Since the dawn of time the human race has been documenting their existence through creative means, long before photography, from cave paintings to drawings to sculpture. If you take a minute to think about famous artists throughout history who comes to mind? Da Vinci, Monet, Munch, Picasso, Van Gogh, Dalí, Warhol. All men. Even the cave paintings are credited to unidentifiable males. It’s a struggle to come up with many successful female artists, particularly pre 20th Century when women were given more rights and autonomy.

Linda Nochlin mentions in ‘Women, Art and Power’ that ‘Women, despite so many years of near-equality- and after all, a lot of men have had their disadvantages too- have still not achieved anything of exceptional significance in the visual arts’ when discussing matters on why women haven’t had more success in the art world in the chapter ‘Why have there been no great women artists’. She goes on to discuss why women were denied opportunities to follow their artistic passions and turn them into something of a serious career and says ‘The “real” work of women is only that which directly or indirectly serves the family; any other commitment falls under the rubric of diversion, selfishness, egomania, or, at the unspoken extreme, castration’. It is widely accepted that women had less opportunity than men historically, so this would have seriously hindered any possible success for a lot of potential artists.

Women suffered under educational regimes, receiving formal education later than men, and having it still be considered unnecessary for a long time afterwards. This meant that for thousands of years, although women weren’t necessary any less able, were victims of their circumstances due to not having the means to develop their skills or being allowed to let their interest in the arts flourish.

Any women that did successfully turn their passion into a career often had fathers or family members who were artists themselves, and could give them the artistic education they were denied as females. Nochlin states ‘they all, almost without exception, were either the daughters of artist fathers, or, generally later, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, had a close personal connection with a stronger or more dominant male artistic personality’. There is a huge tendency for artistic authorship to be male, although it’s not due to women not practicing art at all, but due to society’s longstanding attitude to women as a whole and the restrictions they have faced in producing and displaying their art.

Since men have always been the gender that dictates history, they also felt they had to be the ones to write and document it, which means not only did women not get to practice art in previous eras, but if they did, then patriarchal mindsets prominent in almost every culture in the world meant many were written out of history.

Pre-20th Century

It’s quite a difficult task to gain an accurate history of women in art, because many records have been manipulated, and much work has been credited to male teachers or relatives, as it was believed that ‘no truly great art could be created by a woman’. During the Renaissance (1450-1600 A.D) women artists started to become recognised, however, they possessed far less stature than men and although ‘it was no longer believed that women were incapable of creating great art’ it was duly noted by many that the work they were producing was a ‘lesser’ form of art. ‘Greater’ art was work with religious and historical themes, whereas ‘lesser’ art were images of landscapes, still life and portraiture. Due to their gender status, women were denied the education to produce work of the ‘greater’ category so they were condemned to produce work depicting only images of flowers and their mothers due to the widespread belief that ‘females were incapable of genius on moral grounds’.

By the 19th Century painters like Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) were depicting work that represented women from a female perspective (as opposed to a male one), which previously had been rarely portrayed historically (see the featured image above). Unfortunately, women were in a no-win situation within the art world, and although Cassatt’s work was recognised, some deemed that women were too concerned by the female experience by only creating art that was the focus of their family or social lives, or too limited by it by not creating anything else due to the confines of the society they were living in.

20th Century onwards

It wasn’t until successful suffragette movements, combined with the need for entire populations to pitch in to aid World War I and II in the early 20th Century that women started to finally get offered similar opportunities as men in regards to work and education. Social stigmas attached to educated women finally started to fade and by allowing women a similar freedom to express themselves through means that didn’t involve exclusively childbearing and house-maintenance they finally started to expand their subject matter and offered up an alternative view to the female nude, previously depicted only by men in popular art.

The early 20th Century was also when photography became a more accessible means of documenting daily existence and creating art for more people due to cheap camera models being realised, such as Kodak’s Box Brownie that came out in 1900 for $1.00. Prior to this photography was reserved for people who were financially fortunate enough to be able to afford it; often upper-class people who possessed both the time and money to invest in the study and practice of photography, (as photography was a far more complex process in it’s early stages that meant one had to have a good knowledge of the chemical process in order to produce images).

Women had finally started to create work beyond the boundaries of their homes, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that they began to receive notable recognition in the art world during the period of ‘second generation feminism’ that came into being during the 1960s and 1970s when women decided that if men weren’t going to support their art then they would support it themselves. Women actively made an attempt to reclaim authorship of their own bodies and femininity by creating artwork centralised around feminist ideals, often focussing on graphic imagery of vaginas, to oppose the objectification of women in western art.

Cunt Art

In 1979 Judy Chicago, an American artist now known for her art work examining the role of women in history and culture, displayed a large scale installation piece of art she had been researching and producing since 1974. Chicago had undertaken preliminary research and realised ‘women’s achievements had been left out of history and the records of their lives had apparently disappeared’. The work, titled ‘Dinner Party’ was laid out on a triangular table and depicted place settings with intricate place mats and china plates, each with an image of the female genitalia for thirty nine mythical and historical women whose achievements were important, but often overlooked by historians and storytellers.

This work received mixed reviews by both male and female critics, one by Maureen Mullarkey calling it preachy and untrue to the women it claims to represent. Regardless of the reviews, however, it is undeniable that Chicago’s prominence came during a new-wave of acclaim for female artists in the 1970s, and her work was a large part of this self-titled ‘cunt art’ women were producing.

