Throughout the history of art, women were all too often relegated to the sidelines; considered muses, models or “pupils“ by male artists around the world. Yet, there are many examples of women who worked and produced artistic wonders in the shadow of their male counterparts! Today, KAZoART is shining a light on 5 of these lesser-known women artists who positively rocked the art world!

The Role of Women in Art History

For centuries, women have been known solely for their roles as muses, wives or lovers of well-established artists. They represent godly creations and erotic figures.

Diego Velasquez, La Vénus au miroir (1647)
Diego Velasquez, Rokeby Venus (1647)

They encountered countless obstacles just to establish themselves as artists. The teaching of women in the arts was strictly prohibited for centuries, as was their ability to create nudes.

Despite all these hindrances, the number of women artists grew exponentially throughout the 19th century.

In 1861, The Royal Academy of London became the first to allow women to follow classes and get tuition. It was then followed in 1897 by the School of Fine Arts in Paris. These establishments allowed these women to gradually gain more and more notoriety and therefore build up their statuses as artists.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, women artists gained much more visibility in the world of art. But unfortunately, their success was oftentimes attributed to the men in their lives – their husbands or lovers

Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? (1989) ©TateMuseum
Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? (1989) ©TateMuseum

Since the early 1990s , more and more women are fighting for recognition and a chance to be showcased in museums. Nevertheless, these women artists left, and continue to leave, a huge impression in the world of art!

5 Women Artists That we Don’t Hear Enough About

1. Artemisia Gentileschi

Born in Rome in 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian painter who garnered widespread success before falling into forgotten territory in the centuries that followed.

Artemisia Gentileschi was taught drawing and painting by her grandfather who was already a well-known baroque artist in his time. She also adopted the chiaroscuro technique (technique employed in the visual arts to represent light and shadow as they define three-dimensional objects) after being inspired by a good friend of her grandfather – the great Caravage.

Artemisia created her very first painting at the age of 17, named Suzanna and the Elders, which truly shows her incredible and undeniable talent!

Artemisia Gentileschi, Suzanne et les vieillards (1610)
Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders (1610)

Unfortunately, at the age of 19, the young artist suffered a horrifically traumatising experience. She was raped by one of her father’s collaborators. Following this incident, her reputation was greatly tinged as she had to undergo terribly invasive gynecological tests in order to prove the veracity of her claims.

Her aggressor was eventually condemned to five years exile, therefore not allowing Gentileschi a chance to take revenge…

Artemisia Gentileschi, Vénus et Cupidon (1625)
Artemisia Gentileschi, Venus and Cupid (1625)

She ends up marrying a painter and decides to moves to Florence in order to be with him. This new life grants her a fresh start. Her husband permits her to paint at her own free will, allowing her to finally begin her career as an artist!

Her success grants her the opportunity of being the first woman ever to attend the Academy of Fine Arts! She earned a huge personal victory after being commissioned by the Médicis Family, at the beginning of her artistic career.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith et Holopherne (1612)
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith beheading Holofernes (1612)
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as the allegory of painting (1638)

Moreover, the artist often depicts herself as her own heroines in her work. We can see this in her piece entitled Judith beheading Holofernes, which could be the visual representation of Gentileschi’s wishes to take revenge on her aggressor.

2. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Born in Paris in 1755, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was one of the great portrait artists of her time.

Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Autoportrait, 1790
Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Self-portrait (1790)

Infatuated with drawing from an early age, her father, who was a member of the Academy of Saint Luc, decides to teach her the basics, before passing away in 1767.

She paints her very first painting at the age of 15 – a portrait of her mother. Four years later she enrolls in the very same school her father attended – the Academy of Saint Luc!

Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Madame Le Sèvre, née Jeanne Maissin (1774)
Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Madame Le Sèvre, née Jeanne Maissin (1774)

Slowly but surely, Elizabeth starts taking commissions for portraits. In 1775, she gifts two of them to the Royal Academy. As a way of saying thank you, the Academy sends her a letter giving her the authorisation to participate in public sessions!

The following year, Elisabeth is asked to work in King Louis XVI’s court. Two years later, she becomes Marie-Antoinette‘s personal painter, and the two become dear friends!

Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Marie Antoinette en robe à panier en satin blanc (1778)
Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Marie Antoinette in court dress (1778)

Thanks to the Queen, she’s admitted to the Royal Academy, selected thanks to an allegorical painting she created.

Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, La Paix ramenant l'Abondance (1780)
Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Peace bringing back Prosperity (1780)

Forced to leave Paris in 1789, she goes into hiding for 12 years.

By working for the Kingdom of Naples, the emperor of Vienna, and even the emperor of Russia, Vigée Le Brun still manages to maintain her success!

Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Marie Antoinette dit "À la Rose" (1783)
Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Marie Antoinette named “À la Rose” (1783)
Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Queen of Naples with her daughter (1807)
Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Portrait de l'impératrice Maria Fedorovna (1799)
Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Portrait of Empress Maria Fedorovna (1799)

After returning to France in 1805, she pursues her work as a portrait artist. Her acclaimed works allowed her to be one of the first women ever to be admitted into the Academy!

3. Tamara De Lempicka

Born in Warsaw, Tamara de Lempicka grew up in a very upper-class household. Infatuated with art, she enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg when she was just 18 years old.

Photographie de Tamara de Lempicka, 1941 ©Otto Bettmann
Photograph of Tamara de Lempicka, 1941 ©Otto Bettmann

Following the First World War, Tamara moves to Paris and chooses to sign up for painting and drawing lessons. She becomes the student of André Lhote, one of the pioneers of the cubist movement.

