This week, KAZoART invites you into the world of five powerful females who made their mark on art history. These artists’ legacies stood the test of time through their audacity, artistic genius and desire to impose themselves in a world that was designed for male success. Whether they’re painters, visual artists, photographers, Impressionists, Rococo or Modern art enthusiasts, they left an indelible artistic thumbprint.

1. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

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Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie-Antoinette “à la Rose“(1783)

Born in 1755, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun was one of the greatest portrait artists of her time. Her self-portraits reveal a lot about her personality. She was a simple woman with a bohemian style. She fearlessly pursued her artistic career in a period when women were almost non-existent in the art world.

Le Brun painted with a constant concern for idealisation, giving each of her female models a particular grace and elegance. When painting men, she did not imbue in them the same favourable qualities. Instead of omitting their roughness or unsightly features, she painted them in. Perhaps this was her way of sticking it to the man.

2. Frida Kahlo

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Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. Oil painting, 1940.

It is impossible to speak of women in the arts without talking about our dear Frida. Born in Mexico in 1907, she fell victim to Polio and was given the nickname “the little lame girl.” At the age of eighteen, she was in a horrific bus accident and was further injured by an iron bar. What saved her during the recovery and aftermath? Her art.

Kahlo’s artwork carries with it the pain of a young artist who in spite of her setbacks, continued to enjoy the pleasures of life. Her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera further added to the sadness while simultaneously driving her to create meaningful art. It was in her bed and from her mirror that she often painted her self portraits. What’s more, she used her role as a public figure to further the social and political emancipation of women.

3. Niki de Saint Phalle

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Portrait of Niki de Saint Phalle

Without doubt one of the most outstanding artists of the mid-20th Century, Niki de Saint Phalle taught herself to paint at the age of eleven. During a stint in a psychiatric hospital, she realised that her path to recovery was through art. She turned to her creative side as a means of escaping her violent thoughts. Seeking to create unique art, she came up with an interactive performance called “Les tableaux-tirs” or “Canvas shoots”. The gist of it was to shoot canvases with rifles in order to bring out colours.

Her world is not a dark one, rather, it is embellished with colour, joy and a child-like spirit. Her inspirations include Gaudi, Dubuffet, and Pollock, among others. She has been featured in many public installations such as the Igor Stravinski Fountain in Paris and the Jardin des Tarots in Tuscany.

4. Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith et sa servante (1912-1913)
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant (1645)

Born in Rome in 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi was introduced to painting by her father, Orazio. At 17, she signed her first work entitled Suzanne and the Elders. Some scholars believe that her father, a close friend of Caravaggio was the real artist but it cannot be confirmed. Artemisia’s life was shaken up when she was raped by one of her father’s contemporaries. A long and invasive trial ensued and though found guilty, the rapist’s sentence was light.

In her work, she often depicts women. Rejecting the status of victim, she paints strong heroines from stories in the Bible and the Apocrypha. Scholars agree that her work became more vengeful, powerful and purposeful after the trial. Later in life, she was accepted into the Academy of Drawing in Florence, a real feat for a woman during her time. According to Roberto Longhi, a 20th century Italian art critic, “Artemisia was the only woman in Italy who actually knew what painting was.” (Gentileschi padre e fligia, 1916)

5. Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (2012)

Sherman never intended to make great art, yet she is one of the greatest contemporary fine art photographers of her time. Her many series of self portraits provide us with a critique of our postmodern world. Though she appears in this article about women in art history while her career is ongoing, her legacy stretches back many decades.

Regularly staging herself as the subject of large-scale portraits, she was born in America in 1954. Her characters and roles change often. At times she is a bouncy blonde and other times, a housewife. She plays with wigs, make up and clothes in her pictures. Her work points out the stereotypes and rules women in the film, fashion, advertising and porn industries are forced to follow. Sherman wants to make the viewer stop and reflect on whether they feel stereotyped or pigeonholed in her characters. For most women, it’s difficult to not feel a connection. This is her way of telling us that it’s time to play a role in breaking the tradition.