Can you think of a famous female artist who existed before Frida Kahlo? Well, I couldn’t before I did thorough research about female art history. Women have always been artists, in fact, today we often think of creativity as a more feminine trait. It is difficult to understand why extremely talented female artists, sometimes even more talented than their male competitors, failed to make a name for themselves. Was it the society that didn’t take them seriously or were they not confident enough to take credit for their work?
Whatever may the reason be, it would be foolish to waste another moment where these brilliant artists go unappreciated. Here’s a list of some of the most famous female artists of all time:
1. Berthe Morisot (1841–1895)
Berthe Morisot was a prolific impressionist of the late 19th century. At the time, not only was impressionism looked down upon but the audience just could not take a female artist seriously.
One might notice very strong similarities between Morisot and Édouard Manet’s art. This similarity was not a coincidence. Morisot married Manet’s brother and greatly influenced Édouard Manet’s career. Her color palette was dominated by pastels spread across the canvas with delicate brushstrokes.
While some art critics thought that Morisot’s art was to be appreciated on the basis of its intuitiveness and softness, others were of the opinion that her work was too feminine and lacked diversity. She often chose to draw on small canvases to depict daily life domestic scenes with an emphasis on the exclusive lives of women.
In 1874, she was invited to be a part of one of the first impressionistic art exhibits titled “Société Anonyme des Artistes-Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, etc…” alongside Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet, Claude Monet, and the like.
2. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
Georgia O’Keeffe was a true feminist who aspired to be considered just an artist and not a “female” artist. Despite several attempts to free her work from gender, no one could seem to forget that she was a woman.
Her husband was a famous photographer and was well respected in the art community. He suggested that O’Keeffe’s art had strong sexual connotations often relating it to female genitalia.
However, the artist vehemently opposed this interpretation of her work. She frequently painted very colorful and abstract pictures of flowers that loosely resemble a vagina. According to her, these paintings were abstract symbols that would require subjective interpretations.
3. Tamara de Lempicka (1898–1980)
Lempicka left a memorable imprint on the art world in the early 20th century. She was a pioneer of the Art Deco movement that originated in France in the early 1900s.
Her paintings and professional life were both an example of liberation, luxury, and sensuality. The most common art deco characteristics in her paintings are symmetry and neat geometry that was pleasing to the eye.
Her work was extremely modern for the time and had early features of cubism, futurism, and abstraction. She gained a reputation as an artist by making stylized portraits of famous socialites. However, her most famous paintings are the erotic nudes that were highly realistic but also modern and expressionistic.
She was an openly bisexual woman in the Roaring Twenties, living a life of independence, modernism, and prosperity. Her personal life was perhaps instrumental in enhancing the character of her paintings.
4. Hilma af Klint (1862–1944)
Hilma af Klint was a Swedish artist born in the late 19th Century. She was one of the first women to paint bright and colorful abstract pictures, even before the great male abstract artists such as Mondrian and Kadinsky. She was also a student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts where she extensively studied theological philosophy and spiritualism.
Klint revealed that her paintings were completely spontaneous and a representation of the intangible forces of the world. She believed that spirits do exist and that she could speak to them through séances.
The artist also believed that some higher being had assigned her the great task of creating paintings for “The Temple”. She never explained what this temple was but was convinced that it was her duty to paint.
5. Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625)
While Anguissola did not come from a wealthy family, she became a world-renowned artist through undying efforts and seizing the best opportunities of life.
In the 16th-century women’s education was not considered important or necessary. However, through the efforts of her father she had the opportunity of working for eminent painters of her time.
During one such apprenticeship, her work was recognized by Michelangelo who offered her invaluable mentorship. She first became an art tutor for royal children and soon became the court painter for the King of Spain.
She was an important part of the Italian renaissance during the fourteen years of her career. Her paintings are known for their fresh vibrance, liveliness, and breathtaking chiaroscuro technique. In her later life, she even tutored famous artists such as Anthony Van Dyck.
6. Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican modern artist, most well known for her iconic self-portraits. Her work is characterized by surrealism, cubism, and symbolism. Some of her paintings have a strong influence on the renaissance and the European avant-garde period.
Her paintings would often have a strong socio-political message relating to Mexican society. While Kahlo was artistically inclined from a young age, her career as an artist took a turn at the age of 18. She was part of a horrific bus accident that broke her spine and injured her uterus.
This is when she started painting her world-renowned self-portraits through which she explored difficult questions relating to identity and existence.
Her bright Mexican palette and beautiful folk designs were a sensation not only in her own country but also in the United States. She had a successful career but a tumultuous personal life that she often shared through her work.
7. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)
Artemisia Gentileschi became a professional Baroque artist at the young age of 15 years. At a time when female artists were unheard of, she managed to become the first female member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno (Academy of Fine Arts) in Florence.
Gentileschi was a close follower of Caravaggio’s work and also possessed a natural talent in the usage of the Chiaroscuro technique. While her command over light was most appreciated, she was also a master at creating dramatic contrasts between bright colors.
Like many female artists, Gentileschi too was supported by her father to explore her artistic talents. Soon she was making large biblical paintings, extremely imaginative, decorative, and realistic.
While she never let gender pull her back, she couldn’t resist a horrific incident of sexual abuse at the hands of her colleague. It is said that the pain, suffocation, and anger she felt during the incident were expressed through one of her paintings titled “Judith Slaying Holofernes”. Today, this 1620 piece is one of her most recognized works.
8. Yayoi Kusama (born 1929)
Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese artist known for her blindingly bright red wigs and unique contemporary artwork. Kusama took her art way beyond the canvas to beautiful sculptures, art installations, fashion, and even poetry.
From a young age, Kusama has been plagued with hallucinations and a variety of psychological difficulties that in a way have percolated into her art.
She was greatly influenced by the abstract impressionism movement that originated in the USA during the 1940s. She is a pioneer of contemporary anavte-garde and pop-culture art movements.
9. Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807)
Angelica Kauffmann was first introduced to painting as her father’s assistant. She also showed immense promise as a singer but later decided to stick to art.
The artist studied the renaissance masters and was skilled in painting realistic portraits and also history painting. She made portraits of several important people and was revered in the art society.
Kauffmann was later accepted into the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze. She was also one of the only two women in the Royal Academy. During the last part of her life, Kauffmann moved to Rome where she held her last art exhibition and finally took her last breath in 1807.
10. Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899)
Everything about Rosa Bonheur is rather unconventional. From the choice of subjects for her paintings to every little detail of her personal life nothing was “as per the norm”.
She was a French realist painter and a pioneer of the naturalist period. She often painted on large canvases that featured hyperrealistic animals. To perfect her work she often worked on farms and even kept the animals in her studio for closer observation. She was regularly invited to the Paris Salons to exhibit her work.
In her personal life, she was a symbol of freedom and equality. She openly wore men’s clothes at a time when women were not “allowed” to wear pants. She was also a lesbian and embraced her sexuality fearlessly. In both her personal and professional lives, Bonheur asserted her claim as a trailblazer.
Every major artistic movement, from the Italian Renaissance to American Modernism and beyond, has featured prominent women. Women have historically been discouraged from pursuing careers in the arts, as they have been in many other disciplines. Nonetheless, we have seen several talented female artists who persisted and transformed the art world for the better.
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