it also made the colour a bit more delicate and, because her canvases were unprimed – same as Pollock’s, the colour soaked in, in effect dyeing the fabric’s fibres.
Helen named this painting technique ‘soak-stain’ and went on to try it on other media.
Considering the contributions these remarkable women made to the history of art, it is a wonder that they are not more widely known or celebrated.
It is rather sad to note that, except for Frida and perhaps Mary, these and other female painters’ accomplishments are really just so much background noise. An excellent way to illustrate that point is by invoking Elaine de Kooning.
Of course, everyone knows who Willem de Kooning is; he is the Dutch-American abstract expressionist painter.
Less renowned is his wife, Elaine, a figurative expressionist painter of the post-WWII era. She had exhibited almost continuously since her first solo show in 1952 and, even though she died in 1989, her work is still being shown in select exhibitions.
Visiting the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, art connoisseurs may be surprised to find some of her canvasses hanging there...
Which is a telling statement on the esteem for female artists, still today.
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