It’s International Women’s Day, a day focused on appreciating women and their contributions to society. What better way to celebrate here than with a top ten list of influential women artists? The following list, in no particular order, highlights some fantastic artists who broke boundaries, stand as major influences, and contributed greatly to the world of art throughout history and today.
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun
Born in Paris, France, Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) is most known as a portrait painter during the utterly decadent Rococo period. She was Marie Antoinette’s personal portrait painter, having painted the queen (and sometimes her family) more than 30 times. Vigée Le Brun’s own legacy includes hundreds of paintings to the tune of over 600 portraits and 200 landscapes.
Vigée Le Brun’s artistic legacy isn’t something that’s just remembered today. She, unlike most women in art at the time, was incredibly well known and famous. When she and her daughter fled France at the onset of the French Revolution, they traveled throughout Europe where aristocrats knew and welcomed her, allowing her to continue painting in her signature style. They made it all the way to Russia, where she painted beautiful portraits of Queen Catherine and her daughters.
Eventually Vigée Le Brun made it back to Paris and reunited with her husband, where she outlived her family and continued painting throughout her life, an artist to the end. It’s because of Vigée Le Brun’s passion, style, and ability to court influence amongst people throughout the world through her life and beyond that I include her in this list. Her prolific career is inspiring, and the range of individuals that commissioned portraits from her are incredibly interesting.
Chances are you’re familiar with some of the women on this list. Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), born in Pennsylvania, is best known as an impressionist who focused on women, children, and motherhood as subjects for her work. If you Googled “Who’s the lady who paints babies?”, you’d probably find Mary Cassatt’s work.
Cassatt studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, determined to make a career out of it, from the age of 15 (or 16, sources vary) until 21. In 1866 she moved to France, much to her father’s chagrin, to further her work and study. At the time women couldn’t attend art school, so she took private lessons instead, never once wavering from her goal: a career as an artist. In 1868, Cassatt’s work, A Mandoline Player, was selected for the Paris Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. She was one of the first American women to have been accepted into the exhibit.
Sadly, she had to leave France in 1870 in order to avoid getting caught up in the Franco-Prussian war. Doing so meant her artistic endeavors took a hit, as her father was still unsupportive of her career choices, and even caused her to consider quitting on her goals thanks to a lack of support and inspiration. Thankfully, she was able to return to Europe after being commissioned by the archbishop of Pittsburgh to paint copies of the master painter Correggio in Parma, Italy.
While back in Europe, her work took on an impressionistic style, and she befriended Edgar Degas, a fellow impressionist and well-known pastel artist. It’s this friendship that inspired her to continue on her own way, eventually blossoming into the style she’s known for most: portrait painter of women and children.
Her story is truncated here for sure (though it may be one of the longest in this list), but I wanted to highlight her persistence in pursuing her goals, stopping at nothing to create art and leave an indelible impression upon the world.
Harriet Powers (1837–1910) was an African-American freed slave who created beautiful storytelling quilts in the 19th century. Harriet was born into slavery some 30 years before the American Civil War.
For a long while it was thought that her quilt blocks, most of which retold Bible stories, were based on stories told to her. Thanks to a letter written by Harriet that surfaced in 2009, we now know she was a literate woman who transformed well-known stories she read herself into pictorial masterpieces in the tradition of quilt-making.
Harriet’s quilts were first shown at a cotton fair in the late 1880s, only finally selling a quilt when she encountered financial troubles years later. The buyer of the quilt, Jennie Smith, recorded the quilt’s meaning and story, as told to her by Harriet, allowing us to understand more about the intricate stories told in Harriet’s work today.
Pieced together, sewn, and embroidered by hand, her quilts are phenomenal pieces of art, illustrating with a medium that’s quite an alternative to paint or a pencil. I think Harriet’s story is important to share considering the history of her country and her own experiences as well as the skill she displayed in folk art. Being able to connect with such pieces today and seeing artists continue these traditions brings such skill full circle.
It’s hard to imagine Southwest American imagery or abstract flowers without Georgia O’Keeffe’s (1887–1986) paintings. Originally from Wisconsin, this Midwestern artist studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 20th century, where she trained in the mimetic tradition, in which art imitates or represents nature. She was unsatisfied with her work in this theory, however, and decided to cease pursuing a career as an artist.
It wasn’t until she studied under Arthur Wesley Dow that she was inspired to turn away from realism and experiment with abstracting the world around her. She’s noted as being one of the first American artists to break away from realism in this way and herald a new age of American art: pure abstraction.
In 1916, a friend of hers showed some of these works to Alfred Stieglitz, an art dealer and well-known photographer. He exhibited her work at his gallery, 291. This not only kicked off her career as the artist we know today, but also kicked off their relationship and eventual marriage.
