Over 50 years ago, a man working in an art gallery asked art historian Linda Nochlin a question: “Why have there been no great women artists?” In 1971, Nochlin published an essay with this title, and it would go on to change the discipline of art history. Nochlin’s piece called attention to the ways in which women were denied opportunities in the art world. Throughout history, women have been excluded from art education, blocked from participating in official institutions, and overlooked on the art market. Nochlin’s work sparked a movement towards greater recognition of women artists, and in this blog post, we’re highlighting five women artists from across history who are known for challenging the status quo and defying the art critics of their time.
Active during the late 16th century in Bologna and Rome, Lavinia Fontana is one of the best-known women artists of the Late Renaissance. According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, whose collection contains two of Fontana’s paintings, she is considered to be the first woman to work professionally as an artist outside the context of a court or convent. As a woman in a male-dominated field, she was subjected to sexism, as exemplified by the priest and historian Andrés Ximénez’s remark that Fontana had “risen above the usual course of those of her sex, for whom wool and linen are the sole materials appropriate for their fingers and hands.” As her portrait of Costanza Alidosi shows, Fontana was a gifted artist capable of depicting textures from velvet to lace to gold with the utmost precision. Looking at this painting, it feels like you can reach out and touch fabrics and jewelry — not paint and canvas.
The Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi has gained well-deserved recognition in recent decades for her artistic achievements. She is best known for her famous painting Judith Beheading Holofernes, but she completed a larger body of works over her career, including self-portraits and scenes featuring female heroines. Esther before Ahasuerus is a notable example. Artemisia’s letters reveal how she challenged gender roles in the art world of 17th-century Italy. She corresponded with Don Antonio Ruffo, a patron and art collector from Sicily, and defended the role of women artists. In 1649, she asserted that “I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do,” and lamented that “…a woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen…” in two letters to Ruffo. The rich colors, dramatic compositions, and tangible emotion of her paintings testify to her talent.
During the late 18th century, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard was one of the most prominent women artists in France. She was one of the first women to join the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which controlled access to teaching, exhibitions, and patrons. The Metropolitan Museum of Art notes that only four women were allowed to be members of the Academy at a time. In Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Labille-Guiard advocates for greater opportunities in art education for women. She depicts herself as a teacher instructing two members of the next generation of women artists, who stand attentively behind her. Looking directly at the viewer, Labille-Guiard urges us to acknowledge her talent and that of her students, and implies that the Royal Academy’s quota should be abolished so that they, too, can one day join.
In the 1970s, Judy Chicago became one of the leaders of the feminist art movement in the United States. As an educator, she founded the first feminist art program in the country, at California State University Fresno, and as an artist, she explored dynamics of gender and power in her own work, particularly the role of women in art. The Dinner Party, perhaps her most famous accomplishment, consists of a triangular table with 39 place settings honoring women from history, one of whom is Artemisia Gentileschi. Chicago’s choices of media, including china painting and needlework, are skills traditionally thought to be the domain of women but often not considered to be fine art. The installation sits on a white tile floor with 999 tiles, which Chicago inscribed with additional names of women from history, including Fontana and Labille-Guiard. This artwork challenges art critics and historians who have overlooked women and the craft techniques often practiced by women.
The Guerrilla Girls
Founded in 1984, the Guerrilla Girls are a group of anonymous women artists who aim to combat sexism and racism in the art world. In public, they wear gorilla masks and go by the names of deceased women artists, such as Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz, in order to keep their identities private. The Guerrilla Girls hold public demonstrations and distribute posters and flyers to raise awareness of discrimination and share their critiques of art institutions. In one of their most famous prints, they asked “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” to point out that female nudes in the modern art collection vastly outnumbered the number of women artists represented. The Guerrilla Girls are also known for their use of humor to make an argument, such as in a famous poster listing “the advantages of being a woman artist,” which included “working without the pressure of success.”
Nochlin died in 2017, but she left a lasting legacy. Though inequality persists in the art world, there’s a growing recognition of women artists from across art history who challenged the art critics of their time.