André Lhote, Paysage français (1921)
André Lhote, Paysage français (1921)

When describing her style, there are nods to the Renaissance and definite neo-cubism influences throughout. Moreover, Tamara’s portraits depict powerful and mysterious women.

In 1923, the Autumn Salon displays her art and her portrait of two nude women. Her identity is falsified however, as she signs her art “Lempitzky“, in order to come across as a man.

Tamara De Lempicka, Perspectives (1923) ©Bridgeman Images
Tamara De Lempicka, Perspectives (1923) ©Bridgeman Images

It’s at an exhibition in Milan two years later that her true identity is revealed and her career finally takes off!

Tamara Lempicka is known for having a very free-spirited life, being bisexual at a time that wasn’t as open-minded as today, and having many lovers. Furthermore, she wasn’t a stranger to cocaine, which could be found in copious amounts at her studio.

Tamara De Lempicka, Jeune Fille en Vert (v.1930) ©Bertrand Prévost
Tamara De Lempicka, Young lady with Gloves (v.1930) ©Bertrand Prévost

Tamara eventually leaves France in order to move to the United States in 1939: she wanted to escape the approaching war, and saw how things were going to pan out for her if she stayed. She continues to showcase her work in the US, even though Art Deco was no longer in vogue, before moving on to Mexico in 1980.

As an artist of the Interwar Period, whose works were indicative of the Roaring Twenties, Tamara Lempicka knew how to impose herself on to the artistic scene and prove herself worthy of being there, with an abundance of style and will-power! After disappearing into oblivion for a number of years, she was rediscovered at the same time as Art déco in the 1970s!

4. Dorothea Tanning

Born in Illinois in 1910, Dorothea Tanning was an American artist and painter.

Photographie de Dorothea Tanning ©Lee Miller Archives
Photograph of Dorothea Tanning ©Lee Miller Archives

She left her family home in order to enroll in the Art Institute of Chicago before settling in New York in order to become an illustrator for an advertising firm.

In 1942, Dorothea quickly joins New York’s fast-growing group of surrealist painters and artists, with André Breton as her mentor. She fell in love with the movement after visiting the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition at the MoMa in 1936!

Exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism ©The Museum
of Modern Art Archives
Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism ©MoMA Archives
Exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism ©The Museum
of Modern Art Archives
Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism ©MoMA Archives
Exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism ©The Museum
of Modern Art Archives
Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism ©MoMA Archives

Still based in New York at the time, the artist regularly participates in group exhibitions along with other surrealist women artists and painters at the Julien Levy Gallery. In 1943, she meets surrealist artist and painter Max Ernst whom she goes on to marry three years later.

Dorothea was considered first and foremost a surrealist and symbolist painter, especially when she showcased her work at Julien Levy’s art gallery.

Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943)
Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943)

Her paintings depict women’s fantasies, heavily contrasting with artworks of the past that mainly focused on male fantasies.

Thus, Dorothea was one of the first women artists who dared challenge this erotic point of view in the world of art and rather focus purely on women’s desires.

Dorothea Tanning, Birthday (1942)
Dorothea Tanning, Birthday (1942)

In 1956, Max and Dorothea move to France, more specifically the regions of Touraine and Provence. For those next 5 years, Dorothea devotes herself entirely to sculpture.

Following the death of her husband Max in 1976, Dorothea moves back to America. She continues to paint and starts writing poems and novels before passing away in 2012 at the ripe old age of 101!

5. Margaret Keane

American artist Margaret Keane was born in Tennessee in 1927. At the age of 10, Margaret is already painting portraits of other children with her signature oversized eyes.

Photographie de Margaret Keane ©Otto Bettmann
Photograph of Margaret Keane ©Otto Bettmann (1963)

At the age of 18, Margaret begins her education at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New york and continues to create portraits in her signature “big eye“ style.

Margaret Keane, The Stray, (1962)
Margaret Keane, The Stray, (1962)

Faced with the difficulty of selling her works, her husband, Walter Keane, takes some with him to his club in San Francisco in order to try and find some potential buyers.

They’re a hit! However, with the new found success of his wife’s paintings, Walter pretends to be the one who painted the pieces in the first place, and keeps up the charade for over a decade!

When Margaret finds out, Walter claims that it was easier to sell her works if the buyers thought that they had been painted by a man.

Photographie de Margaret et Walter Keane ©Otto Bettmann (1960)
Photograph of Margaret and Walter Keane ©Otto Bettmann (1960)

Enraged by Margaret’s calm and reserved nature, Walter locks her in her studio against her will, forcing her to make more creations…

In a very short amount of time, Margaret’s artwork garners huge amounts of success. She feels completely trapped but remains silent…

Margaret Keane, Boredom (1999)
Margaret Keane, Boredom (1999)

In 1965, Margaret finally decides to divorce Walter. Five years later, she declares on a radio show that she is the real figure behind the “Big Eyes“ creations and files a lawsuit against her ex-husband!

During the trial in 1986, she ends up creating one of her artworks in her own signature style in front of the judge and jury in order to prove the veracity of her claims. When it came to Walter’s turn to do the same, he feigns a shoulder injury as an excuse not to paint with the fear of being ridiculed…

Margaret wins the lawsuit, finally getting the recognition she long deserved!

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