Feminism in Art: How It Started vs How It’s Going

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by Rebecca Frankel

Women fill the halls of museums as models and muses but are still greatly underrepresented as artists. That doesn’t mean they haven’t had a massive impact on art history, quite the contrary. Feminist artists have gone against the grain to represent women’s realities in a male-dominated field. In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s explore these incredible women and how they shaped the world of art forever. At Agora Gallery, we are joining all institutions that have expressed their support in commemorating and encouraging the study, observance, and celebration of the vital role of women in history. From those who paved the way for women in art to those females who chose to liberate it from all prior rules, or today’s proudly representatives, here is a short history of feminism in art.

Early pioneers

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1653) was one of the earliest prominent female painters. As the daughter of an artist, Gentileschi got a rare opportunity to study art, something that most women were barred from at the time. Her first subject, Susanna and the Elders, was a favorite of male artists—usually painted as a beautiful young woman basking in the attention of older men. Gentileschi’s elders, however, are depicted as dirty old men, leering over Susanna as she writhes away from them, her face contorted in horror.

Susanna and the Elders (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi
Susanna and the Elders (1610), Artemisia Gentileschi

We see the violence of the male gaze through the female perspective, something that was absent in the majority of art and literature at the time. Gentileschi herself was raped by her teacher and went through a grueling seven-month trial in which her reputation was dragged through the mud. She refused to stand down, submitting herself to questioning and torture to prove her version of events. She was a woman of dauntless courage and fierce commitment to the truth of what women had to endure at the hands of men. Her rage at male oppression echoes in paintings such as Judith Slaying Holofernes. She represents female strength through adversity, the triumph of art over trauma.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842) made a name for herself as a portrait artist for the nobility of Europe, her most notable patron being Marie Antoinette. She painted over 1,000 portraits and landscapes over her impressive career and her success continued even after she was exiled during the French Revolution. She had an ability to put her patrons at ease, creating relaxed, natural-looking portraits—revolutionary at a time when paintings of the upper class were usually stiff and unfeeling. She brought a human warmth to her work, making her a trailblazer in art.

Rosa Bonheur (1822 – 1899) was one of the most well-known artists of the 19th century. Much of her work depicted animals, capturing them in such a realistic way that they seem to come to life right on the canvas. Bonheur was groundbreaking not just in her work, but in her personal life as well. She boldly challenged the norms of her time, insisting on wearing men’s clothing because she found them easier to work in when painting live animals. She also lived openly as a lesbian, sharing her life with her partner Nathalie Micas at a time when homosexuality was highly disparaged.

The Challengers

Mary Cassatt (1944 – 1926) was an American impressionist artist who worked in France. Many of her paintings were soft images of women in their daily lives, mothers sharing tender moments with their children, and an intimate look into the world of women in the 19th century. Cassatt was also outspoken about the difficulties of working as a female artist, which she claimed often required women to flirt with male patrons in order to succeed. Throughout her life, she fought for equality for women, which included participating in an exhibition supporting women’s suffrage. She was one of a group of women who were starting to speak their minds about the inequalities women faced in society.

Tamara de Lempicka (1898 – 1980) is a Polish artist known for her art deco paintings. The women of her paintings have a cool, detached beauty and their expressions held a quiet sensuality. Different from the lovely subjects of her male peers, her subjects seemed to be aware of their appeal—and in control of it. In a world where depictions of female desire and independence are still considered provocative, her work was truly revolutionary and remains wildly popular.

Frida Kahlo Self Portrait
Frida Kahlo (self_portrait)

Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) created deeply personal paintings that provided a vivid and intimate look into her internal life. Though the images were surreal, she claimed she never painted dreams, only her own reality. These self-portraits depict the hardships she experienced in her life. Her explorations of class, identity, gender, and race are sensually and jarringly splashed across the canvas. She looks us in the eyes, forcing us to confront her pain and empathize with her. Her work normalized women expressing their frustrations and passions, serving as an inspiration for female artists for years to come.

Liberation Through Art

Judy Chicago (b. 1939) created what could be considered one of the most important pieces of feminist art to this day, her 1970 installation The Dinner Party. This gigantic triangular table, has unique place settings for 39 historical feminists, highlighting their contributions to women’s fight for equality. Almost 1,000 more women are recognized with their names carved into the floor. It was a joyful celebration of the achievements of the women who had fought and are still fighting for a seat at the table.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) has an instantly recognizable style—whimsical pieces that are covered in polka dots. Her art has been made into fashion, architecture, and even vivid walk-through exhibitions like the Infinity Room. Much of her work carries themes of sexual liberation, and in her youth, she even used her own body as a living canvas. She once said her life was just one polka dot, lost among thousands of other dots. Her trippy, wild, obsessive art is her way of conveying her place in the world and of making sense of her own life.

An Infinity Room installation
An Infinity Room installation

Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) provided a blunt sociological commentary of the continued women’s struggle. One of her most famous untitled pieces was a contrasting black and white image of a woman’s face overlaid with the words, “Your body is a battleground.” Her work confronted issues of sexism and consumerism—a stark difference to the flashy materialism of the eighties.

Feminist Artists of Today

Kara Walker (b. 1969) is a painter and printmaker who candidly examines sexuality, race, and gender in her work through the scope of her experience as an African American woman. Using cut-paper silhouettes, she depicts haunting scenes of slavery and violence. Her work provides an understanding of the past while confronting the racist and sexist stereotypes that continue to plague society.

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) is another artist who explores gender roles and female stereotypes. Through her lively photographs, she has captured herself portraying various personas that are both entertaining and at times disturbing. Since the 1970s, her work has shined a light on the depiction of women in media, film, and art. Her images examine the ridiculousness of the roles women have been forced to play.

Mickalene Thomas
Image source: FLATTmag.com

Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971) creates vibrant collage-like portraits which address gender, race, and sexuality and their relationships with popular culture’s standard of beauty. Her dazzling use of rhinestones and acrylics highlight the beauty of her subjects, a celebration of black femininity and sexuality that subverts the while male gaze that has dominated the art world for thousands of years. Much of her work is styled to be reminiscent of different male artists throughout history, taking their ideas of beauty and the female form and creating art that holds black women up as an ideal to be celebrated.

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While it was once revolutionary just to exist as a woman artist, feminism in art has evolved into much more. Art provides a window into the unique experiences, struggles, and perspectives that women carry throughout their lives. It’s a tool that can be used to subvert gender norms, challenge our ideals of beauty, call out injustices, and even inspire movements. This Women’s History Month, let’s remember the daring women who paved the way and allow them to inspire us to continue their work to make the world of art a more equal space.

Rebecca Frankel is a writer and historian based in D.C. She graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a Bachelor’s in Interdisciplinary Studies. She’s passionate about storytelling, cinema, and her two adorable cats.


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2 responses to “Feminism in Art: How It Started vs How It’s Going”

  1. Janet Brugos avatar

    I am an older woman artist who got a late start while living in France in the 1990s. All I was told there by men was “You can’t. No, You can’t do that.” Except by a wonderful French woman artist, Jacqueline Urbanek who told me, “You can.” The role of women artists is often in the shadows. Thank you for this article.

    1. Agora Experts avatar

      Thank you for your feedback! Never give up, never stop creating!