More women became inspired by this bold expression that opposed thousands of years of oppression and sexualisation. This movement took on a new life of it’s own as women were making work that men couldn’t produce due to their history as a gender.

Another notable piece of work was ‘Womanhouse’, an idea conceived by Paula Harper, and created by twenty-five students who were part of the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts, which opened in 1971. Womanhouse reformed rooms in an abandoned house in Hollywood, taking control of them to express the home as a woman’s space: “the age-old female activity of homemaking was taken to fantasy proportions. Womanhouse became the repository of the daydreams women have as they wash, bake, cook, sew, clean and iron their lives away”. There was a sickly pink kitchen covered with breasts, a dining room full of inedible plaster food, a bedroom with a stage actress acting as a homage to the costume and makeup women plaster themselves with daily, and a ‘menstruation bathroom’ also created by Judy Chicago covered with menstrual aids soaked in ‘blood’. All these rooms were created in order to redefine the idea of ‘women’s art’ and how women have been expressing themselves the same length of time as men, but it’s through ‘their houses, meals and children’ and this ‘represent[s] art out of masculine reach’.

Upon the first day of Womanhouse opening, only women were allowed in. This gender divide, whether conscious or not, is one of the reasons I believe women are not as acclaimed in the art world. A lot of female-produced art addresses issues that men cannot sympathise with, having not been in a subordinate position in a patriarchal society. This limits the commercial appeal of women’s art, and regardless of whether work is created for commercial purposes or not, in order for anyone to gain repute their work needs to have appeal to the mass.

Annie Leibovitz

Around the same time feminist art movement was occurring Annie Leibovitz was rising to prominence. Leibovitz is now arguably one of the most notable female fashion and portrait photographers in the world, having shot hundreds of celebrities and non-celebrities alike for the likes of Vogue, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone that all began in the 1970s when she got a job as a tour photographer for the Rolling Stones band.

Leibovitz was the first woman to show at the National Portrait Gallery in 1991. In 1999 she and Susan Sontag co-released a book called ‘Women’, presenting their interpretation of ‘womanhood’ in which Susan Sontag argues that the images ‘usurp the old male stereotypes of women and cut to the core of female identity at the end of the 20th Century’. Before this book had been released, many photography books focussing solely on female subjects tended to be nude work; the reason this book was different was that it portrayed the women as more human by focussing on other aspects of their being aside from their body. Leibovitz had photographed coal miners, politicians, artists, maids, astronauts, surgeons and domestic-violence survivors. She approached her subjects with a tenderness and understanding that would be difficult to be portrayed by a man, as another woman can project it due to having experienced the hardships most women face growing up in a patriarchal society.

Sontag also stated that ‘any large-scale picturing of women belongs to the ongoing story of how women are presented, and how they are invited to think of themselves. A book of photographs of women must, whether it intends to or not, raise the question of women –there is no equivalent “question of men.” Men, unlike women, are not a work in progress’. This is proven by the history of women in the art world, and how it has altered so much over the course of history, much more so than men’s have. Women have constantly been assessing and reassessing their place in the art world and the world as a whole; expressing themselves in different ways appropriate to their era, compared to men who have always had the freedom as a gender.

Knowledge of Gender

There is a huge focus on deviation from the status quo: the assumption that an artist is a Caucasian male unless stated otherwise. There is a heavy emphasis on the divergence from this with novelty values often attached to art-work created by somebody that strays from the norm.

Men seem unable to comprehend the idea of being oppressed when they’ve forever been in the position of power. Allan G. Johnson stated that ‘under patriarchy, when a woman embraces her subordinate, devalued gender status, she gains precious little in return. But when a man assumes his gender status, he can identify with some of society’s highest cultural values-values associated with manhood, such as control, reason, strength, industry, courage, decisiveness, dominance, emotional control and inexpressiveness, toughness, wisdom, abstract principles, intellectual and artistic genius, even God. A man can take advantage of male privilege and the rewards for successfully embodying patriarchal values. By identifying himself as a man, he gains privilege by associating himself with what’s socially defined as the best that humanity can be. No matter what his social standing might otherwise be, he can know that something in his masculine being connects him with ideals that elevate him above even the most highly placed woman or, for that matter, other men who, although superior in relation to other forms of privilege, seem insufficiently masculine’. This is an interesting point reinforcing the idea that women cannot escape their gender status in a positive way, particularly when creating art, when society has deep-set chauvinistic ideals.

The biggest issue seemingly facing women artists is their audience viewing their work with the knowledge that it has been created from a woman’s perspective. This can alter the way female-made art is viewed and regarded, as much of it is seen as ‘feminist-art’ rather than being received as notable art work in its own right.

Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous feminist group fighting against discrimination within the art world, made a count of the number of female artists vs. female nudes on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1989, 2005 and 2012 that they displayed as posters across the US and the rest of the world (less than 3% of the artists in the Modern Art sections of the Met museum are women, but 84% of the nudes are female). The statistics, although shocking, are unsurprising given the slow process of the acceptance of women artists, and Marsha Meskimmon states in ‘Women Making Art’ that ‘it is still perfectly possible, for example, for a major exhibition of a century’s painting to be mounted by three national galleries without including a single work by a woman’. This scarcity of displayed female-created work by no means reflects the amount of art women are producing, but proves the heavy misogynistic attitudes women have to face as artists.

What is your opinion on women in the arts? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Image Credit: Little Girl in a Blue Armchair– Mary Cassatt (1878)