Once at a house party, I was playing a game where you're given a category and you have to mention the most names associated to that theme. I was excelling at this game, at the drop of a hat I could name nineties cartoons,one-hit wonder musicians, and bands, Renaissance writers, the list goes on. As I was downing my drink, relishing my victory, someone proposed the next category, "next up! Female artists!" This is where it all fell apart. Obviously, we all immediately thought of Frida Kahlo, and then someone mentioned Georgia O'Keeffe, Yayoi Kusama, and Marina Abramović. I was blank and I lost. Later on, we realized that not many of us could name at least seven famous female artists, which is a bit worrying. We shrugged it off and continued with the game, but I still had a niggling doubt at the back of my mind. Why can't we name at least ten famous female artists?
Of course, the first and obvious answer to that is that the art scene has always been a male dominated discipline; so, many women found the doors were closed when it came to developing themselves in this arena. History is filled with trailblazing women whose stories challenged society and its standards. When the door was shut in their faces, they kicked it in.
So, I did my homework and began to research women who actually were lauded in their times, but History decided to forget.
Caterina van Hemessen (1528–1587)
Born in today’s Netherlands, van Hemessen is not only the first Flemish painter to be recognized at her time for her work, but also the first painter to create a self-portrait of an artist working on a canvas, move over Diego Velazquez! She became one of the most famous painters in her country because of the patronage of the Regent Queen Mary of Hungary. Throughout her life she perfected the technique of miniatures, creating many tiny portraits for the most important families in the Netherlands.
Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614)
Lavinia Fontana was daughter of a painter, which helped her practice and develop her artistic vision more freely. Moreover, she’s considered the first Italian female artist to be granted the same favors as her male counterparts. She lived in a time where female art was only possible inside the walls of a convent, making of Fontana the first woman to work in the artistic spheres outside a religious context. Besides that, she was also famous for her incredibly realistic and detailed portraits.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1624)
Known as the "Female Caravaggio," Gentileschi has always lived under the shadows of a male painter who had a very similar artistic style; however, she’s a remarkable artist by herself. As the first woman to enter the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, her work is characterized for depicting images of women in difficult and challenging moments. From suffering to empowerment, she’s one of the first painters to give women a protagonist role in art, making her an icon of feminism. Besides her mastery of chiaroscuro and technique, she was also incredibly brave, as she once took a man who had raped her to court and stood up for herself until he was found guilty.
Clara Peeters (1594-1653)
Trained in the style of Baroque Flemish art, Peeters developed her art in the style she was allowed to: still-life paintings. However, this never stopped her, and she found a way to show her real talents and artistic value. Not only did she excel in the hyperrealist technique, she also invented an innovative way to combine still life with precious metals and objects. She was one of the first artists to include fish in her compositions.
Anne Seymour Damer (1749–1828)
Anne stood above the rest given that she developed her craft in the highly selective discipline of sculpture. This artistic circle was thought to be exclusive to men given the physical strength needed to manipulate the materials and tools. She was constantly put down by the snobbish artistic circles simply because she was a woman; however, she never gave up. She managed to gain recognition and was exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842)
Nowadays, her paintings are recognized because she made portraits of the most important and influential figures of her time. As the official portrait painter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, she was one of the most famous and wealthiest artists of the eighteenth century in Europe. Not only French aristocrats and noble families commissioned her portraits, but she was often hired by different royal houses in Europe to portray their family members in her unique style.
Berthe Morisot (1841–95)
While many argue that she was already living in a time of more openness for female artists —they were allowed to pursue a formal career in arts and attend university—, the social norms were still as rigid as in the past. She had to start as a copy artist at the Louvre in Paris; however, she also devoted her time in perfecting her craft. She was the first woman to be accepted into the Impressionist circles.
Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1864–1933)
Often overshadowed by her husband, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an important Scottish architect, many ignore the fact that most of the artistic elements of his designs were actually created by Margaret. Collaborating with her husband wasn't Margaret's work, she was also a very prolific and dynamic artist who worked with many materials and styles, which made her one of the most important British artists of her time.
Lyubov Popova (1889–1924)
Working in the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, Popova is often considered to be the founder and main developer of Russian constructivism. Despite the fact that she had a very short career —she died of scarlet fever at the peak of her artistic career— she managed to become one of the most important Russian artists of all times, a great feat considering that during this time period the art world was incredibly restricted and controlled.
Hannah Höch (1889 – 1978)
Finally, the last outstanding woman in our list is the German, multifaceted artist, Hannah Höch. Merging her talents as a plastic artist and photographer, she is considered one of the creators of photomontage. Following the Dada movement, she used her work to show her views on politics, gender equality, and feminism. She was persecuted by the Nazi regime, which saw her daring art as degenerate and a promoter of transgressive and dissenting behaviors.
These women lived their lives beyond the ideas and social rules of their times and managed to make a name for themselves. However, history forgot their outstanding achievements and prioritized the works of others, particularly men. While her works are proof of their extraordinary talent, their lives have been overshadowed. These women defied their times, so it is time History paid its respects.