10 Women Artists They Didn't Tell You About in School
Written by Nana Gongadze
How many female artists can you name?
— If you can't count the number of women artists you know on both hands, you're not alone - and it isn’t entirely your fault. Within history and art as well, women have long been systematically ignored, under studied, and written out. Many gifted women artists throughout history have only started to become more recognized within the last 50 years. Luckily, more and more of them are being rediscovered and recognized for the skill and extraordinary talents history long hid from view. Here is a list of 10 fiercely original women artists, from the Renaissance to the peak of Pop Art, that you can get to know if you haven’t heard of them yet.
1. Sofonisba Anguisola (c. 1532-1625)
The Renaissance Woman
A painter for over 70 years, Sofonisba Anguisola was one of history’s first internationally famous women artists. She was born in Northern Italy to a noble family who progressively educated her in the humanist tradition, and apprenticed her to local artists. She was a painter in the Spanish Court in Madrid under Philip II and his wife for over twenty years, and in her long life she became quite well known, giving guidance to many young painters and being praised by the likes of Michelangelo and Vasari, the prominent chronicler of Renaissance art. Anguisola amassed financial independence and great respect at a time when women had scant rights or chances to succeed on their own. For decades after her death, many of her works - most famously, austere and noble portraits - were lost or misattributed to male contemporaries, until recent decades when her remarkable career has been reevaluated.
2. Clara Peeters (c. 1594 - c. after 1657)
The Enigmatic Virtuoso
We know little about the life of Clara Peeters, a Flemish Baroque painter of the Dutch Golden Age. She was baptized in Antwerp in 1594, and married there in the next century. But one look at her fantastic still lifes tells us that she was a remarkably talented artist even from her early teenage years. Most works depict sumptuous displays of food and highly polished goblets and other fine crockery. Her talent with realism of textures makes looking at her renderings of fine cheeses and breads actually mouthwatering. And if you squint, you can see the marvelous and original addition of tiny self portraits within some of the still lifes, in the form of depictions of the artist’s own reflection on polished metal objects. She spared no details in these incredibly accomplished works, and should be reaffirmed in the annals of Northern Europe’s best of the baroque.
3. Judith Leyster (1609-1660)
Lost and Found
The case of Judith’s Leyster is sadly similar to that of other famous-in-their-lifetimes women artists in the time of limited written records: after her death, much of her work was misattributed (deliberately and by mistake), to other male artists. In her case, to her husband, and to the great Dutch baroque portraitist Frans Hals. Her works, many depicting cheerful and expressive people at drink, cards, and play, certainly were influenced by the latter master. But in 1893, the Louvre discovered that under a false “Frans Hals” signature of a work of theirs of a carousing couple, another true, hidden one was present - J.L., beside a star. Art historians realized they had rediscovered the work of a woman artist much praised in her time but long since forgotten. Her confident Self Portrait (1630, now at the National Gallery in Washington D.C.) shows her exactly as she should be remembered - an independent creator fully in command of her talents, grace, and position.
4. Rosa Bonheur (1822-1889)
The Painter Who Wore Pants
The intense talent of Rosa Bonheur, a French Realist painter known for her depictions of horses and other animals, made her internationally renowned as not only one of the greatest women artists of her day, but of any nineteenth century French artist, full stop. Intensely traditional in method, and meticulous in style with her monumental works, she regularly exhibited at the Salon. She was able to depict animals so realistically because she spent time studying anatomy and zoology at a national veterinary institute. Bonheur counted the French Empress and Queen Victoria among her international admirers, and works like The Horse Fair (1852–55, famously purchased by Cornelius Vanderbilt, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) travelled for exhibition. In 1865, she was the first woman awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor. The uncompromising artist was so dedicated to her work that she dressed in men’s clothing most of her life, for practicality and to detract attention when she sketched at male dominated spaces like livestock events. A fantastic example of the 19th century “New Woman”, Bonheur’s independent spirit and success definitively paved the way for female artists who followed her.
5. Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938)
Model Before the Canvas, Artist Behind It
The ever enterprising French painter Suzanne Valadon rose from humble beginnings and became a successful artist without any formal lessons. Coming from working class roots, she had many odd jobs at a young age to support her family. In the late nineteenth century, she modeled for many of the most famous Impressionist painters in like Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. Along the way, she studied from their methods, and was mentored by fellow artist Edward Degas. By 1909, she was painting full time, having acclaimed solo shows as well as retrospectives in later decades. Her paintings - portraits, still lifes, and landscapes - are deeply individualistic, original, colorful, and honest, not fitting in any one style neatly. Often, her subjects were nude women, and she depicted them unidealized, bold, and at ease. The definition of underrated, Valadon’s work is sorely in need of a historical reappraisal.
