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.

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!

Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera is typical of Artemisia's work
Artemisia excelled at depicting strong female figures Source: Wikipedia Credit: Artemisia Gentileschi

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
  • Cleopatra

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.

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.

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Mary Cassatt

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.

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.

Frida Kahlo mestizo heritage
Frida cheerfully embraced her Mestizo heritage and reflected it in her work Image by Marta Matyjas from Pixabay

Frida Kahlo

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.

Georgia O’Keeffe

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.

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.

Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot
This early work of Georgia'earned her a spot at the Student League's summer camp Source: Wikipedia Credit Georgia O'Keeffe

Helen Frankenthaler

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.

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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