Art Herstory: The Most Influential Women Artists of all Time

The Horse Fair, Rosa Bonheur, 1852. The Horse Fair, Rosa Bonheur, 1852. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Since the end of the twentieth century, the voices of women artists have become increasingly loud. Along with it, interest has grown in the women artists of history – those who thrived in the face of adversity, resulting in expanding appreciation for their work. Here we celebrate some of the pioneering women artists of history through some of their stories and their works. 

Women Artists Against The Odds

Women artists are often omitted from discussions of art’s past because it was challenging for women to access the same artistic opportunities as men. Women rarely had access to apprenticeships or other studio training that their male counterparts could more easily seek out. This inequality resulted in a tendency for male artists to excel while female artists – if permitted to practice at all – were forced to make do. Fortunately, ambitious women artists fought for their space in the larger dialogue of art. Today, we can applaud the women who did succeed, and enjoy the brilliance of their work. Let’s take a look at some of these masters through the lens of some of their most iconic works. 

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, Artimesia Gentileschi.

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, Artimesia Gentileschi. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

No list of women artists throughout history would be complete without the Baroque-era success story Artemisia Gentileschi. Gentileschi found a path to painting as her father, Orazio, was an established painter with his own studio where Artemisia could train. Even though the men who shared the space subjected her to mistreatment all too predictable for women occupying male-dominated spaces throughout history, she retaliated through a powerful body of work that embraced the Baroque era’s dramatic allure and outlasted that of any of her contemporaries, including her tutor, whom she had accused of rape. Her power as an artist is evident in Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-1639), where Gentileschi depicts herself as the literal embodiment of painting. Composed to create the illusion that she has been caught in the moment of painting as she seems to emerge from the frame, Gentileschi’s self-portrait reminds the viewer of her authority as an artist despite the challenges she faced. 

Marie Antoinette and her children, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1787.

Marie Antoinette and her children, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1787. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842)

Unlike Gentileschi, Elisabeth-Louis Vigée Le Brun was a self-taught artist who had to carve out a career as a painter on her own. Fortunately, her incredible skill caught the eye of the French queen, Marie Antoinette, whose patronage ensured Vigée Le Brun’s success. In one of these commissions, Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787), Vigée Le Brun demonstrated her unrivalled ability to capture her royal sitter in a perfect blend of the ideal and the natural. She sits with her children around a bassinet, reminding the viewer that though she was an aristocrat she also embraced the duties of motherhood. Soon after such portraits, Vigée Le Brun was elected to the French Academy. An accomplishment afforded to only a handful of women by that time, membership for Vigée Le Brun further stoked her success as she traveled the European continent to paint for other illustrious patrons. 

Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) 

The Horse Fair, Rosa Bonheur, 1852.

The Horse Fair, Rosa Bonheur, 1852. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the 19th century’s most progressive painters, Rosa Bonheur excelled because she seemed undaunted by public opinion. Her love was for nature and for capturing animals as can be observed in The Horse Fair (1852), where Bonheur achieved a triumph in animal painting. A massive work that conveys the sense of frenetic energy of one of Paris’ most bustling mid-19th century horse markets, this painting was the result of over a years’ worth of study that Bonheur secretively completed while dressed as a man to discourage unwanted attention. Her brilliant brushwork and articulate understanding of anatomy make this work and her others some of the most celebrated of the genre. 

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

In the Loge, Mary Cassatt, 1878.

In the Loge, Mary Cassatt, 1878. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As a young woman, Mary Cassatt was faced with a difficult decision: follow her family’s expectations to marry and become a housewife, or pursue her passion to become a painter. Her early training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts encouraged her to pursue the latter, and it was a smart decision. Cassatt moved to Paris and joined the Impressionists, eventually becoming one of the most acclaimed female painters of the movement. Cassatt often exalted female subjects while also embodying the study of modern life via softened strokes and enlivened palettes for which the Impressionists were renowned. For instance, In the Loge (1878) offers a strikingly intimate view of an upper-class woman as she gazes intently at the stage out of view. Cassatt positions the viewer such that it is like we are sneaking a peak at this woman, who, while watching the performance, is also being watched by a male figure in a box across the theater. Such dynamism allowed Cassatt to comment on the nature of both female independence and objectification in one scintillating work. 

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

Red Canna, Georgia O'Keeffe.