6. Camille Claudel (1864-1943)
A Master, and a Muse
A tragic life story and a scandalous affair with a much older and more famous artist have long cast a shadow over the memory of French sculptor Camille Claudel. But in her time, she was quite the pioneer, studying sculpture at a young age and becoming a studio assistant to Auguste Rodin, now considered the father of modern sculpture. Under Rodin, she learned anatomy and how to execute complicated elements such as feet and hands, which she also modeled for him. Her own work at the time focused on figures frozen in motion, and were not publicly accepted because they often depicted nude forms in close proximity and they were done by a woman. At the time, as well, Claudel was Rodin’s mistress despite their wide age gap and his being married to a woman he refused to leave. These combined psychological stresses probably contributed to her mental decline, and she lived out much of the rest of her life in an asylum after a mental breakdown in which she destroyed many of her works. The ones that survive, however, are beautifully sensual and depict frozen motion and narratives in a powerful way.
7. Meret Oppenheim (1935-1985)
Femininity in Surreality
The bizarre surrealist objects Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim is known for creating things like a cup, saucer and spoon covered in fur, a pair of high heels tied up and laid out to look like a whole cooked chicken, and a pair of gloves with red painted veins. Strange? Yes, but compelling? Extremely. Oppenheim joined the boisterous circle of Surrealists operating in Europe in the 1920s and embraced their philosophy of letting forth the subconscious, no matter how uncomfortable the subject matter may be, fully in her art. Her sculpture pieces are important for their repurposing of found objects to create cheeky, slightly unsettling hybrids. Her 1936 Object in Fur - the aforementioned mug and saucer covered in mink fur - has gone down in history as an emblem of the surrealist style and energy.
8. Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989)
Abstract Expression, Real Talent
Like Camille Claudel, Elaine de Kooning’s talent and career were sadly overshadowed by that of her more famous husband - Willem de Kooning, one of the leading artists within the Abstract Expressionist movement. Sadly, many of the leading figures in the movement were expressly anti-woman, and few of the many talented female artists working in the style achieved the same level of fame as their male counterparts, though their careers are being reevaluated with time. Elaine de Kooning is one of those artists. Aside from being a painter, de Kooning was a critic and a writer as well as an art professor. Her works are full of exuberance and energy, especially her portraits, which are extremely loose and gestural. They are an innovative synthesis of Abstract Expressionism commitment to energy of strokes with a capturing of the sitter’s unique energy.
9. Faith Ringgold (1930-)
Reclaiming the Quilt
An artist as well as a social activist, Faith Ringgold has never been afraid to make powerful statements about civil rights using her art. Her work in the 1960s in painting and sculpture showed that she was not afraid to use the shock value in graphic scenes and texts of racial slurs to capture the chaos of the era, and the reality of life for black Americans. Her later work, including a well known series of narrative quilts, depicted positive scenes of black life inspired by her real life experiences growing up in New York City. Ringgold learned how to craft quits from her mother, who learned it from her own mother, who had been a slave. With quilts, Ringgold (and other craft artists), rejected the long held and gender rooted notion that such art could never be considered a high art form. She also used them to address history’s long dearth of people of color as subjects within high art. A lifelong activist for the rights of black people and women, and a vehement campaigner for their inclusion in the art world, Faith Ringgold’s art is as uncompromising as it is beautiful.
10. Rosalyn Drexler (1926-)
Noir and Pop
Many more women made their mark on the art movement of Pop compared to Abstract Expressionism, and many who did explored the treatment of women in popular cultural imagery in their art. Rosalyn Drexler was one of them - but she hardly limited herself to art. She is also an award winning novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, and for a brief time, was a professional wrestler. Her painting-collages of the 1960s pulled imagery from pulp novels, b movies, and other kitschy low culture. These bold, flat, noir-like works pack a punch and electrify the eye. Mining the tacky and the camp for inspiration was one of the core tenants of the Pop Art Movement, and Rosalyn Drexler is certainly an underrated pioneer within it.
All 10 of these women are sterling examples of artists who for one reason or another, have not been given their due within the annals of art history. The sheer number of others who could have made this list are a testament to how much work there is left to be done in contemporary revisionism.
Edited by Sydney Hamilton