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Over the past few centuries, there have been a large number of female painters who have created groundbreaking works of art. Despite all the adverse circumstances, a considerable number of famous women painters have succeeded in going down in the records of art history and, at the latest in modern times, in gaining the recognition their work deserves. Some of the best painters of all time were women, but often they weren’t recognized. We introduce you to famous women painters from all art periods and tell you their stories.
Table of Contents
- 1 History of Women in Painting
- 2 Female Painters’ Struggle For Recognition
- 3 Famous Painters
- 3.1 Romantic – Herrad von Landsberg
- 3.2 Renaissance to Baroque – Sofonisba Anguissola
- 3.3 Classicism – Angelika Kauffmann
- 3.4 Romantic – Marie Ellenrieder
- 3.5 Naturalism – Rosa Bonheur
- 3.6 Impressionism – Mary Cassatt
- 3.7 Modernity – Paula Modersohn-Becker
- 3.8 American Realism – Alice Neel
- 3.9 Abstract Expressionism – Lee Krasner
Famous women painters often did not enjoy the same reputation as their male colleagues. As for a long time in politics, women were often worse off in painting and were never regarded as the best painters of all time. For example, they were not allowed to attend certain art academies or achieved lower prices for their paintings. As an artist in Europe, it was almost impossible to make a living from art. This was the case until the late 19th century. In some cases, women were generally denied any artistic skills. Sometimes, they were deliberately prevented from exercising their profession. This was often based on cultural prejudices, family constraints or social values. However, economic aspects also played a role.
History of Women in Painting
The opportunities for women to take up an artistic profession were very different during the different art periods. It is therefore not possible to make a general statement. However, we can state that it was always more difficult for women to make a living from their art, and to be classified as the greatest painters of all time.
Until the late 19th century, women were generally only able to pursue an artistic career if they worked in the context of aristocratic or royal houses or in the church environment. The alternative was the possibility of admission to a guild. It was also always an advantage if the father was an artist and thus opened a door for a possible education. Particularly in the field of still life painting, there were relatively more female painters.
In the past, guild houses were the gateway to an artistic career that developed out of arts and crafts professions. These were later replaced by often courtly art academies. Not least due to a change of thinking from craftsman to artist personality, this further development made perfect sense. The academies thus showed a way of pursuing an artistic career outside the constraints of the guilds and thus gaining independence. Some of the greatest painters of all time were women, but they never got the platform to really express this.
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard [Public domain]
Increasing Famous Female Artists Despite Academy Exclusions
The opportunity to learn art at an academy also enhanced the social value of the artistic profession. Learning an art form was a new science, which was taught according to standardized rules. Especially from the 18th century onwards, the importance of academic training increased enormously, while the influence of the church and that of royal and aristocratic houses dwindled increasingly.
In general, women were excluded from academic art training, and could not really be regarded as being the greatest painters of all time. Moreover, until the late 19th century, female painters were not allowed to paint in front of naked models. What seems absurd today was a real catastrophe back then. For nude painting was a very important branch for a long time. Female painters were therefore forced to look for other themes and were thus restricted. This made it difficult for women to be seen as the best painters of all time.
Female Painters’ Struggle For Recognition
One possibility to get an artistic education was reserved for women from wealthy families. So there was the possibility to receive private lessons from an established painter – provided the necessary small change. There were also a few private training centres, but these were not affordable for normal citizens.
Out of this injustice, so-called “ladies’ academies” developed around 1860, which were privately run and enabled women to learn the basics in their own art classes. However, these academies were not supported by the state but had to charge their fees to the participants. Some well-known examples were the Académie Colarossi and the Académie Julian in Paris.
After the First World War, the restrictions on women in the arts were finally lifted step by step. However, even at that time, women were not granted complete creative aptitude. Only with the equality of men and women did the percentage of full-time female artists rise significantly.
Female artists were also under pressure during the Second World War, which was also due to the National Socialist image of women, which was contrary to a serious activity as an artist.
We have taken a closer look at the following famous Painters:
- Herrad von Landsberg
- Sofonisba Anguissola
- Angelika Kauffmann
- Marie Ellenrieder
- Rosa Bonheur
- Mary Cassatt
- Paula Modersohn-Becker
- Alice Neel
- Lee Krasner
Romantic – Herrad von Landsberg
Self-portrait Herrad von Landsberg [Public domain]
During the Romantic period, female painters often worked anonymously on mostly ecclesiastical works. The focus here was on book painting and illustrations.
Probably one of the most famous painters of this time was the abbess Herrad von Landsberg. As a nun, she was taught by the abbess Richlint. She later took over the Hohenburg monastery as abbess from 1167 to 1195. Besides this role, she was also very committed as an illustrator and author. For example, she created the “Hortus Deliciarum”, the garden of delicacies. This was an encyclopaedia in Latin, which summarized the collected knowledge of the high middle ages.
