Women in Art History

Women have always had a place in the arts for the entirety of modern human existence.  Even in prehistory there is documented evidence of women participating in the creation of art.  At Peche Merle Cave, France, 25,000 year old cave paintings of spotted horses are surrounded by images of hand stencils.  These images were analyzed by archaeologist Dean Snow and found that at Peche Merle, and many other prehistoric European caves, a large number of these hand stencils and prints were created by female hands.

Hand stencils created by women and spotted horses at Pech Merle Cave, France. Image courtesy http://france.cherylfortier.com.

Even though women have always played a vital role in the creation of art, throughout the historical period female dominated arts (such as textile, fiber, and needle arts) have been dismissed as “crafts” by society.  It is only recently that these arts have been included under the umbrella of fine and applied arts.  It is also important to note that women participated in many forms of fine arts throughout the ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance periods right alongside men.  Women in the arts often have a silent presence in historical accounts.  Sometimes acknowledged, but rarely named until recently.

The Caputi Hydria, a red-figure vase dated to circa 460-450 BCE, showing women painting vases.  The vase was found in a female burial.

During the European Medieval period, female artists worked as illuminators of manuscripts, embroiderers, and as textile artists.  Women were generally only provided the opportunity to become artists by being born into wealthy families or by living in nunneries.  These two subsections of European society allowed women access to resources that the general population would not have had, such as instruction in reading and writing.

Illumination from Liber Scivias, by Saint Hildegard of Bingen, circa 1151/1152. The illustration depicts Hildegard receiving a vision which she relates to her male scribe/secretary.

During the European Renaissance and Baroque periods female artists first rose to international acclaim.  A great number of paintings produced by women survive from the era.  During these eras we also see the first documented existence of female sculptors like Properzia de’ Rossi and Luisa Ignacia Roldán. It was unusual for women to become painters or sculptors, as the apprenticeship period involved living and training with an older artist for 4 to 5 years.  Women who did train in painting were typically taught by a close male relative such as an uncle or father.

Hercule Assommant une Amazone by Properzia de Rossi. Now housed at the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy.

One of the first examples of self-portraiture in oil painting was created by Caterina van Hemessen.  This painting gained Caterina a large amount of attention during her lifetime as it is the first self-portrait of an artist of either gender depicted with the tools of their trade.  It was typical before this point for oil painters to insert themselves into crowd scenes.

Self-portrait by Caterina van Hemessen, 1548, oil on oak board. Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel, Switzerland (The Basel Art Museum).

The emphasis on the academic study of art made it difficult for women to fully integrate themselves into the world of fine arts.  Women from the middle and lower classes, if they painted or drew, were not considered true artists as they generally lacked formal training.  Only women from wealthy families had the means to provide access to classes and the time to devote to instruction by famous painters.   In 1791 the Salon Exhibition in Paris opened its doors to non-academic painters; however, it was not until 1872 that Elizabeth Jane Gardner became the first woman to win a gold medal at this exhibition.

The Imprudent Girl by Elizabeth Jane Gardner, 1884, oil on canvas.

In the modern era women continue to blaze trails and push boundaries in the art world.  With less emphasis on the requirement of formal training to qualify as an artist, access to this world is now open to people from all walks of life.

Baskets woven by Dat So La Lee (1829-1925), a member of the Washoe People that rose to national prominence in the 1890s.
Grandfather and Grandson at Manzanar Relocation Center by Dorothea Lange, circa 1941-1945.
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