Art History, Issues of women artists

Misrepresentation of women in Art

Many people when start to talk about Art, talk about their favourite artists. If I ask you about yours, you’re probably thinking in names like Van Gogh, da Vinci, Rembrandt or Monet. Curiously never comes to our mind names of female artists, at least not at the first moment.

I started to study art and I can assure you that in one whole year I didn’t listen much about women artists. So, I started to ask myself about it. Did women wait until the feminism to create art? When they started? Why we don’t know the names and the work of women artists? Their work was not good enough as the work of male artists?

Then I realized that the problem is always the same for all women in human history. Art was forbidden to us. Women could not learn to read, write or develop any skill that push them to think. Women shouldn’t think.  But there were always women breaking the rules and creating art. Defying the society.

The most common reasons why we can’t find women in art history easily are:

  • The scarcity of biographical information.
  • Anonymity: Mostly of women artists were more active in artistic fields or expressions that were not signed. For example, during the Medieval Era, manuscript illumination was a pursuit of monks and nuns. Even after Medieval Era women used to learn first embroidery instead of painting or sculpture.
  • Painters’ Guilds: other common reason is that in Late Middle Ages and Renaissance, many of women artists worked in the workshop system, under the auspice of a male workshop head, usually was the artist’s father. Until 12th century we cannot find a workshop headed by a woman, because it is then when a widow is allowed to assume her husband’s former position. And very often the guild rules forbade women from attaining the various ranks leading to master, so they remained “unofficial” in their status.
  • Naming Conventions: the normal convention whereby women take their husbands’ last names impedes the research, especially when a work of unknown origin was signed only with the last name. Even the simplest biographical statements may be misleading. For instance, one might say that Jane Frank was born in 1918, but in reality, she was Jane Schenthal at birth — Jane “Frank” actually didn’t exist until over twenty years later. Examples like this create a discontinuity of identity for women artists.
  • Mistaken identity and incorrect attribution: It’s well known that in the 18th and 19th centuries, work by women was often reassigned. Sometimes this went so far as to alter signatures, as in the case of some paintings by Judith Leyster (1630) that were reassigned to Frans Hals.

Other example of mistaken identity is Marie-Denise Villers (1774–1821) , she was a French painter who specialized in portraits. Villers was a student of the French painter Girodet. Her most famous painting, Young Woman Drawing, (1801) is displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The painting was attributed to Jacques-Louis David at one time, but was later realized to be Villers’ work. It is considered to be a self-portrait of the artist. By contrast, in the late 20th century, in a rush to acquire paintings by women, some paintings have been wrongly attributed to women.

I cannot help to remember Virginia Woolf and hers A room of one’s own when she tells us that behind an Anonymous author very often we can find hidden a woman.

It’s because of this that I’ve decided to create this blog. To bring up the names of these brilliants but forgotten women. And maybe the next time someone talk with you about favourite artists you’ll be able to remember Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassat, Artemisia Gentileschi, Frida Kahlo, and many many others.

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