O’Keeffe’s work ranged from organic subjects, like close-ups and abstractions of flowers, to man-made structures, like the buildings of New York, where she lived and worked. Interestingly, much of her flower-centric work is regarded as also depicting female genitalia, though O’Keeffe herself rejected these interpretations.
Eventually, she tired of these subjects and took a trip to New Mexico, where landscapes and iconography inspired her work so much she eventually moved there. The popularity of her work never wavered, no matter the subject she took on.
Whether intentional or not, O’Keeffe was a trendsetter; her work coincided with artistic trends (flowers and American modernism previously, and now landscapes and regional scenes). She painted unassisted well into her 80s, and when her eyesight failed her, she worked with assistants, creating well-loved motifs from her memory.
Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), a Mexican surrealist painter, is best known for her brilliantly colored and strange self-portraits. As a child she contracted polio, which caused her right leg to be thinner, something she hid in long skirts for much of her life.
At age 18 she was in a bus accident, which left her with several serious injuries, most of which she recovered from, but had lasting effects on her body including a lifetime of pain episodes and reproduction issues, the latter of which appeared as a common subject of her artwork. At the time of the accident, she was studying medicine but abandoned it and began painting while she was immobilized during recovery.
Throughout her lifetime, Frida painted over 140 paintings, 55 of which were self-portraits. Her work was bright and colorful, influenced heavily by her Mexican culture. Common themes included symbolic expressions of her physical challenges and psychological state. She’s quoted as saying, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
Kahlo’s reality included a reportedly tumultuous marriage to fellow painter Diego Rivera, openly supporting communism, and friendships with Pablo Picasso, Leon Trotsky, and Marcel Duchamp. Her body of work grew and grew over time, showcasing her struggles with wearing back braces, spinal surgeries, and her chronic physical and mental pain.
Frida’s work was filled with emotion, passion, and often turned inward, giving the world an insight into her mind and state of being. Whether you agree with her politics or not, her ideals were never hidden in her work or life. And as such, she didn’t hide her struggles with depression or pain. She committed these thoughts and feelings to canvas and shared everything she felt, creatively, with the world.
Caterina van Hemessen
Caterina van Hemessen was a Flemish Renaissance painter, having lived from 1528–1587 (or thereabouts), and is most known for having been the first painter to create a self-portrait depicting an artist at their easel. With self-portraiture such a common feature of artists (and humanity, really), it’s amazing to think that it wasn’t until the 16th century that an artist showed themselves at work within their work.
Unlike the other artists in this list, Van Hemessen’s body of work is small and her years of painting were short. Likely trained by her father, painter Jan Sanders van Hemessen, Caterina was primarily a portrait painter. A common theme seen in her work, wealthy men in fancy clothes against a dark background, is likely due to paintings being commissioned by wealthy patrons.
It’s said her work stops in 1554, around the time she got married, a common occurrence at the time. Though, considering she died a few years later, it’s really unknown if she would have picked up painting again later in life.
I’ve included her on this list for influencing so many artists in self-portraiture and portraits. Not every artist produces work forever, but to be noted as the artist to have kicked off the trend of self-portraits at easels is pretty influential to me.
Sofonisba Anguissola was an Italian Renaissance painter who lived from 1532–1625. Sofonisba’s art education came from studying with Bernardino Campi and Bernardino Gatti. This set a precedent, at long last, for women to be accepted as apprentices and students of fine art. Her father encouraged her and her sisters in their artistic endeavors, likely more so than other women would have experienced at that time.
It’s a common thread throughout this list: the seemingly anachronistic encouragement of women to reach their goals and dream for a future filled with creating art leads to a great deal of success—or at least as much success as women could attain in their time. For Sofonisba, this meant that she wasn’t able to study anatomy and life drawing as men were (for many, many years women weren’t allowed to study the naked human form).
To counteract these ridiculous limits, Sofonisba painted informal portraits of family members or herself. One of her pieces, Lucia, Minerva and Europa Anguissola Playing Chess, shows her sisters in formal wear with informal expressions. At the time, Italian portraits were stiff and formal. She created natural expressions and ushered in the concept of painting people as they were rather than as they wanted to be seen (idealized versions). Additionally, the game of chess was popular, but typically only seen as something for boys or men due to its use of logic and strategy.
By the late 1550s, Sofonisba was well known, and she was invited to Spain to be King Philip II’s court painter. She had a residence at court of 14 years, painting portraits and serving as an artistic mentor to Queen Elisabeth of Spain and her daughters. In time she married, lived in Palermo, lost her husband, moved to Genoa, and remarried. She became the premier portrait painter in Genoa until she moved back to Palermo late in her life.
Her last self-portrait is listed as having been painted in 1620. In her twilight years she became a great patron of the arts, no longer able to see well and contribute herself due to cataracts and failing eyesight. Sofonisba rose above the limits placed upon her gender by society, painting long until her old age, and establishing herself, time and time again, as an artistic force to be reckoned with long after many of her contemporaries were gone.
Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter, having lived from 1593–1653 (or thereabouts). She’s considered one of the greatest women in art during her lifetime, focusing on progressive ideas about women that weren’t seen publicly at that time.
Gentileschi was introduced to art thanks to her father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi, and heavily influenced by the Italian painter Caravaggio. Her work, unlike her father’s, however, was very naturalistic rather than idealized, and gained great recognition for it.
A notable earlier painting by Gentileschi is Susanna and the Elders. The story of the piece comes from the Book of Daniel, depicting a woman named Susanna who was falsely accused by a couple of creepy elders. In the story, Susanna refuses to be blackmailed, is arrested, and is nearly put to death before Daniel saves her, questioning the elders and showing them to be liars.
This piece is notable because Artemisia’s painting focuses on the emotion of Susanna, showing the voyeurism as being a traumatic experience. At the time, few artists had depicted this story in this way; few artists were focused on a woman’s experience.
In 1612 a lawsuit was brought against Agostino Tassi, an artist Artemisia had studied under, for having raped her. Tassi manipulated Artemisia after the rape, promising marriage to restore their culture’s notion of “virtue”. The trial was highly publicized and brought to light Tassi’s true intentions of killing Artemisia and steal Orazio’s paintings. Tassi was merely sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and never actually served the time.
These events forever changed the work of Artemisia Gentileschi: her rape, the court’s decision, the lack of help from women in her life, and the experience of the trial itself. Her work then focused on imagery of solidarity between women, powerful women, and graphic depictions that served as a catharsis for her. Many of her paintings of strong women are thought to resemble Artemisia herself.
She painted throughout her lifetime and was highly regarded. Her work after her death, however, had been misrepresented, often attributed to her father. Thanks to scholars of art, however, credit to her work and legacy has been restored.
I’ve included her in this list not only for her
influence and fame during her lifetime, having been a fantastically
accomplished artist, but for a seemingly anachronistic focus on strong women
and her own experiences as a woman during the 17th century.
Marianne North (1830–1890) was a biologist and botanical artist who painted primarily during the Victorian era. Marianne traveled the world with her father, studying plants and painting most everything she could. When her father died in 1870, she decided to continue traveling the world alone, trudging through jungles, sleeping on the ground, and eventually visiting every continent she could, amassing hundreds of paintings of the natural world.
Her paintings are seemingly more vibrant than their real-life counterparts, quite unlike those of other botanical artists. Her style was quick and tended toward being impressionistic, allowing her to complete paintings quickly and likely leading to her prolific nature.
The number of plants and organisms she documented in her paintings brought more value than ever to their usefulness in biology. Without the ease of photography, her work served, and still serves, as an important resource for studying the natural world. Various plants have been named in her honor, including an entire genus of plants named Northia.
I’ve included Marianne in this list not only for her skill and adventurous nature, traveling the world on her own and following her passion, but for her contributions to science and our understanding of the natural world.
Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) is an incredibly well-known naturalist, conservationist, illustrator, and writer. It’s quite likely that you’ve read some of her work as a child, such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Born in England to a wealthy family, Beatrix had an interest in the natural world at a young age.
Early work of hers focuses on mycology and scientific illustrations. During this time, she studied various live specimens of fungi. Many of her drawings and paintings of fungi were given to the Armitt Museum and Library and serve as a resource for mycologists to this day.
Influenced by fairy tales, Beatrix turned to telling stories with gorgeous drawings and paintings of animals. In 1901, after being unable find a publisher for her mock-up book telling the tale of rabbits, she self-published at her own expense. Thanks to a family friend’s help, her book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was published by Frederick Warne & Co in 1902.
She created 23 books showcasing the stories of little animals over the course of 20 years. Quite wisely, Beatrix created and patented a Peter Rabbit doll in 1903, the first of many pieces of merchandise based on her books and illustrations. These products were licensed by her publisher, allowing income for herself beyond the scope of books and an added boost for her publisher as well.
Beatrix moved to the countryside, continued to write and illustrate, and became a sheep farmer. Well respected in her community, she was nominated as President of The Herdwick Sheepbreeders’ Association, the first woman to ever do so, but died that same year before holding office.
I chose Beatrix for this list not only for her drive and passion as an artist, but also for her business acumen, smartly protecting her work, herself, and creating a lasting impression on generations to come with her stories and illustrations.
This list is far too short and incomplete, being only 10 fantastic women in art. There are so many brilliant and interesting women who have created artwork in a variety of media throughout all of history. I implore you to read on about the lives of historical and contemporary artists in a variety of disciplines. You can start with an article on women in photography:
Who are some of your favorite women in the art world? Tell us what makes your pick influential to you and the world of art and design. Share with us in the comment section below!