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Female Artists That Made History Through the Ages

Let’s take this opportunity to brush up on our art history and get to know some of the women who have changed the art world forever. SINGULART is taking this week to highlight and celebrate women in art thanks to the event “Through Her Eyes“. In order to celebrate the women that are currently shaping our view of the world, we first have to study the past and pay homage to the women who have paved the way.

Caterina van Hemessen (1528-1588)

Self-portrait Caterina van Hemessen © Wikimedia Commons

Seen as one of the earliest Flemish Renaissance painters, Hemessen is one of the few of the genre that can be verified by the work she left behind. Her body of work consists primarily of small-scale portraits of women between the 1540s and early 1550s as well as some religious compositions. It is said that Caterina van Hemessen was the first ever artist to create a self-portrait, capturing an artist seated at an easel. 

Of course, there were a few obstacles in the way of female painters like van Hemessen during these times, such as they were not allowed to study, as many of their male counterparts did, the nude male or the dissection of cadavers which were forbidden to women. Furthermore it was customary for young creatives to live with a master painter for four or five years around the ages of 9 to 15 which made it nearly impossible for women, because their duties as women and what society expected of them always took precedence.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)

Self-Portrait Artemisia Gentileschi © Wikimedia Commons

Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter who specialized in painting scenes of women from myths, allegories, and the Bible. The women were depicted in various scenes of suffering or victory. Her best known works are Susanna and the Elders, Judith Slaying Holofernes, and Judith and Her Maidservant. Also beloved is her self-portrait where she renders herself as ‘the allegory of painting’. As a woman painter during the 17th century, Gentileschi was a rarity. She has also been deemed as somewhat of a feminist icon, having participated in the prosecution of her rapist as a young woman.

After being married by her father to the painter Pierantonio Stiattesi, Gentileschi moved to Florence where she became a successful court painter in the palace of the Medici as well as Charles I of England. She soon after became the first woman accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). Over her career, she lived in Rome, Genoa, Naples, and London, making many professional connections which helped her to develop her artistic practice.

Marie-Gabrielle Capet (1761-1818) 

Self-portrait Marie-Gabrielle Capet © MyDailyArtDisplay

Marie-Gabrielle Capet was a Neoclassical painter from France whose artistic training remains unknown but who started her career as a painter in 1781 by becoming the student of Adelaide Labille-Guiard in Paris. With the support of this female artist, Capet was able to build a career on commission works from the upper-middle class, nobility and eventually even royalty. 

Her works include oil paintings, miniatures as well as watercolors and she excelled as a portraitist. Despite her talent and clientele, art historians see different reasons why she fell into obscurity after her death. Pastel colors were no longer in fashion, the majority of her works were held in private collections that dispersed throughout time and because society continuously diminishes and actively forgets the work of female artists. 

Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899)

Rosa Bonheur ©Picryl

Rosa Bonheur was a master of realism and received recognition on an unprecedented scale as a female artist in the 19th century. Known for her incredible realistic painting often showcasing animals, she was only 19 when she exhibited her first artwork titled “Two charming groups of a goat, sheep,and rabbits” (1814) in Paris at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Her most famous painting is undoubtedly “The Horse Fair” (1852-55) that is exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it takes up an entire wall due to its monumental size of 2 x 2.5m. Women as painters during this time were rare and so Bonheur had to find ways to blend in to prevent harassment and resist gender norms. She went to the Paris horse market for a couple of years where she worked on this painting and she obtained police permission to wear male clothing in order to blend in and work in peace. 

The Horse Fair” (1852-55) Rosa Bonheur

Bonheur was known for her indifference towards men and did not appreciate their dominant roles in both the family and societal circles, which is best summed up in one of her quotes: “As far as males go, I only like the bulls I paint.” 

Bonheur is buried at a cemetery in Paris together with her lifelong partner, Nathalie Micas who passed away before Bonheur. Her later partner Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, an American painter became her sole heir and was later buried in the same cemetery.

Harriet Powers (1839-1910)

Harriet Powers ©Wikimedia Commons

Harriet Powers, originally from rural Georgia, was an African-American slave known as a quilt maker and folk artist. Through her sewing and appliqué techniques, she told tales of local folklore, legends, bible stories and astronomical events. In 2009 a letter of hers was discovered, revealing that Powers transformed stories she read herself into pictorial masterpieces, which indicates that she was a literate woman – a huge feat for a woman in slavery.Even though only two of her quilts survived “Bible Quilt” (1886) and “Pictorial Quilt” (1898), her work is considered among the finest examples for Southern quilting of the 19th centruly.

“Bible Quilt” (1886), Harriet Powers ©Wikimedia Commons

Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944)

Hilma af Klint ©Wikimedia Commons

Hilma af Klint’s paintings were among the first known abstract pieces created. The Swedish artist however was overlooked within the abstract art movement. Male peers like Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinksy received all the attention and recognition. It is important to note that her abstract work predates the first purely abstract compositions by Kandinsky.

Klint belonged to The Five, a group of women who shared the belief in the importance of establishing contacts with the so-called High Masters, often by way of séances. We can often discover diagrams in her paintings, a visual representation of her complex spiritual ideas. 

Hilma af Klint, Moderna Museet ©flickr

Lyubov Popova (1889-1924) 

Lyubov Popova ©Wikipedia

Seeing herself as a cubist, suprematist and constructivist, the artist Lyubov Popova was certainly one of the most influential women artists of the Russian avant-garde. Developing her own variant of non-objective art in 1915 she became an icon, the variant was based on principles of both icon painting and avant-garde ideas. 

In the early years of the 20th century she joined the constructivists and in 1921 she fully dedicated her work to industrial design. Excelling in both clothing and fabrics as well as industrial design, she produced books, ceramics, photomontages and posters. Unfortunately, she died of scarlet fever 1924 in Moscow being just 35 years old.

“Composition” (1917), Lyubov Popova ©Wikimedia Commons

Augusta Savage (1892 – 1962)

Augusta Savage ©Wikimedia Commons

Associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Augusta Savage was a teacher, sculptor and activist wrapped into one, advocating equal rights for African-Americans in the arts. Even though she beat out 142 men on the waiting list to study art at Cooper Union College, she was still rejected by the French government for a summer art program in 1923 due to her race. This was the beginning of her lifelong fight to equalize and democratize the arts.

Her 1929 sculpture “Gamin” of a Child from Harlem ultimately earned her recognition and a scholarship to the Academie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. After winning numerous awards and putting on many exhibitions, in 1931 Savage returned to the US and launched her own Studio of Arts and Crafts. In 1934, Savage became the first African-American artist elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. 

This did not stop her from creating groundbreaking work and accomplishing unprecedented achievements like being one of four women to receive a commission from the 1939 World’s Fair. Throughout her various successes, she kept teaching art to her community. 

“Gamin” Augusta Savage ©Flickr

Maria Schendel (1919-1988)

Maria Schendel ©Wikiart

Being a Jewish refugee from Switzerland, who was raised Catholic in Italy, Maria Schendel fled to Brazil in 1949 due to the declining economy in Europe. Today, Schendel is seen as one of Latin America’s most prolific and important post-war artists. She is thought to have reinvented the face of European Modernism in Brazil. Schendel was not really known outside of Brazil until 2013 where the Tate Modern exhibited a retrospective. Her drawings on rice paper, paintings and sculptures build a unique and important body of work. 

Mira Schendel, Untitled, 1963, oil paint on canvas, 145,9 x 114 cm, © Tate, © Estate of Mira Schendel

To learn more about important women who shape the world of art, discover our magazine section dedicated to these female figures