Red Canna, Georgia O’Keeffe. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A powerhouse pioneer of painterly abstraction, Georgia O’Keeffe played with both color and composition to capture compelling views of the American landscape. From city skylines painted during her years in New York to her iconic vistas of the Southwest, O’Keeffe streamlined many of the formal elements of her work to create a style that both responded to her European contemporaries but that also made a place for American painting on the international stage. Among her most celebrated subjects are her paintings of flowers, like Red Canna (1919), where O’Keeffe would crop views of flower blossoms so closely that they became studies in form and color. Petals unfold to reveal a myriad of colors in an almost otherworldly landscape as O’Keeffe reveals to her audience the tensions between the realities of nature and the beauty of abstraction. 

Augusta Savage (1892-1962)

Realization, Augusta Savage

Realization, Augusta Savage. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Augusta Savage was a key contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, a period in the early twentieth century in which there was a blossoming of support for African-American artists across disciplines. Savage began her studies at The Cooper Union, in the early 1920s just as the movement was taking off, and then headed to Paris to continue her training. By the 1930s she was back in New York and established her sculpture studio, where she would gain influence as a teacher as part of a large mission to achieve greater racial equality in the arts. She created numerous notable sculptures, from portrait busts to metaphorical subjects relating to the African American experience, like Realization (1938), all of which revealed her immense talent at capturing both the bodies and the emotions of her subjects. Though she died in obscurity in the 1960s, her legacy has since been revived. 

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) 

The most supremely powerful self-portraits made by a woman artist must be those by Frida Kahlo, a Mexican master of symbolism and compositional complexity. Born outside Mexico City in 1907, Kahlo suffered severe injuries in her teens owing to a bus accident. These wounds would plague her for much of her life in a variety of ways, but one source of pleasure for a bedridden young Kahlo was painting (thanks to a special easel apparatus made by her mother). These early studies would contribute to her lifelong devotion to painting as an outlet for her inner feelings and struggles. The Two Fridas (1939), for example, has been described as capturing some of her angst following her divorce from fellow painter Diego Rivera. The following year she composed Self-Portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace (1940), which juxtaposes her youthful beauty and lush surroundings with the painful pressure of thorns that press into her skin. 

Yayoi Kusama (1929 –  ) 

Yayoi Kusama is the princess of the playful polka dot, a pattern that has dominated her sculptural and installation work for much of her career. Fascinated with the experience of a fully immersive artwork, she began to develop site-specific happenings, or performances, and create infinity rooms – small chambers designed with illusion to seem to be endless – around 1965. At the same time, the polka dot became a means to introduce both pattern and dimensional texture in the space of these infinity rooms and elsewhere. Now in her 90s, Kusama is still engaging in projects, including installations at the Singapore Biennial in 2006 and collaborations with major designers like Louis Vuitton as recent as 2023. 

Cindy Sherman (1954-  )

Untitled Film Still No. 48, Cindy Sherman.

Untitled Film Still No. 48, Cindy Sherman. Sold for $1,217,000 via Christie’s (Nov 2007).

Cindy Sherman has been upending the expectations of both the photograph and the self-portrait since the beginning of her career in the 1970s. After graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo, Sherman embarked on a series of images she called Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980), where each portrays a scene one could imagine from a classic film noir production. The scenes, though, were completely imagined, and they all featured Sherman herself in the roles she created from imagination. The success of that groundbreaking series perhaps spurred Sherman to continue to focus her lens on these constructed identities that have formed the core of her work since. Her costumes, props, and prosthetics have only become more elaborate, but the images they help to build consistently remind the viewer of Sherman’s brilliance in drawing the viewer in and creating photographs that can start valuable conversations on the way we all work to fashion a public version of ourselves as opposed to our private realities. 

Shirin Neshat (1957 –  ) 

Iranian photographer and filmmaker Shirin Neshat is one of the contemporary art world’s trailblazers for works that encourage valuable conversations on issues relating to clashes of culture, gender, and time. Leaving Iran in 1975 to study at the University of California – Berkeley, Neshat graduated with an MFA but did not launch her career until the 1990s, when a return trip to Iran sparked her desire to raise awareness not only about injustice happening in her home country but also to raise valuable questions about gender equality and cultural difference on a global scale. Her Women of Allah (1993-1997) series of photographs captures these confrontations via frames of women in traditional Muslim dress adorned with script and accented with weapons as a direct commentary on the role of women in both the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. Neshat has since expanded her practice into filmmaking as well, still using her work as a call to action for those who wish to engage with it.

Let’s Hear it for the Ladies 

Some of the women artists of history may never earn the recognition due, given the limitations that the woman artist was forced to endure over past generations. Given those challenges, one can only applaud these ambitious women who followed their passion for art and resultantly  produced some of the most beloved works of all time.