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A brief history of women artists

How many famous women artists can you name off the top of your head? Go ahead. Take a moment and think about it. Do you have one? Maybe a couple or even a few? It’s tough, I know, but women have been creating art for centuries! Not only have they been creating art, but they have been using it to make a statement about what it means to be a woman in the world.

A woman in a green and brown dress leans over resting her arm on a table as she reaches up towards a canvas.
Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1638, oil paint, 38.8 in × 29.6 in, image from Flickr

Perhaps one of the first famous women painters, Artemisia Gentileschi was a baroque painter (alive from 1593 to 1653) who developed fame and recognition as early as her teens. While the baroque style came in and out of fashion, interest in her work remains strong due to the relevance of her subject matter. Her Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting shows herself as a woman artist deeply dedicated to her craft, not just indulging in a hobby to make herself an object of society.

A woman in a black dress holds binoculars to her eyes in a theatre box.
In the Loge, Mary Cassatt, 1878, 32 in × 26 in, image from wikimedia

Impressionism is all about capturing the moment, and Mary Cassatt seized this style to depict the modern, dynamic woman. Her painting, In the Loge, shows a woman deeply invested and engaged in the theatre as opposed to the commonly represented ornament to society.

A woman sits on a stage holding scraps of fabric to her body.
Still from Cut Piece, Yoko Ono, 1964, performance work, image from Flickr

Performance artists like Yoko Ono confront their audiences directly and even with active participation. Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece asked viewers to come on stage to cut away pieces of her clothing, acting in many ways as a commentary on how strangers interact with the body of a vulnerable woman.

An elaborate white dress hangs from a wooden hanger above a child's chair.
A Loss of Innocence, Betye Saar, 1998, assemblage, image from Flickr

A member of the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s and a celebrated assemblage artist, Betye Saar uses repurposed objects as a way of reclaiming images. Her work wrestles with themes from the events of the civil rights movement to, as she puts it, “expose injustice and reveal beauty.”

A figure sits in a lounge chair outside with a hat over their face. A woman leans through a doorway seemingly calling out to the figure in the chair.
Untitled Film Still #7, Cindy Sherman, 1978, 7.5 × 9.5 in, image from Flickr

In the late 1970s, Cindy Sherman created her iconic Untitled Film Stills series. This set of photographs features Sherman posed and styled like stereotypical scenes of women in film and critiques mainstream media and the male gaze.

A large white, sphinx-like sculpture coated in sugar sits in an abandoned factory space.
A Subtlety or The Marvellous Sugar Baby, Kara Walker, 2014, installation, image from Flickr

More recently, in 2014, Kara Walker produced a monumental installation called A Subtlety or The Marvellous Sugar Baby in the soon to be demolished Domino Sugar Refinery in New York. The central sphinx figure and its surrounding statues invites a commentary on the troubled history of sugar and broader conversations around race and gender.

What all of these artists seem to have in common can be captured in a conversation with contemporary Vancouver artist Laura Noonan. When speaking about her 2021 series, Bordolle, she describes wanting to create very honest representations of what it means to be a woman. She was intrigued by the introduction of the rag doll as a toy for young girls happening at the same time as the Victorian “angel of the house” and classic ideals of the woman as the homemaker. She says it feels nice to give a voice to the struggles women feel on a daily basis and it is something she looks forward to exploring further in 2022.

While this overview is by no means comprehensive, I hope it provides some insight into the work women artists have been accomplishing for centuries. So much more than just visually beautiful, these works carry considerable conceptual weight. There is strength in their vulnerability and the messages resonate regardless of how much time has passed.

By Sydney Dunn


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