Renaissance to Baroque – Sofonisba Anguissola
During the period of the Renaissance, some famous female painters achieved European fame for the first time. During this time, art was no longer the focus of attention only for Christian portraits but was increasingly secular. Due to the emergence of humanism at that time, the reputation of art as a craft shifted towards philosophical, intellectual work. More and more, the study of the human body, mathematics and art history became part of the focus.
Sofonisba Anguissola was one of the most famous painters of that time. She was born in Italy and grew up in a family of painters. Unlike many other artists, she did not paint still lifes but focused on portraiture. Due to this unique selling point and her great gift, she already some fame during her lifetime.
However, the famous artist made her breakthrough through a recommendation from the Duke of Alba, which gave her access to the Spanish royal family. There she was allowed to paint portraits of King Philip II and his family. The king liked these works so much that she became lady-in-waiting and could spend a lot of time in front of the easel. Many years later she moved to Genoa, where she gave painting lessons and painted other works.
Anguissola’s best-known work was “The Game of Chess”, which is considered the first illustration of an everyday scene in Italy.
Classicism – Angelika Kauffmann
Self-portrait Angelica Kauffman [Public domain]
A Swiss woman who achieved fame, recognition and became a famous painter: Angelika Kauffmann was born in Chur. Her father was a fresco painter, which opened the door to painting for her. It was also her father who encouraged her and taught her painting. After her youth, she received her first commissions from noble houses. She was one of the most famous painters of her time as a woman.
Later, Kauffmann moved with her father to Florence to study the art of the Renaissance and Antiquity. There she painted well-known personalities, including the archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann. This was her breakthrough and she became an honorary member of the “Accademia Clementina di Bologna”.
Romantic – Marie Ellenrieder
Self-portrait Marie Ellenrieder [Public domain]
Marie Ellenrieder was born in Constance and came from a family of painters. She was apprenticed to the miniature painter Joseph Einsle and was actually the first female painter to be admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. After her studies, she mainly painted portraits for various royal courts. She became one of the most popular painters during her time.
She also painted sacral art again and again. Although she enjoyed some success, she never really felt taken seriously by her male painter colleagues. For a woman, however, she enjoyed a considerable reputation at this time. Thus she received the Golden Medal for Art of the Baden Art Association as well as an award from the Patriotic Order of Merit of Grand Duke Ludwig.
Ellenrieder painted fewer and fewer portraits and concentrated entirely on religious art. For example, she painted the high altarpiece of the church of St. Bartholomew in Offenburg and the town church of St. Stephan in Karlsruhe. Grand Duke Ludwig appointed her as court painter in 1829.
At the same time, she was commissioned to paint a family portrait of Grand Duchess Sophie with children, which took almost 2 years to complete. The British Queen Victoria also belonged to Marie Ellenrieder’s clientele, for whom she was allowed to paint two large religious paintings. This made her one of the most popular painters to come from this period.
Naturalism – Rosa Bonheur
Portrait of Rosa Bonheur, Anna Elizabeth Klumpke [Public domain]
Rosa Bonheur’s career began like that of many of her colleagues: She was born into a family of artists. Her father Raymond Bonheur taught her painting and Rosa Bonheur specialized in animal painting. In contrast to many of her female colleagues, she preferred to paint larger animals such as horses and cows. She also had considerable success with this and positioned herself as one of the few famous female painters of this art period.
She exhibited her paintings at the Paris Salon in 1841, where she really took off in the following years. Her painting “The Horse Market” brought the breakthrough for Bonheur – making her one of the most popular painters. Her gallerist Ernest Gambart did not have a small part in this, as he introduced her to such illustrious personalities as Queen Victoria or wealthy collectors such as Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Impressionism – Mary Cassatt
Self-portrait Mary Cassatt [Public domain]
Modernity – Paula Modersohn-Becker
Self-portrait Paula Modersohn-Becker [Public domain]
American Realism – Alice Neel
Lynn Gilbert [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons
Alice Neel became interested in painting at an early age and attended the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. She focused on portrait painting. Her goal was always to make the inside visible. Her portraits are characterized by great openness. She preferred to paint people from her circle of acquaintances and cultural workers from the Manhattan area.
Alice Neel did not have an easy position in a male-dominated art scene. She struggled for a long time for recognition, which she only received around 1970 in the context of feminism. Today she is one of the world famous painters, and her works are famous, sought after and can be seen in many American museums.
Abstract Expressionism – Lee Krasner
At the beginning of her career, Lee Krasner was at home in figurative painting. Through the influence of Jackson Pollock, she began to explore abstract expressionism. She acted as the muse and organizing force behind Jackson Pollock, who was not an easy person to deal with. After the alcohol-induced death of Pollock, Lee Krasner experienced a new artistic spring and created a total of around 600 works. She became one of the most famous artists in her field at the time.
There are a number of women that became famous painters over the centuries. While female painters may not be as the most famous artists that were men, these women listed above have produced some of the finest artworks in the world. Understanding these artists is an important part of appreciating art history.