“This is so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.” – Hans Hoffmann
There are nine names that appear on the screen when one Googles the most famous artists of all time. The one thing they have in common is, yes you guessed it right – they’re all men. Which begs the question, where are the women?
Male bias in the art world has a long history, much like any other sociological investigation of mankind. There’s a prevalent notion that not many women partook in the institution of art. While men tend to dominate the headlines in the world of art, if we take a closer look, women have always played a pivotal role in the enrichment of the arts. However, in a tale as old as patriarchy, women’s contributions have been airbrushed from art history.
“So long as a woman refrains from unsexing herself by acquiring genius, let her dabble in anything. The woman of genius does not exist but when she does she is a man.”
During the Renaissance, people began to value artists and fine arts. The art of painting was revered and seen as a noble pursuit for gentlemen. Men who showed creative ability were said to be directly inspired by God and hence received encouragement, a thorough education, a chance to travel and study human anatomy.
The Creation of Man – Michelangelo
Women were not expected to be brilliant or to have divine inspiration. They did not receive any formal education and were forbidden from traveling to study art. Only women related to male artists had access to training. As a result, most of the female artists that made a name for themselves were born into families of artists.
With the advancement of the Industrial revolution, there was some sort of “progress” in the 18th and 19th centuries. The idea of ‘work’ for a ‘lady’ was abominable. Art was one of the few acceptable professions because it could be perceived as an extension of the conventional feminine achievements. Women were encouraged to paint as it was seen as a desirable trait in the “accomplished woman”. They were allowed to paint whatever they wanted as long as they embodied feminine traits like beauty, grace and modesty and their paintings were beautiful, gracious and modest too.
However, professional careers in art for women who did not need to work were considered detrimental as they were thought to divert women from their prescribed roles as wives and mothers.
Prestigious art schools only accepted women in the 1800’s and even then their intake was controlled to ensure they do not outnumber the men. Female art students were barred from studying the nude model – which formed the basis of any academic training – as it was seen as unladylike. When they were finally allowed to attend life classes, it was stipulated that the models should be partially draped. Given how dominated art was by pieces depicting the human form, this was hugely prohibitive.
Nude Model studies at the Royal Academy in London
“If painting is no longer needed, it seems a pity that some of us are born into the world with such a passion for line and color.” – Mary Cassatt
Women have always engaged in the fine arts in some capacity. Everything made in the beginning was handcrafted by women in the domestic environment. Nuns in convents produced illuminated manuscripts and even noble women engaged in needlework. Wives, daughters, and sisters of male artists often worked along with them in their workshops.
In the 17th century, when they were denied from studying the nude model, many women turned to portraiture, genre painting, landscape, and still life – the styles of painting that were not held in high regard.
When female enrolment at art institutes was finally permitted, they were pigeonholed towards crafts like embroideries, tapestries, china painting, etc. These crafts were seen more as decorative than art. However, they have been gaining recognition as important artworks in their own right. The intricate embroideries by some artists were on a scale of large paintings. Historical crafts were more than technical and decorative, often raising challenging or emotional subjects. The latter half of the 20th century was marked by women playing a central role in experimental art such as installation, performance, conceptual, digital, and video art.
Embroidery by Phoebe Anna Traquair
When women were able to work in traditionally artistic mediums, there were concerns with the legacy and durability of their work. The work they were producing wasn’t considered worthy of keeping and looking after. Consequently, their works haven’t been a part of art collections as people thought they didn’t have that value. This historical effacement of their art has aggravated the gender inequality dilemma.
“I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands.” – Louise Bourgeois
Despite institutional, societal, and practical obstacles, the world was blessed with prodigious female artists throughout history. Their work revolutionized the art world.
Rosa Bonheur was a crucial figure in Realism with her paintings achieving critical acclaim from a very young age. Bonheur unintentionally contributed to the emergence of a new art movement called Impressionism with her inclination to paint outside of the studio.
Berthe Morisot was a great maestro of Impressionism. A unique quality in her paintings, she did not distinguish between aristocratic women and women who worked as house servants. She sought equality in recognition with her male counterparts throughout her entire career.
Mary Cassatt was another important figure of Impressionism. Her work was similar to Morisot’s, although she was more experimental than Morisot. She gave the women she painted an air of worth and deference that the male Impressionists frequently lacked in their art. She was outspoken in her feminist principles and wholeheartedly believed that female artists should be given the same opportunities and treatment as men.
The Child’s Bath – Mary Cassatt
“The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to.” – Frida Kahlo
Even today, women remain dramatically unrepresented and underrated in museums, galleries and auction houses. The statistics paint a dismal and despairing picture. The conversation around the status of women in art continues. Though there have been numerous advances for female artists, we’re a long way off from achieving equality.